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Bob Booker, community organizing specialist for Knoxville's federally funded Empowerment Zone, is a former lawmaker, mayoral aide and executive director of the Beck Cultural Center. He is also an author, historian and bon vivant. One of Knoxville's more versatile citizens, he wrote a series of recollections of growing up in the near-East Knoxville neighborhood, now mostly cleared by urban renewal, that was then known as "The Bottom." Published in the old daily version of The Knoxville Journal in the late 1980s, they have been excerpted and edited by Barry Henderson, Booker's original editor on those Journal columns. Booker, whose previous books include Two Hundred Years of Black Culture in Knoxville, Tennessee and And There Was Light!—The 120-year History of Knoxville College, has a new book, entitled, The Heat of a Red Summer—Race Mixing, Race Rioting in 1919 Knoxville, due from Rutledge Books this summer.

From the Bottom Up

Looking back at life in the Knoxville ghetto that no one knew was a ghetto

by Robert J. Booker

I have often said that when I was growing up, I was too poor to live in the slums—I lived in an alley behind the slums.

The house I lived in sat directly behind the restaurant at 106 North Georgia Street. In front of the restaurant was Taylor's Grocery Store, where we did most of our grocery shopping. Gone are the days when it was common for people in Knoxville to live in alleys. But this was the 194Os.

Long before the word "ghetto" had ever crossed our lips, Knoxville's ghetto was called "The Bottom." It was a low-lying area which was bounded by Vine Avenue on the south Central Street on the west, Bell Street and First Creek on the east, and the old Southern Railway tracks on the north. It was a conglomeration of small neighborhoods of poor people who were plagued by the overflow of the creek each spring.

The Bottom consisted of notorious night spots, houses of prostitution and rowdy pool rooms. It teemed with small grocery stores, barber shops and beauty shops. There were a few restaurants and rib joints and many proud homeowners.

Although The Bottom was notorious in many aspects, and many people lived on a fraction of what we call minimum wage today, there was little or no feeling of despair. No one died of malnutrition, no one was afraid to walk the streets at night, and church life was one of the most important aspects of living.

Growing up in The Bottom was not greatly different from the "normal" growing up in any other section of town. We shot marbles, played ball, skated in the streets, played hooky from school, swam in the creek and hopped freight trains. Since there was only one bona fide playground in the area, most of the ball-playing was done in the streets. The lack of traffic made interruption of the game infrequent.

The only real playground was just a block from my house at Heiskell School, at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Kentucky Street. This playground, however, was usually a mass of gullies washed in by rains, and was actually dangerous, with holes and jagged rocks in some spots.

The most beautiful lawn in the area was at the Camp Home, Knoxville's prison for wayward women, at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Florida Street. It was just too tempting to walk by that beautifully mowed lawn without rolling or wrestling on it. Naturally the little old ladies who supervised the place objected strenuously, but we ignored them until we knew the police were on the way. Interestingly enough, we could hear those "brown and yellow basket" police cars a full block away as the clutch slapped against the floorboard. Since the police never caught any of us, I wonder if they really tried.

In those days, I had no idea that five people sleeping in one room created unsanitary living conditions; it never dawned on me that our three room "shotgun" house was less than equal because we had no electricity and used kerosene lamps. There was nothing odd about having our toilet on the back porch and about having to heat water on a coal stove to fill a tin tub to take a bath on "Saturday nights."

One of the good things we had going for us in those days was the opportunity to get a good education under the guidance of excellent, sincere, dedicated teachers. I enrolled at Heiskell School in September, 1941, and finished the sixth grade there in 1947. The school had been built in 1897 as Knoxville's first new school for black children and was named for Mayor S.G. Heiskell.

By the time I got there 44 years later, the school had seen its better days. Its wooden floors and stairs had been waxed and polished enough to make it literally a tinderbox, with a poor excuse for a fire escape on the west side of the building. The school had no cafeteria until about 1946, when the community raised money to help establish one. But in spite of the condition of the building and the lack of hot food during those early years, teaching and learning never slowed down.

Although I have fond memories of my two years at Green School in the seventh and eighth grades, it was not always an easy chore to get to the school at the corner of Payne Avenue and Pritchard Street. While it served most of the children who lived in The Bottom, it physically was not a part of The Bottom. It sat on one of the highest points in the city on Reservoir Hill, so-named for the tall water tower and the settling pools, where we played at recess, and which had provided the city's water supply until 1927. It was some distance from my house (Where was busing when we really needed it?).

Green School had originally been built in 1909 and named for Dr. Henry M. Green, a prominent black physician in our community, who was an internationally known authority on Pellegra. As chairman of the Pellegra Commission of the National Medical Association, he traveled abroad and studied the causes and treatments for that disease in several European countries. He was able to treat and cure cases that others found to be hopeless.

Getting to Green School was sometimes nearly impossible for me and many others who lived in The Bottom. Every morning was a new experience in walking down Florida Street to the rickety Willow Street bridge, trudging up the muddy or snow-laden hills and passing through Rock Alley to Vine Street.

The Willow Street bridge, which was of wooden construction, had seen its better days long before I started to school. It shook and quivered under the weight of just one automobile. After a heavy rainfall, the rushing water of violent First Creek so battered the bridge that it would become unsafe to cross. That meant taking a much longer route to school. Hard rains inevitably raised the question, "Will the creek be up?"

The swirling water showed no mercy on much of The Bottom. Families on Willow Street, Water Street, Paddleford, Campbell, Florida, Idaho, Patton, and other streets were uprooted at least once a year by flood waters. The floodings constantly damaged businesses, including the Cas Walker Store on Patton Street, the Hurst Furniture Store on McCalla Avenue, and others.

The Rackets and the Police

By the time I was 8 or 10 years old, I was keenly aware of the "Butter and Eggs" numbers racket and illegal whiskey dealings in my neighborhood. I was impressed that many of the men and women who always had money to spend and who could afford to drive big, fine cars were in illegal activities. While the police did some raiding of well-known gambling and liquor establishments, and arrested the operators and customers alike, business continued to flourish.

Not only were these activities conducted in private houses, but many barber shops, beauty shops, nightspots, grocery stores and restaurants were used for numbers pick-up points and the sale of liquor. Even when strangers were on the premises, very little effort was made to cover up the transactions.

Sometimes the bootlegging industry provided boys who were 12 or 13 in my neighborhood an unexpected windfall. It was routine business for us to collect discarded whiskey bottles to sell to illicit whiskey houses to be refilled with moonshine or "splo." But sometimes we really struck a bonanza by secretly watching as a runner unloaded his cargo at a temporary hiding place. By stealing and selling a jar of liquor, we could make as much as fifty cents. In those days fifty cents could take three boys to the Gem Theatre, buy three bags of popcorn, three cold drinks, and leave a nickel left over.

While there was much preaching in the churches on Sunday morning against the evils of drinking and gambling, one, in retrospect, gets the feeling that that part of the service was just a mandatory requirement. For, indeed, some of the biggest gamblers and bootleggers of the day were pillars of the church. The congregation knew it, and the pastor knew it. In some cases, these were the people who advanced emergency money for the needs of the church.

As people today enter the various lotteries, sweepstakes and other contests to win money, blacks and poor whites in those days played the numbers. Knoxville was accused of being the most wide-open city in the country for numbers racketeers. But the participants hoped against hope, as this was their only way out of poverty.

It is interesting that while these activities were largely controlled by elements in the white community, and some of the transactions were conducted in white areas, most of the raiding and arrests were in black neighborhoods. For some reason, the police seemed obsessed with conducting raids and confiscating whiskey. While police were slow to arrive when someone had been killed or wounded, they were quick when whiskey was mentioned.

'Our' Day at the Park

These days, the 8th of August in the black community comes and goes and nothing happens. In fact, it goes almost unmentioned. [Forty] years ago, that just could not have happened. That date for blacks in Knoxville and other places meant more than the 4th of July to everyone else.

As youngsters, we were allowed to stay up late the night before the 8th to watch preparations for the big day. Luther Settles, one of my neighbors who worked at the East Tennessee Packing Company, would bring home a pig, dig a barbecue pit in the ground, and cook most of the night. Fellow employees and friends made the cooking an event in itself as they milled about telling stories, laughing and having a good time in general. The ladies were making potato salad, churning ice cream and preparing other goodies, while a dozen or so watermelons were getting cold overnight at the North Star Ice Company on Jackson Avenue.

No effort was too great and no detail too small to make sure that everything was just right for the 8th. After all, this was "our" day.

Our day meant that most of us would not be going to work—not on the 8th of August! It was the day for going to the mountains or going to one of the dams or lakes. But most important of all, it was our day to go to Chilhowee Park.

Although it was city owned, blacks were admitted only once a year—on the 8th. People from Knox and surrounding counties would jam the park. Streetcars and later, buses, would run into the wee hours, shuttling people after it had closed for the day. I have often said that the park made more money that day than in all the rest of the year combined.

One 8th for me and my two brothers was a real disappointment. That summer the polio epidemic was at its peak and my grandmother feared that we might contract it in such a large crowd. Consequently, she vetoed our plans to go to the park that year. I don't know how she could bear to watch three young boys in such agony.

We had spent much of the early summer in preparation for this yearly trip to the Mecca on Magnolia Avenue. We had hauled ice, run errands and performed other chores to save money for those five or six glorious hours at Chilhowee Park, but our wailing and moaning did nothing to change Momma's mind. She was more determined that we would not go than we were determined to go.

Activities on the 8th of August were in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, but finding the reason for this date has eluded me completely. President Lincoln signed the Executive Order on Sept. 22, 1862, and it was to become effective Jan. 1, 1863.

Although "life ain't been no crystal stair," there are many memories worth recalling. The tradition of the 8th of August is one of them.

April 5, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 14
© 2001 Metro Pulse