Knoxville, Tenn. — Knoxville College is a historically black liberal arts college founded in 1875 by the United Presbyterian Church of North America.
Opening just 10 years after slavery was abolished, the school initially offered elementary classes since most freed men and women were not qualified to go to college, according to historian Robert Booker.
“In fact, the oldest building on campus was the little boys’ home. It’s known as Wallace Hall today,” Booker said.
Students advanced through courses until 1883, when they finally qualified for a college education.
McKee Hall, the administration building, was the first structure on campus in 1876, but it is not the oldest still standing. The original was destroyed by a fire in 1894 and rebuilt the following year by students. Their fingerprints are still visible in the bricks they made by hand.
Booker, who graduated from Knoxville College, said the school also had a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Notably, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the 1960 commencement speaker.
“That activity was held here on the front lawn because there was no place large enough on campus to hold the people who were coming,” Booker said.
Booker credits this speech with inspiring students to lead the local sit-in movement.
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Knoxville College faced many financial hardships throughout its history, but a major blow came in 1997 when it lost its accreditation.
Classes officially stopped in May 2015, after three students graduated from the college. Later that year, the EPA removed hazardous chemicals from the abandoned science building, and arsonists attacked other campus buildings.
Growing safety concerns forced the remaining buildings to be boarded up in 2017.
Despite having eight buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the school has fallen into disrepair and visitors are not allowed inside.
Though the caved in roofs and shattered windows reveal a skeleton of the college’s glory days, the board of trustees has continued to fight for its restoration. They started online classes on Sept. 4, 2018.
On Oct. 12, the board of trustees and alumni invited planners from the East Tennessee Development District to start the process of adding more buildings to the National Register of Historic Places and obtaining a grant that would go toward restoring the campus.
Lindsay Crockett, the historic preservation planner with ETDD, says the condition of the campus will complicate the process, but she is confident in the college’s history.
“Knoxville College has an incredible breadth of history,” Crockett said. “This will definitely be complicated but it is definitely worth it.”
While these grants will not be enough to fully restore Knoxville College, the board of trustees and alumni are hopeful that they will be a step in the right direction.
UPDATE (May 18, 2019): Knoxville College sees step forward with first graduation ceremony in years
There was one graduated, but officials hope more will follow in coming years.
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Reporter’s note: Though many of these buildings are unused and empty, they sit on private property that is still actively used in some cases. DO NOT attempt to unlawfully enter any of these places without permission. Many of them are structurally unsound and pose potential health hazards, like asbestos and lead paint. 10News contacted all owners prior to visiting.