Tennessee Recalls Emancipation, Segregation On Aug. 8, 1863, Tennessee's "military" Gov. Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves. During the early 20th century, it was the only day blacks in Knoxville were allowed to visit Chilhowee Park. The day remains a reminder of segregation.
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Tennessee Recalls Emancipation, Segregation

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Tennessee Recalls Emancipation, Segregation

Tennessee Recalls Emancipation, Segregation

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's take a moment to remember a time of change in America. Tennessee's military governor, Andrew Johnson, freed his personal slaves on this day in 1863. During the early part of the 20th century, blacks in East Tennessee celebrated on August 8th by staying home from work, and many in Knoxville went to the most popular park in the city - the only day of the year they were allowed to do so. The day still stands as a reminder of the region's segregated past.

Matt Shafer Powell of member station WUOT reports.

MATT SHAFER POWELL: At Knoxville's Chilhowee Park, workers with weed whackers trim up what little grass there is. These days, there's a zoo next door. But now this gated patch of land on the city's east side is mostly a huge parking lot, with a few picnic tables, exhibition buildings and a pond.

This is not the Chilhowee Park in Robert J. Booker's(ph) memory. Peeking over his glasses through 72-year-old eyes, he suspects few people would come here if not for the zoo and the annual fair.

Mr. ROBERT J. BOOKER : When I talk about how all the 8th of Augusts we had to go to Chilhowee Park, they say, for what? I say, God, have you ever been to the Tennessee Valley Fair? Yes. I said, that's what Chilhowee Park was every day.

POWELL: Back when Booker was a young boy, Chilhowee Park was a slice of heaven. There was a roller coaster, bumper cars, and plenty of junk food. But as a young African-American boy, Booker was allowed to come here only one day a year, a day Booker describes is second only to Christmas.

Mr. BOOKER: We waited all year for the 8th of August, because that was the one time we would have a chance to come to Chilhowie Park and eat the cotton candy, and to get on these various rides, and to play these various games that, for a whole year, you wouldn't do again.

POWELL: Avon Rollins is the director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, an African-American museum in Knoxville. Looking back as an adult, Rollins says the city's annual one-day open gate policy at the park seems like a slap in the face. But he says that doesn't make his boyhood memories of August 8th any less special.

Mr. AVON ROLLINS (Executive Director, Beck Cultural Exchange Center): From your youth, you look back at it as positive memory in terms of you interfaced with people who were close to you, you had fun at the park, the recreation facilities, or picnics, you know, whatever.

POWELL: Both Rollins and Booker acknowledge it was a very different time. There were more blacks in Knoxville then in terms of percentage of overall population. But it was a community that had yet to find its voice in the struggle against separate-but-equal. In fact, segregation was often a forbidden topic among the city's black families.

As an African-American girl growing up in Knoxville during that time, Marcella Satterfield(ph) says Jim Crow laws were a part of life.

Ms. MARCELLA SATTERFIELD: And you look back to say we shouldn't have even gone. We just should have said, keep your park. We don't have to have your park. But, I guess, because of all the miseries that had been endured through slavery, through the Reconstruction years, through the Jim Crow, I guess people said if we can have a good time this one day, let's go have a good time.

POWELL: As the rides disappeared from Chilhowee Park, so, too, did Jim Crow. And so did the August 8th celebration. Now, African-American groups in Knoxville want to bring August 8th events back as a part of East Tennessee history. Not, they say, as a day to stir up bad memories of past injustices, but to recognize how much things have changed.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville.

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