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Kingsport's African-American history part 2: Rapidly growing population gets a new place to live

By CALVIN SNEED, Community Conributor • Feb 11, 2018 at 2:15 PM

Editor’s note: Calvin Sneed grew up in Kingsport’s Riverview community. He has compiled a comprehensive history of African-Americans in Kingsport that is to be added to the Model City’s official history. Segments of his work will be published in the Times News every Sunday in February in honor of Black History Month.

 

KINGSPORT — The city’s African-American population grew significantly between 1930 and 1940, forcing community leaders to demand the city provide them a new area to live.

When the old dyestuff and chemical company site was suggested for the new community, most surprised black residents balked, noticing that the flat bottom accumulated all the smells, odors and pollution of the dumpsite that it had been. But almost overnight, the city carved out streets and divided the fill dirt into lots that reportedly sold for $50 apiece. That price was just too good for many folks to pass up.

The following recollections are from residents interviewed for the “Riverview’s Oral Histories” project, funded through a grant applied for by Rachael Bliss and conducted by Mrs. Johnnie Mae Swagerty and Mrs. Louetta Hall.

“Bessie Hipps won the chance of naming the new community in a contest that paid her $50,” remembers longtime resident Nora Mae Taylor Alexander. “She named it ‘Riverview’ despite the fact that you couldn’t see the (Holston) river from the neighborhood. I do remember that the pleasant part of the community was Clay Hill (where the Brickyard ballpark is now) over to Cement Hill. It was truly a nature sanctuary with birds, deer, other animals, woods and wilderness. We enjoyed the wild apples, strawberries and blackberries in the summers.”

“I never did like where Riverview was,” said Lillie Smith, now deceased. “It was my husband’s idea to move here. It was very, very swampy. … We had to have a sump pump in the basement to keep the water out. The Horace Sneeds had to have one, too. When it wasn’t flooding, it was just damp.”

Jill Ellis remembers that some residents did not want to move to Riverview. “Foster Stafford, a local businessman in the black community, looked into some vacant property at Rotherwood Heights. It was fairly cheap, and seven families who didn’t want to go to Riverview built homes in the Heights along with a church and a school. That community did very well and it’s still there.”

Meanwhile, the first homes in Riverview were built by African-Americans along streets named for people of color: Dunbar, Carver, Douglass, Louis, Wheatley and James (that street was named for Stafford’s brother James, who had built several private duplexes in the new community). “I remember when the streets were just dirt roads,” says Helen Bunting. “We would play in that dirty water in the roads whenever it rained and pretend that we were swimming.”

As part of urban renewal efforts, the newly formed Kingsport Housing Authority (later KHRA) had as its first project the building of public housing for African-Americans. The Riverview Apartments between Louis, Lincoln, Carver and Douglass streets was the first complex built by the agency. The apartments were built with one, two or three bedrooms, but special apartments with more bedrooms were built on Booker Street for larger households. Families like the Cartwrights and the Burnettes appreciated the extra rooms.

The late Mamie Gillenwater, known affectionately as “Miss Tootsie” to friends and neighbors, was also one of the first Riverview Apartment residents.

“When we first moved in back in the 1940s, we had the only telephone in the neighborhood,” she said. “We paid $9 a month for the service and $1.50 for the phone itself. Every call that came into the neighborhood came through our phone.”

“They were really nice about that,” remembers Pastor Geraldine Swagerty.

“We really kept her busy answering the one telephone,” said Ethel Ruth Russell, who had moved into Riverview from Cement Hill.

It was the perfect example of a community becoming a single family. In a flash, “community unity” in Riverview had been born. Residents lived as neighbors, went to church together, raising their children, and not afraid to raise and discipline their neighbors’ kids. That one identifying quality would echo throughout the neighborhood, continuing through the generations to this day.

1950 census

Kingsport, 19,571; African-American, 1,118

By 1950, with Riverview’s African-American population well over a thousand people, the community had taken its own steps into the new decade to provide necessities to its residents. An African-American business district along Lincoln Street was doing very well.

“When I came to Riverview,” remembered the late Ann Gillenwater, “the only people who had cars were Rev. (William) Stokely of the Central Baptist Church, Rev. C. E. Edge and Preston Collins. His brother (Emmitt Collins) had a grocery store on Lincoln Street, and (”Mr. Paul”) Taylor had a dry cleaners, liquor store and the Midway Grill just down the street. Later, Rev. Edge and his wife built a combination sit-down restaurant on the other end of Lincoln with a grill and barstools. I worked there for a while. He also had a little department store inside the building and sold kitchen appliances like coffee pots and can openers, along with used furniture, lamps and chairs. But the good thing was, the neighborhood kids could eat hamburgers and listen to music at Edge’s Place. He would show Christian movies and he would throw parties. The kids always had something to do.”

Jason Taylor and his wife, Nora Mae, had a dry cleaners in downtown Kingsport, but the couple also opened the Dairy Mart beside Edge’s Place. The popular walk-up confectionery has the distinction of being the home of the first “foot-long” hot dogs ever served in Kingsport.

Other businesses included Cox’s Grocery Store, the Red Ball Taxi Cab Company, Fortune’s Restaurant, the Swan Funeral Home, Sneed’s Cleaning Service, Lindsey’s Restaurant and several beauty parlors and barbershops.

Even though the city built a swimming pool in the neighborhood right across from Edge’s Place, a fountain in the middle of the Riverview Apartments, and the community had the George Washington Carver Public Library branch headed by the late librarian Willie Mae Hickman, the apartments also had a lot of community activity.

Hall remembers a photographer, Ralph Lee, who would bring his reel-to-reel movie projector to the Douglass football practice field in front of the apartments. “As part of our entertainment,” she says, “we would take our chairs to the middle of the field in Riverview and he would show movies. That was always fun and something to look forward to.”

“We called him ‘the Picture Man,’ ” says former resident Shirley Burnette Powers.

“We had several black doctors,” Bunting says. “Dr. Massey lived in the projects, and I remember playing with his five kids. There was Dr. Todd, who made house calls. There was also a black woman doctor, Dr. Francis and also Dr. Foust.”

Swagerty remembers that “a lot of times, (the doctors) didn’t get paid because people with their sick children just didn’t have the money. But they did the work and treated them anyway.”

With prosperous growth in the African-American neighborhood that comprised the Dale-Maple-Oak-Sevier area, plus Riverview, by the late 1940s, it was clear that the community had outgrown the Douglass (Rosenwald) School on what is now East Sevier Avenue. In 1951, a new school building for black students was built on Louis Street and it still stands today.

The building was expanded in 1962, and within the walls of the combined elementary-high school, fiercely competitive sports teams were nurtured. The Douglass athletic trophy case was (and still is) a display of superiority in basketball and football.

“Principal V.O. Dobbins (also known as Professor Dobbins or Festa Dobbins to the young students) fought to get a lot of things for the school,” remembers Ellis, who also taught at Douglass and retired from Dobyns-Bennett. “Most of what he fought for, he got, but it didn’t come without a fight. Because our school was the newest one in the system, we were able to get new desks for the classrooms, a new science lab for the high school classes, new typewriters, an up-to-date movie projection system for the soundproof auditorium, new cafeteria ovens and tables and a new P.A. system. For the first time, black students did not have to use hand-me-down equipment from the white schools. We were the envy of every other school in Kingsport because everything we had was new.”

“All of your activities, all of your meetings, all of your neighborhood gatherings,” says Douglas Releford, “took place at the school. It was a place where African-Americans could meet, organize and plan programs to be contributing citizens to Kingsport.”

That would serve them well, although many socioeconomic “bumps in the road” loomed ahead.

1960 CENSUS: Kingsport, 26,314; African-American, 1,492

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