The neighborhood of Mechanicsville in Knoxville features many historic buildings. None are as prominent as the structures that adorn the campus of Knoxville College, the historically black college that was founded in 1875.
"One of the buildings here was built in 1891 and the administration building was constructed in 1895. The buildings on this campus are the oldest in [Knoxville's] black community," said Robert J. Booker, an alumnus of Knoxville College.
Booker grew up in East Knoxville and moved to the Mechanicsville neighborhood as a freshman at KC in 1957. His formal training prepared him to be a high school French teacher, but his overall education as a student at Knoxville College taught him valuable lessons for a lifelong involvement in politics. Booker's careers as a state legislator, city councilman, and executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center began with a role in student government.
"I was president of the student government and I helped to initiate the desegregation of the downtown lunch counters and movie theaters. We may have appeared to be radical students, but I certainly think we did a lot of good in those days," said Booker.
Knoxville College and Mechanicsville as a neighborhood served as centers for organizing the local civil rights movement.
"Mechanicsville is a tremendous neighborhood. It was the model for what a black neighborhood could be. The word I would use is 'aristocratic' because all of the professors lived in this area. The neighborhood was full of educated and erudite people devoted to teaching people," said Booker.
While Mechanicsville played a central role in a cultural revolution, its beginnings are more closely associated with the Industrial Revolution following the Civil War.
"Mechanicsville was on the outskirts of Knoxville in the 1860s. It got its name because there were a lot of factories, mills, and railroad people who worked in this area," said Booker. "They worked with machinery and tools and they called themselves 'mechanics.' Because so many of the mechanics lived here, it just became known as Mechanicsville."
About 2,000 people lived in Mechanicsville when it was annexed by Knoxville in 1883.
"While it was the aristocratic black neighborhood, from day one there was a mixture of people here, especially people of Welsh descent," said Booker.
Today the colorful variety of historic homes shows the wide range of people who called Mechanicsville home. A concentration of small and narrow 'shotgun houses' on Boyd Street were common homes for the factory workers. The neighborhood also features several large Victorian-style homes that were built by the technicians who built the factories as well as wealthy merchants.
Other historic buildings include 501 Arthur, a restaurant which used to be Bradley's Food Market. It sits beside Knoxville Fire Station No. 5, the oldest fire station currently operating in Knoxville.
While the fire station and many other buildings in Mechanicsville have been restored, time has taken a heavy toll on many of the historic buildings on the campus of Knoxville College.
"It is kind of heartbreaking because the kind of education I got still goes on here, but too many of the buildings are in disrepair. I just don't think we've really done enough in this community to help the college and that is what bothers me," said Booker.
While the future of some physical structures may be uncertain, the rich heritage of Knoxville College and the neighborhood of Mechanicsville will always remain a strong part of Knoxville's history.
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