The Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives is celebrating Black History Month with a display of items from our special collections. The display includes documents and images that bear witness to the experiences of black Tennesseans from the early days of statehood until the first African American students enrolled at the University of Tennessee.
Some artifacts from our manuscript collections are grim reminders of slavery in America. An 1846 bill of sale records the transfer of six slaves from Stephen B. Jones of Mississippi to John W. Dillahoy of Tennessee. The slaves included an African-American family of four and a Native American woman and her son.
Other artifacts attest to a more hopeful strain in our cultural heritage. A petition to the Tennessee Legislature, signed by 75 residents of Bedford County, Tennessee, appeals for the freedom of the state’s enslaved peoples and their descendants. The petition was probably submitted to the 1834 constitutional convention that preceded adoption of the second Tennessee State Constitution.
Several documents illustrate efforts by Tennesseans to redress the injustices of slavery. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an organization that aided freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Our exhibit includes a report written in 1864 by Captain T. A. Walker of the U.S. Colored Infantry, who was superintendent of the West Tennessee branch of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Walker reports on problems experienced by freedmen living in Memphis and on progress at the schools established to serve the freedmen living at the contraband camps of Shiloh and President’s Island.
Also on display is a certificate of membership in the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, issued to Rollie Johnson of Loudon, Tennessee, in 1898. Mr. Johnson paid a membership fee of 25¢ and monthly dues of 10¢ to the association, which lobbied to obtain pensions for former slaves.
Visitors also can enjoy treasures from our rare book collection, including My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the autobiography of famed abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, and a signed copy of Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), a poetry collection by Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
One item from our collections — a photo of Knoxvillian Maurice Mays — recalls a sad interval in our nation’s history. In 1919, following demobilization of World War I troops, racial violence erupted in dozens of US cities. Hundreds were killed. The season of bloodshed became known as Red Summer. In Knoxville, Mays, a black man, was accused of murdering a white woman. A lynch mob stormed the jail where Mays was being held. At least two citizens died in the gun battle that followed. Mays, who maintained his innocence to the end, died in the electric chair.
The exhibit contains several mementoes of military service, including a Civil War photograph (ca. 1864) of African American Union soldiers at a camp in Johnsonville, Tennessee, and a World War II era photo album from the Libraries’ collection of African American Military Photograph Albums.
A broadside dating to 1963 depicts Martin Luther King Jr. participating in leadership training at the Highlander Center, a cultural center dedicated to promoting social justice (now located in New Market, Tennessee). The broadside characterizes the Highlander Center as a “Communist Training School.”
The most recent item in the exhibit is drawn from the University Archives, the branch of the Libraries that maintains the institution legacy of the university and serves as the official repository for university documents. It is the first handbook created for African American students, Orientation ’73: A Black Perspective of the University of Tennessee.
The Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives is located in room 121 of the John C. Hodges Library. Visitors can view the Black History Exhibit between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, unless the classroom that houses the exhibit is being used for instructional purposes.
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