Top Knoxville and East Tennesseans who have shaped Tennessee's 225-year history
While Knoxville celebrated its 225th anniversary five years ago, it gladly passes the torch to Tennessee, celebrating its 225th statehood anniversary Tuesday, June 1.
It's important to recognize the Knoxville and East Tennessee residents who have helped make the state what it is today.
That influence began back when Knoxville was the capitol of the newly formed Southwestern Territory through its time as capitol of the state for over 20 years when Tennessee was added to the Union.
While the capitol eventually moved west – first to Nashville, then back to Knoxville, then to Murfreesboro before settling in Nashville – Knoxville remains a vibrant gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a cultural and educational center for the southeast.
Here's how some influential Knoxvillians and East Tennesseans shaped the state and its place in history. Looking for a more exhaustive list of notable Knoxvillians? The city has one on its website.
The territory’s first governor, appointed by President George Washington, and one of the state’s first two U.S. Senators, William Blount helped settle Knoxville and made East Tennessee an early powerhouse in the region.
He also had the distinction of being a senator who was impeached and tried after being expelled from office.
After that, he came back to Tennessee and was elected to the State Senate.
Knoxville in the Civil War
East Tennessee, and specifically Knoxville, had the distinction of being a dividing line of allegiances during the Civil War. While most of the state leaned towards or outright supported the Confederacy, East Tennessee was largely filled with Unionists.
After Tennessee voted to secede, becoming the last state to leave the Union, a pro-Union group attempted to make a separate state in East Tennessee. This, of course, failed.
The Union Army easily took control of Knoxville in 1863, about midway through the war, and withstood multiple Confederate attempts later in the year to remove them from Fort Sanders and other strongholds surrounding the city.
Rep. Harry Burn
While not from Knoxville, State Rep. Harry Burn was from down the road in McMinn County, which he represented in the state legislature.
He played a critical role in Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment. The amendment, giving women the right to vote. would not have been ratified in 1920 without the state's support.
In Tennessee, the Senate had approved the amendment, 25-4. The House twice tried to table the ultimate vote on suffrage, and both times the vote resulted in a tie. Seeing the tie, House Speaker Seth Walker assumed a vote on the suffrage bill itself would also tie, and fail.
For his part, Rep. Burn had voted twice to table the measure. But when Walker called for an up or down vote Aug. 18, 1920, Burn, under much prodding from everyone from his mother to President Woodrow Wilson, changed his mind and voted “yes,” securing the majority.
The House voted 50-46 in favor, making Tennessee the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment, securing the right to vote for white women, while women of color would face additional barriers for decades to come.
Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and Memphis’ Beale Street get the lion’s share of attention when the state’s rich music history is mentioned, and this is fair. But don't leave out the contributions of Knoxville and East Tennessee musicians.
Roy Acuff is named the “King of Country Music” for a reason. Acuff, according to the Country Music Hall of Fame, helped turn country music into a big business, bridging the gap between the “stringband era” and the big bands common today. Acuff was born in Maynardville and his family moved to Fountain City when he was still young.
The Everly Brothers attended high school in Knoxville, stormed Nashville and were one of the first rock-and-roll acts with staying power to come from the state. The duo is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Really, this list could just have one name and it would be enough. While Dolly Parton didn’t technically come from Knoxville, the East Tennessee native shaped the region's economy and helped redefine the country music industry. Knoxville will always claim her.
If those names don’t do it for you, maybe Kenny Chesney, Kelsea Ballerini, Dave Barnes or Chris Blue will.
Unlike the rest of the state, East Tennessee has been a Republican stronghold since before the Civil War. Once the rest of the state turned red, East Tennessee was ready to lead with strong, mostly moderate Republican candidates.
This began with U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, whose Scott County home is northwest of Knoxville. Baker became Senate majority leader and shaped decades of bipartisanship policy.
Baker was followed by mentee Lamar Alexander. The Maryville native was the first person to serve two terms as governor (state law was amended to allow for it before he was elected). He brought the auto industry here and helped set the stage for the state’s growth for decades to come before being elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served for three terms until January.
Bill Haslam’s first job in politics was Alexander’s 1978 gubernatorial campaign. The former Knoxville mayor and two-term governor shaped education policy with Tennessee Promise, led the state through surging growth and attempted to expand Medicaid here.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Tyler Whetstone
The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org
Published June 1, 2021