KINGSPORT — Over the past 100 years, the Riverview neighborhood has evolved and gone through a number of significant changes, from poverty and segregation, to the construction of then modern-day apartments in the ‘40s, to the integration of schools in the ‘60s, to serious drug and criminal activity in the ‘90s, to major revitalization efforts in the 2000s.
The Riverview of yesterday is no more. The neighborhood has been transformed. And through it all, longtime resident Jack Pierce was there to witness the changes.
The Times News recently sat down with Pierce, 92, at his Louis Street home to talk about his early days in Kingsport, his years at Eastman Chemical Company and what he’s done since retiring in 1987.
ALL ABOUT JACK
Pierce was born in Old Kingsport, the Netherland Inn area of town near the Holston River. His grandfather, who lived and farmed on Bays Mountain, and father helped build the dam at what is now Bays Mountain Park.
He attended Douglass High School in the ‘40s. At the time, the school was located on Walnut Street (today known as Sevier Street). After graduation, Pierce married Miss Betsy (eventually having six children together), and went to work at Eastman for the next 38 years, retiring in 1987 from the Polymers division.
“When I went to work at Eastman, all the Blacks were either janitors or cooks, and I would say we had one of the smallest departments there,” Pierce said. “And I’d say we had more people fired than any department at Eastman. People would ask why there weren’t more 40-year Blacks at Eastman? They either got ran off or fired.”
Today, Pierce attends Central Baptist Church in Riverview, and like most other seniors in town is trying to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As of now I don’t do much, what with the disease going around, but I feel good. I do,” Pierce said.
WHY LIVE IN KINGSPORT?
“I came out of school and most of my brothers went to New York, Connecticut or Washington. I graduated high school and shortly after went to work at Eastman. That’s what kept me here. I got married and raised my family here,” Pierce said. “I thought about leaving, but once I got a good job, I just figured I’d stay. I liked Kingsport and I liked the people.”
Pierce and his wife have lived in their Louis Street home for 40 years. He said he remembers when the Riverview apartments were built in the ’40s and thought they were a godsend for the residents of the neighborhood.
“The condition of most of the Black people living on Walnut Street ... there were quite a few slum houses. People didn’t have a nice place to live,” Pierce said. “I can remember when housing was bad. I don’t care how much money you had. A Black person couldn’t buy decent housing in Kingsport. I went through all of that but things are better than they was.”
WINNING THE CHAMPIONSHIP
In 1947, Douglass High School’s football team, the Tigers, won the state championship, the first and only one it ever won. With only 20 players on the team, all of them had to play both offense and defense, and no one could afford to get hurt.
Pierce was one of those players on that championship team.
“Back then we didn’t have that many players. You played tackle or running back or wherever they needed you,” Pierce said. “I played on the line most of the time.”
CHANGES OVER THE YEARS
In his 92 years in Kingsport, Pierce said he’s seen quite a bit of change in town, especially in the Riverview neighborhood. It’s gone from one of the most dangerous places in town to one of the safest, he said.
Relationships with the mayor, city leaders and the police are much better today than in years past and overall, Pierce said, Kingsport is a good place to live and raise a family.
“I can remember at times we’ve had mayors who didn’t think Riverview was part of Kingsport and the only time they’d come here was when they were running for election,” Pierce said. “(The police) ... it’s better now too. We’ve been fortunate to have good police chiefs and good officers in this area. Many years ago it wasn’t that way, but it is that way now.”
Race relations are better today too, Pierce said, noting that the biggest problem facing Kingsport these days is with jobs, or rather lack thereof.
“I think the biggest problem is there’s not enough good jobs. The Black population (in Kingsport) is less than what it was 10 years ago. If there’s no jobs, they can’t stay,” Pierce said.
Over the years Pierce has been involved in various philanthropic and community efforts, including volunteering for the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency and South Central Kingsport Community Development, delivering meals to shut-ins and helping out during municipal elections.
Pierce never ran for or was elected to public office, but was appointed to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to serve out a remaining term.
Though he spoke of no hobbies now, Pierce said he truly enjoyed volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. During his time there he probably helped build 20 to 30 houses for area residents.
“The happiest time is to see a person who has never had a home, and you hand them the keys to their new home. All the work you’ve done makes it worthwhile,” Pierce said.