A Q&A with Local Historian Jack Neely

When Jack Neely graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with a degree in American history, he didn’t foresee becoming the city’s go-to person for local and regional history. He wanted to be a journalist, and his first bylines appeared in The Daily Beacon. Post-graduation, he became a history columnist at Citytimes, and he worked for the 1982 World’s Fair. By the mid-’80s, Jack was writing history features for the News Sentinel, and by 1990 he’d proposed a downtown walking tour featuring Civil War, country music and literary history.

It was when he started the “Secret History” column at the Metro Pulse in 1992 that the spotlight started to shine on Jack as Knoxville’s personal history buff. His columns morphed into a book, and Jack enjoyed a long run with the Metro Pulse until it folded in 2014. That’s when the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit, started to take shape. Today, Jack serves as the executive director of KHP, where his research and writing continues.  

“I’d always wondered why Knoxville never emphasized its own history, with a society or a museum or full-time city historian or something, considering we do have a pretty extraordinary history that should be a major asset,” he says. “We’re headquarters of the wonderful East Tennessee Historical Society, but that’s a 35-county organization, representing about 2.5 million people from Bristol to Chattanooga. And a lot of cities within that zone, like Bristol and Chattanooga, and even Farragut, have their own strong historical advocates. Why not Knoxville?”

How did you select these five must-see historical sites?

It was tough. There are lots of established tourist sites that are fascinating and not as well-known as they should be, but they do have organizations and websites. I picked things that dependably surprise lifelong Knoxvillians when I bring them up. Some are becoming better known, but I’m convinced that three-quarters of Knoxvillians have never visited these, and tourists rarely do.

Why is the Union Monument significant?

The National Cemetery is an impressive relic of the Civil War. Unlike other Civil War sites, it was never forgotten or left to ruin. It looks today very much like Burnside and his command planned it in September 1863. Today, it’s home to more than 9,000 graves. More than a third are from the Civil War—hundreds of them marked Unknown, and dozens of them graves of black soldiers who were members of the occupation forces. The rest are from more recent wars, and among them is a particularly famous fellow named Neyland. 

Who is Adelia Lutz, and what are her roots to East Tennessee?

Adelia Lutz has been called Tennessee’s first professional female painter. Though I’m not sure she ever made a living purely from her work, she exhibited her work far and wide and got some attention away from home, especially at some of the expositions of the late 19th century. Except for study at the Corcoran and a year in Paris, Adelia lived her whole life in Knoxville. She grew up at Bleak House, across the street.

How did Knoxville wind up with a statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff?

Rachmaninoff is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and one of the last composers whose work is recognizable to people who aren’t classical-music scholars. He performed here once in the ‘20s but later had to cancel a show here due to a scheduling conflict and felt bad about it. In 1943, he was 70 years old and was making one more tour of America when he fell ill. Because he had canceled Knoxville before, he didn’t want to do it again, and just before he canceled his tour, he summoned the strength to do one more show, at UT’s Alumni Auditorium. He didn’t realize how ill he was and died a few weeks later of cancer. A little-known Russian sculptor named Viktor Bokarev made a statue of his personal hero, Rachmaninoff, and wanted to donate it to the place in America where Rachmaninoff had last performed, and that happened to be Knoxville.

What do Knoxvillians need to know about Cal Johnson? 

Cal Johnson has a story unlike any other in American history. He was raised to be a slave and was a teenager when he was emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Through hard work and family connections, he started businesses and bought property in Knoxville. He was best known for his chain of saloons, which catered to both black and white clientele. He loved horses more than anything else, and after leasing a horse-racing track on the south side of the river in the 1880s—exactly where Suttree Landing Park is now—he built his own racetrack in East Knoxville near Chilhowee Park. Johnson’s Racetrack was the city’s last and most durable horse-racing track and also the site of the region’s first airplane landing in 1910. Later, it was a car-racing track. Now it’s a neighborhood. But the street is still Cal’s half-mile oval.

What areas of study or research would patrons be surprised to find in the McClung Collection Reading Room? 

The books in the reading room are what you would expect in a good regional historical library: lots of histories arranged by county. McClung has an extensive collection of hundreds of thousands of newspaper clippings, especially about people. What makes the room unique is its history and its beauty. With very high ceilings, Victorian ornamentation, big windows out onto Market Street and intriguing original oil paintings on the wall, it may be the most beautiful room in town, with the possible exception of a few sanctuaries.