The William Hastie Natural Area, part of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness, is named for a federal judge who pioneered civil rights and was arguably America’s first black governor. He was born in Knoxville 111 years ago on Nov. 17.
When Hastie was born, his family was living in the Mechanicsville neighborhood. Both of his parents were college-educated. His father, William Hastie, was a clerk for the U.S. Pension Agency, which was located in Custom House, the building now known as the East Tennessee History Center. His mother, Roberta Hastie, was a school teacher who sometimes worked for Knoxville College.
When their son was still a baby, the couple moved just out of town, to Woodlawn Pike in South Knoxville. It was a green, rural place, considered so remote that it was sometimes known as “South America.”
In 1904, Knoxville had a relatively good reputation for relations between the races. Blacks were on City Council and in county government, and served as firemen and policemen. Some blacks owned businesses and even became wealthy. And there were a few black attorneys, including William Yardley (1844-1924), who had served as aldermen and justices of the peace. Yardley was active and well-known as a defense attorney during Hastie’s childhood.
Hastie attended public schools in Knoxville, and was reportedly a smart and hard-working student. During his youth, blacks participated in three major expositions at Chilhowee Park, and established their own “Negro Pavilion” there to demonstrate black achievements in the region.
However, as a result of statewide Jim Crow laws, the races were becoming more segregated. During Hastie’s boyhood, black representation in both city and county government gradually declined.
The Hasties lived in South Knoxville until about 1917, when 12-year-old William’s father was transferred to the Pension Agency in Washington, D.C., and the family moved with him.
Young William continued to excel in school and graduated from Washington’s Dunbar High at age 16. He attended Amherst University in Massachusetts. He later earned two degrees from Harvard Law School, and began working as an attorney for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him federal district judge for the Virgin Islands. The appointment of a black attorney to such a high post was controversial and drew public criticism, and not just in the segregated South.
Hastie later served as dean of the law school at Howard University in Washington, and during World War II as an aide to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. He resigned when he was dissatisfied with the pace of desegregation of the armed forces.
His effective outspokenness for fairness became the subject of books including one called He, Too, Spoke for Democracy (1988) by University of North Carolina Professor Phillip McGuire.
In 1946, President Harry Truman appointed the Knoxville native governor of U.S. Virgin Islands. Those Caribbean islands had been a U.S. territory since the Wilson administration purchased them from Denmark, for defensive purposes, during World War I.
No black had ever been governor of a U.S. territory before. In fact, except for P.B.S. Pinchback, a mixed-race politician who was governor of Louisiana for about two weeks during Reconstruction, Hastie was the first black governor of a U.S. state or territory.
He was familiar with the Virgin Islands and its government from his time as a federal judge there. He served as governor for three years.
He left that post when Harry Truman appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals. His appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1950. No black judge had ever been appointed to such a high office. Hastie held the office for 21 years, and during that time was sometimes mentioned as a nominee for the Supreme Court.
He died in Philadelphia in 1976, at age 71.
Mayor Victor Ashe honored the late judge with Hastie Park, established by that name in 2002, not far from where Hastie had spent most of his childhood. It was a remote place, rarely visited until it became part of the Urban Wilderness, and mountain-biking and hiking trail known as the South Loop. Today the William Hastie Natural Area features four miles of walking and bicycling trails. It’s accessible by foot from Ijams Nature Center or by car from Margaret Road, off Sevierville Pike.