At its messy, railroad-track-strewn intersection with Western, Keith Avenue offers the promise of a clever shortcut west. But follow it into West View, and it starts to look like a sleepy country road. If you can remember where it is, Keith is easy to get to, but it’s no beaten path. That makes it a perfect address for cemeteries.
It’s been just that since the century before last. The first you encounter is the New Jewish Cemetery, many of the graves inscribed in Hebrew. It’s “new” because it dates only to 1893, not the Civil War, as is the case with the Old Jewish Cemetery, on the opposite side of town.
In the vicinity of Keith are some older family and community plots, and even a yard-sized lumpy plot recalled as an unmarked slave cemetery.
But the big northern hillside just past West View Park is an old cemetery that has changed its appearance so much in recent years it looks like a new one.
It’s the largest African-American cemetery in West Knoxville, composed of three related cemeteries. The largest is Crestview, once a public cemetery in the era of segregation.
On top is Longview. It’s the one that offers an unexpected and almost disorienting view of UT campus and parts of South Knoxville, with no suggestion of a river between. It was established a century ago by William Lillison, jack of many trades, teacher, longtime Knoxville police officer, and proprietor of a black mortuary.
Adjacent is Southern Chain, an unusual name for a graveyard, a reference to a black chapter of the Odd Fellows fraternal organization. A century ago, fraternities often assisted members with burial plans. But fraternities don’t always last much longer than we do.
The first time I ever had a close look at these graveyards, about 20 years ago, I was looking for the grave of a great blues singer named Ida Cox. It was like a nightmare. Much of the hillside was completely overgrown, like a young forest. I like forests, but this forest was full of stones you encounter too late and trip over, and oblong holes you fall into. Over the years, many of its inhabitants had been exhumed and moved, leaving coffin-shaped craters.
It’s a sad but common story, the graveyard that advertised perpetual care but went out of business, thanks to some dishonest practices, decades ago.
Today it’s hard to believe it’s the same place. Through a long community effort, much of it led by neighbor and former city administrator Ellen Adcock and her West View Community Action Group, the largest cemetery on the hillside is now clean and tidy, and appropriately marked as a historic cemetery. The group has gotten assists from the city, the county, and the state, and lately from Knox Heritage, which sees potential for a National Register of Historic Places designation, making some sorts of funding easier to contemplate.
It’s still a little scruffy at the top of the hill, where West View’s view is most obvious. But it’s hard to complain much about underbrush when most of it’s daisies and other wildflowers.
There are more than a thousand stones, some belonging to once-prominent citizens. Among the best known is author and educator Charles Cansler, buried here in 1953. He was known for his interest in history; his narrative, Three Generations: The Story of a Colored Family of Eastern Tennessee, published in 1939, covered some of the themes Alex Haley explored for a bigger audience many years later.
Cansler would have enjoyed browsing around this well-kept cemetery, looking at dates, making connections. Maybe you will, too.
If you have a dad who likes to brag about Fountain City and finds that the people who tolerate his stories think he’s lying, go to the bookstore and get him some backup. Just in time for Father’s Day, a new book called Fountain City: People Who Made a Difference makes Fountain City seem much more lively and creative and influential than any neighborhood has a right to be. Without Fountain Citians, UT would have neither its tallest building, McClung Tower, nor its McClung Museum (they’re named for different McClungs; it’s a long story). College football wouldn’t have its greatest lineman of 1940, Bob Suffridge; Nashville wouldn’t have its Roy Acuff; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park wouldn’t have its chronicler, Carlos Campbell; the national Wilderness Society wouldn’t have its co-founder Harvey Broome; the world, if it had its Dumpster at all, would have been obliged to call it something else.
My good friend Dr. Jim Tumblin has been collecting Fountain City stories for 80 years or more, and he tells them well. In recent years, he’s been publishing them in the Shopper News, and he’s selected his favorite 56 of them for this new book by a local publishing joint, Celtic Cat Publishing.
Last week we published James Agee’s letter about his grandfather’s false teeth, and their tendency to attract red ants. If it’s not Literature, it’s likely the first thing the future Pulitzer winner ever published. He was 13 when he wrote it.
The grandfather in question was Joel Tyler, the Michigan-born industrialist who lived for a couple of decades at 1115 Clinch Ave., near his machine shop.
Agee scholar Paul Brown, who’s working on a book, believes it to be the first time Agee is known to have signed his first name, James—not his middle name, Rufus, by which he was known for most of his childhood.
And I’ve been doing some more pearl diving in the public library’s “From Paper to Pixels” website.
Look up Cas Walker, millionaire grocer, bluegrass impresario, and Knoxville’s longest-tenured city councilman. His first appearance in Knoxville’s public eye comes in September 1925.
The 23-year-old newcomer from Sevier County “whipped” an 8-year-old boy, and was cited for assault. Back then, the fine for beating up a kid was $10. Being a good citizen, we have no doubt that Cas paid it.