There are some names you see in Knoxville that you don’t see as much in other cities. The name Cansler is one. In Mechanicsville, there’s a Cansler Street, and on University Avenue, a Cansler Building. Off Western is the old Laura Cansler School, a former “colored” elementary school, now home to Wesley House. And in East Knoxville, there’s the Cansler Family YMCA.
The Cansler family had a big impact on Knoxville in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. And that name wouldn’t be here if not for a love story. Maybe a couple of love stories.
Most love stories never get written down, at least not in places where historians can find them. Most often, love stories die with the lovers. We’re grateful to Charles W. Cansler for writing down his family story, and having it published.
You may have heard that author’s name before. Cansler (1871-1953) was a schoolteacher, and the longtime principal of our African American high school, Austin High. It was located in downtown Knoxville, but hundreds of children traveled there long distances, from other counties even, because it was the only high school in a large region that admitted African American students. He was well-connected. When famous intellectuals like Booker T. Washington came to town, Cansler often put them up in his house on Braudau Street. In the 1946 standard reference, The French Broad – Holston Country—still in print, and still the most recent published history of Knox County—there’s a chapter called “Negro Life in Knox County and Knoxville.” There’s only one reason Cansler isn’t mentioned as a major figure in that chapter: it’s that he wrote the chapter, and was too modest to mention himself. Almost anyone else would have included Cansler.
Cansler has gotten more attention just recently because of his association with the artist Beauford Delaney. Principal of the high school Delaney attended, Cansler was not only one of the young genius’s earliest supporters, who helped fund his trip to art schools up north, Cansler was also the subject of Delaney’s first known portrait. Cansler was recently mentioned in a New York Times story about Delaney, and the website Les Amis de Beauford Delaney ran a short article about Cansler, calling him “Beauford’s Black Mentor.”
If Cansler’s 1939 book Three Generations: The Story of a Colored Family in East Tennessee isn’t handy in bookstores, it’s in some public libraries. The author knew the value of libraries. He was the leading founder of Knoxville’s Carnegie Library, built on East Vine in 1918 and reserved for African Americans who were barred from the main library.
Three Generations is about his unusual family. Preceding Alex Haley’s Roots by 37 years, Cansler could be called a pioneer of the African American genealogical narrative. His ancestors were different from most of Haley’s, though, because they were “free people of color,” in the term of that era.
In Cansler’s book, one chapter is titled “Love Leads to Elopement.” It opens with a technicolor scene:
“If one had passed over a rough road leading through the little Quaker community of Friendsville on a certain spring day in the early part of 1861, his attention would have been attracted to a young colored man and a neatly dressed colored girl standing at the gate of a house on the outskirts of the little town, engaged in earnest conversation….
“The young man standing at the gate was light brown in color, of about medium height, well built, though with no evidences of superfluous weight, clean shaven, and with a face and eyes that gained one’s confidence as one looked into his. He was clad in a clean shirt of dark jeans, and wore a white, though collarless shirt, and had on his feet shoes … plainly reserved for such occasions as his present Sunday-afternoon visit.
“The young girl was of lighter hue, slightly reddish, or perhaps more accurately of the dark mulatto type, with straight black hair and flashing black eyes, with high cheek bones and regular, clean-cut features. She was taller than the average girl of 17, for at this time she was 17, slenderly built and graceful in movement. She was neatly dressed in a cotton fabric, common to that day, and her long hair fell in plaits or braids down her back.”
The girl the author is describing is his mother, Laura Ann Scott.
It’s hard to claim she was typical of anything. She was born in 1846 a free person of color—that was the formal term, then–and she had access to private education available to few African Americans. But she was definitely not white, and unwelcome in much of the white world. Free people of color lived in an uneasy limbo between full citizenship and slavery. They could marry, they could make money, they could own land, but they couldn’t vote.
Her father, William B. Scott, was born in North Carolina in 1821. He was a man of mixed race, but the fact that his mother was white meant he was born free. After the Nat Turner revolt, panic about a bloody revolution colored many white people’s ideas of these people whose ancestors had been brought involuntarily to America. Legislatures passed new restrictions, and in some rural areas, like tiny Statesville, N.C., some free people of color had reason to fear for their physical safety.
In 1847, Scott set out with his family, including his baby daughter Laura Ann, intending to settle in Ohio. But stopping in Knoxville, he met some Friendsville Quakers, who invited his family to join their community. He was so impressed with their peaceful, egalitarian ways, he accepted the offer, and settled there, finding work as a saddler.
Laura Ann’s future beau, Hugh Lawson White Cansler, had grown up free, too, but with a very different background.
He may not have known his father’s name. But he knew his mother very well. Her name was Katherine Kantzler. She was born in North Carolina, but was the daughter of German immigrant Conrad Kantzler. She’s not very well known to history, and some of the family information about her is contradictory. But in 1835, she gave birth to a brown baby.
Herr Kantzler was a slaveowner, but not very strict. Charles Cansler speculated that his white grandmother “became infatuated with one particular young Negro male slave.”
Cansler either didn’t know, or didn’t share, the name of the man, but suggested his “intelligence or his comeliness” attracted his grandmother. “But whatever it may have been, young Katherine either lost her head, or premeditatedly threw all discretion to the winds, for it soon became known in the neighborhood that Katherine Kantzler was the mother of a colored baby boy.”
The author adds, “Ordinarily in such cases, society ostracizes the woman, but Katherine Kantzler did not wait for society to ostracize her. From the moment the child was born, she became a recluse. During all of her after years, no one ever heard her complain of her fate, nor did she ever after visit her relatives…. If she were dead to them … they were likewise dead to her….” According to the author’s telling, Katherine’s father was literally dead, days after the birth, and never heard about it.
The child was born in 1835, and his mother expressed high aspirations for him, naming him for Knoxville’s own U.S. senator Hugh Lawson White, who was then a candidate for the U.S. presidency. The half-German, half-African boy would be Hugh Lawson White Kantzler.
“She spent the remaining years of her life with this son who had cost her so much, and who seemed fully to know and to realize all that his mother had suffered …..”
She lived alone in a remote place “as far from neighbors as she could find, and there she and her boy lived with few contacts and associations with the outside world.”
Cansler suggests it was a minor urge to rebel from his slaveowning grandfather that caused Hugh to change the spelling of his family name.
That was the origin of Hugh Lawson Cansler, the free man of color known in Blount County as an expert wheelwright, a blacksmith in a shop owned by a prominent white man, a magistrate named Tom Peace. He was an antislavery man, but like most successful businessmen, avoided discussing politics in his shop. Cansler developed a reputation for his expertise with making and repairing big wheels.
He met a teenager named Laura Ann Scott. Her remarkable father was William B. Scott, who 14 years earlier had brought his family across the mountains, looking for a place where it was safer to live.
Just a four years later, Scott would become the first African American newspaper publisher in Tennessee. Later still, he would be elected mayor of Maryville, the only African American to be elected mayor of a sizeable town in East Tennessee.
In 1861, though, Scott was just a skilled craftsman—a saddler and harnessmaker, albeit one who spent most of his free time reading. He was a thoughtful man, and skeptical of young Cansler’s intentions with his 17-year-old daughter. Three times he denied Cansler’s request for Laura’s hand in marriage.
Part of her father’s problem was her youth. The author says she was 17, but some sources, including her gravestone, indicate she was just 15.
“I get the same answer every time,” Cansler bemoaned to his girlfriend. “He says that you are too young, that there is no certainty that I will be able to take care of you, and a lot of other things.”
One of those things was the brewing war. Scott read the papers, and knew war was coming, and although he trusted the white people in the Quaker community, he knew his benign biracial sanctuary in the foothills might not survive an invasion of secessionist armies. “We free colored people in the South will be in bad shape if a war comes,” Scott had warned Cansler, “for the South will be overrun with Southern soldiers, and that even here in our settlement, our Quaker friends will not be able to protect us.” He suspected that African American tradesman like Scott, the harnessmaker, and Cansler, the wheelwright, would likely be pressed into serving the Confederate Army.
However, to Cansler, the war seemed only part of the urgency to marry. Both of their mothers agreed it was time to get married, and that “there was no better time than now.”
Laura Ann thought it over, and responded. “I have never gone against my father’s wishes,” she responded, “but since my mother and your mother are agreed as to this, and since I am so firmly of that opinion … I place it all in your hands.”
The Quakers were having a Sunday meeting in nearby Louisville, led by a Dr. Bruner, who knew both Hugh and Laura. They put a plan into motion, involving a devout white Quaker named Rachel Jones and an enslaved boy named Dave Patty, who carried out a complicated ruse involving the timing of the end of the Quaker meeting and the right number of horses to get the lovers together without arousing suspicion. While her father was reading at home, Laura Ann would go to the church meeting with Rachel, but after the service, sneak away. Rachel had misgivings about it, but agreed. She spoke in the archaic dialect of the Quakers: “I certainly will miss thee, Ann…. Thou hast been my closest friend during these years. While I would like better a plan than that Lawson should steal thee away from the meeting house, if it must be that way, I will do my part to help thee.”
It all went according to plan. When most of Laura Ann’s acquaintances had left the church, with Dave’s assistance, she met Hugh at the appointed place in the woods.
Dr. Bruner conducted a no-nonsense wedding in his own house.
The newlyweds then rode to the secluded home of Hugh’s reclusive mother, Katherine Kantzler. “Arriving there about sunset, Hugh Lawson’s mother barely took time to greet her son and new daughter with a kiss, before she began grumbling that she was afraid the dinner, and especially the bread, might not be just right, as she had waited their coming an hour or more. But despite the lateness of those in whose honor the dinner had been prepared, what a dinner it was! There were hot biscuits cooked in an old-fashioned oven with a lid on the top, egg cornbread, thick slices of red ham with red gravy, a juicy fried spring chicken, beans, white potatoes, baked yams, jellies, rich yellow butter, mince and potato pies, coffee, and buttermilk.”
The author adds, “the bashful bride ate sparingly of the food upon the heaping table.”
War would split them, but not for long. David Key was a white friend of Hugh’s, but when Tennessee became the last of the Southern states to secede, joined a Confederate regiment. Key protected Cansler for a few weeks during Confederate occupation by allowing him to pose as his personal stable hand.
Soon after the war started, the Scotts and Canslers moved to Knoxville, only because it was a bigger town, and seemed to offer more protection from rogue marauders.
This love story had an ending much more interesting than “happily ever after.”
Apparently reconciled with his daughter’s new husband, William Scott made the acquaintance of Episcopal rector Thomas Humes, a former journalist who was soon to become the president of East Tennessee University. Causing some controversy in his congregation, Humes worked closely with the whole Scott family during the war, teaching Laura, who wanted to be a teacher, herself, and training the middleaged harnessmaker and his son the printing trade. In 1865, William B. Scott founded, originally in Nashville, a new paper for a new era: The Colored Tennessean. It was said to be the first Black-owned newspaper in Tennessee and only the second in the entire South. Scott later moved back home to Blount County in 1868 and published the Maryville Republican, and for almost a decade, he was publisher of the only newspaper in Blount County. He became well known in Maryville, and in 1869 was elected mayor—probably the only man of African descent to be elected mayor of a major town in East Tennessee. He also founded, in Maryville, the Freedmen’s Normal Institute, a rare school for African American teachers.
In 1864, soon after the Confederate army lifted its siege, that same “bashful bride” was making a historic proposal to Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside. East Tennessee’s former slaves needed education urgently, Laura Cansler said, and she was willing to start a school to teach them the basics. She founded the Burnside School. She’s often remembered as Knoxville’s first Black teacher, but in fact she was our first public-school teacher of either race. Free public education was still controversial in those days, and Knoxville didn’t see its first free white public school until a few years later.
Her marriage, begun with a dramatic elopement at the dawn of a horrific war, lasted 61 years, until Hugh’s death in 1922. She died four years later, and they’re buried together at the Freedmen’s Missionary Cemetery on a hillside by Knoxville College.
They had seven children, several of whom became educators, the best known of them Charles W. Cansler. He was born a decade after his parents’ elopement, but he was so fascinated with the story that he wrote it down, for all of us to remember.
Jack Neely, February 2022