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Knoxville cultural center preserving African-American history

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - The Beck Cultural Exchange Center is in the business of preserving the legacy of Knoxville, Tennessee’s African-American history. 

“So in addition to learning history, to hearing about history, there is this whole idea of experiencing history,” said the Reverend Renee Kesler, President of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Rev. Kesler has been digging through old tapes of interviews from the late 1970s of blacks in the local community and soon their life experiences will be brought to life in an exhibit. It will showcase these forgotten stories of suffering, survival and success of a generation. 

“They were pretty up in age when they were interviewed so we get a chance to really kind of look back on history and hear the voices and their take on what life was like all those years ago,” said Rev. Kesler.

Some of the stories are about everyday life. John B. Wheeler was the son of a sharecropper who would go on to help run one of the few black-owned funeral homes in Knoxville.

“I came back to Knoxville and my brother had opened the A.R. Wheeler and Son Funeral Home, and I started working for him in 1925,” said Wheeler.

The stories are also of terrifying times. 

“So we had had the race riots here in the summer of 1919, August of 1919. It was a very hot summer and it felt like temperatures [tempers] were just very hot as well,” said Rev. Kesler. 

Mary Etter remembers the hours before her husband Joe, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, was killed in the streets of Knoxville during the Red Summer race riots. 

“They said a colored man killed a white woman and that's what started it… He [Joe] was a soldier and he said there's a race riot. He told me there was going to be one, and when it started he was going to be into it and he was going to get killed. He told me that,” said Etter.

Knoxville education icon, Sarah Moore Greene, shared stories of her father's childhood and the day he gained freedom from slavery in Kentucky. 

“He said that the day they were going to be free, I mean the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, that he called… that Miss Rachel called him in and said that they were out in a field playing like children. He was the youngest of the children ‘cause he was ten. But he remembered it very well,” said Greene.

This daughter of a slave would go on to do great things for the children of East Tennessee, becoming the first black person elected to the Knoxville Board of Education during integration. 

“I said now you don't have any communication, and I said I think, I really think you all need me. So, when I left the stage that night, there was a white lady that came up to me and she said,' Miss Green, I'm going to vote for you.' And I said ‘well I hope you will,’” remembered Greene.

Her impact is still felt decades later with a local elementary school that bears her name. 

More than 40 oral histories just like these will soon go on permanent display at the Beck to connect future generations to come.


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