Market Square’s bell finally has a story. You can read it right on the brand-new plaque.
For a decade, the bell, which weighs more than a ton, has puzzled visitors. Here’s a big bronze bell, with the date of 1883 and the brand of the McShane Co. bell foundry in Baltimore, sitting upon a brick pedestal near Union Avenue, and no explanation of what it is or why it’s here. Every day, newcomers would pause and pay it homage.
It has an interesting tale, and now, thanks to the city administration and the Market Square District Association, it’s on a plaque. I won’t ruin it for you. Visit the Square and read it for yourself.
Thousands of people walk through the Square every day. Naturally, it attracts plaques like my neighbor’s baby pool attracts mosquitoes. But they all have problems.
There’s a beautiful statue of three suffragists, weighed down by a base with marble panels bearing hundreds of words of text about the national feminist movement. There’s very little about anything that happened in Knoxville, though a lot happened right here on Market Square, in both demonstrations in the street and lectures in the Market Hall’s auditorium.
The Elvis plaque, put up in the late ’90s, relates one of my favorite stories about Market Square. For the first decade it was there, its overwhelming image was a big glamour photo of Elvis, not enterprising record-store owner Sam Morrison, or his clientele so diverse that his store was on the national recording-industry radar as a bellwether for popular music. Elvis probably never set foot on Market Square, but the plaque, with his oversized picture, left some people with another impression. However, nature has outed the truth. I just noticed the other day that the image of Elvis is ghostly now, almost completely sun-bleached away, but the story about Sam Morrison survives legibly.
It was part of the Cradle of Country Music Tour effort in the late 1990s by the East Tennessee Historical Society, which I helped with and generally thought was a great thing. There’s a lot more that could be commemorated about the Square’s 150-year history of live music, which included Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor, Roy Acuff (some used to claim he began his influential career there), and even Duke Ellington.
The most venerable-looking plaque on Market Square is the one headed “Market House.” Its embossed text is problematic. Many, on a quick reading, gather that Market Square was founded in 1816. A big chunk of the text is about a small market on Main Street that lasted only seven years. By the time our Market Square opened in 1854, few Knoxvillians remembered that 1816 experiment.
Despite all the interesting and relevant things to say about Market Square’s own long history, more than a quarter of the text is about another, limited and unsuccessful 1816 market, several blocks away.
That plaque’s loudest and most perplexing message may be the colorful symbol at the top. The U.S. flag and Confederate flag are crossed co-equally. They’re even-steven, as if we’re trying to hurt no feelings among our friends in the Confederacy, and demonstrate that it’s every bit as important as the United States of America.
That duality is how several Southeastern states viewed their history, more than 50 years ago. Maybe it’s based on the assumption that history’s mainly about wars, and that the Civil War was the big one, so the history of anything must be about the blue and the gray, and it wouldn’t do to show favoritism.
The fact that the centennial arrived right at the hottest era of the Civil Rights movement, when the flag emerged, sometimes more extravagantly than it ever was during the war, as a rallying symbol for whites defying desegregation, complicates things.
Today, such an emphasis on that war, in itself, might seem puzzling, even absent any controversy about symbols. Confederate occupation of Knoxville, and of Market Square, lasted about two and a half of the Square’s 161 years. Whether the so-called “battle flag,” which emerged during the course of the war as an unofficial symbol, was ever flown during Confederate occupation of Knoxville is a question for another day, and another columnist.
So why is it embossed, in color, on a durable plaque? A clue is in the fine print at the bottom of the plaque. There it credits the plaque to the “Knoxville – Knox County Civil War Centennial Committee.”
Of course. That explains the Confederate flag and dates the plaque to about 1961. At the time, Knoxville cherished the bright hope that Americans would be driving across the country in their Ford Country Squires, looking for Civil War sites to photograph. If Knoxville was no Chattanooga, in terms of Civil War bloodshed, it did have a battle, and deserved a slice of that pie.
So the plaque wasn’t the city’s attempt to tell the history of Market Square. It was a Civil War Centennial committee, which, upon looking around, realized we’d torn down most of the buildings that had been relevant to the Civil War and found old Market Square—and learned it had hosted, for a few months, a Union ammo dump. Even if we’d torn down all its Civil War-era buildings, the Square itself is in the same place, and about the same shape, as it was during the war.
So the plaque tells us about the Union ammo dump. Not the kosher fishmonger from Vienna who worked there every day for more than half a century, or the Greek restaurant that for decades never locked its doors because it never closed, or Booker T. Washington or William Jennings Bryan exhorting crowds with speeches during the progressive era.
The centennial plaque has become an artifact in itself. It refers to the Square as “the Mall,” the modernist reimagining of the Square that made it seem fresh and modern by 1960s standards. If we keep it, this plaque requires its own plaque.
Legible Market Square is a patchwork of efforts of different interest groups with different motives from different eras. Most motives, and most eras, aren’t represented at all. Assuming we like plaques, we need a comprehensive one that at least touches on a much broader story of a complicated and vital place.