African-American Political Engagement in Knoxville

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African-American Political Engagement in Knoxville Dates Back to Mid-1800s

Knoxville City Councilman Daniel Brown has always embraced service - as a U.S. Army soldier in Vietnam in 1970, as a 22-year public servant with the U.S. Postal Service, and as an East Knoxville community leader.

But on Jan. 10, 2011, he made Knoxville history.

This was the day that Daniel Brown became Knoxville’s first African-American mayor.

Daniel Brown takes the oath of office on Jan. 10, 2011.The sitting mayor, Bill Haslam, had been elected as Tennessee’s governor two months earlier. At the time, Brown was serving on Council as the representative for the 6th District. Brown was elected by his fellow City Council members to serve out Haslam's unexpired term; he served for 342 days. On Nov. 8, 2011, Madeline Rogero was elected, and on Dec. 17, she was sworn in as the City's first woman mayor.

Councilman Brown says he “always had an interest in politics.” He'd majored in history and political science at Tennessee State University.

As mayor and councilman, Brown has focused on Knoxville's redevelopment. It's how the City and its residents prosper, and how neighborhoods get stronger. Jobs are created, and everyone's quality of life improves. One of Brown's particular interests is spurring reinvestment in the Burlington neighborhood.

But while Brown was Knoxville's first African-American mayor, the City's black citizens have long been politically engaged. The first African-American aldermen were elected shortly after the Civil War, and in the early 20th century, Knoxville had a "Bronze Mayor," who was selected by votes cast through an African-American newspaper.

Consider this context: In 1860, about one in four Tennesseans were living in slavery. Less than 3 percent of the 276,000 blacks in Tennessee were free. So how did African-Americans gain a foothold in politics in that era?

It started with a few successful City legislative races. Then a gubernatorial run. And 70-something years before Daniel Brown became Knoxville's first black mayor, there was Dr. James Henry Presnell and his honorific mayorship.

Several black candidates ran for political office in Knoxville beginning in the mid-1800s. There was a breakthrough in 1869, when Isaac Gammon and David Brown became Knoxville's first African-American representatives on the Board of Aldermen, a precursor to the 20th century City Council.

William Francis Yardley was a notable African-American lawyer in Knoxville and later ran for governor in 1876. (Courtesy: Robert J. Booker) Another notable African-American politician during the 1870s was William Francis Yardley. Historian Robert J. Booker says that Yardley “was one of Tennessee's most outspoken citizens and colorful public officials during Reconstruction times.” He'd studied law and became Knoxville’s first African-American lawyer in 1872.

William Francis Yardley published and edited the weekly Knoxville Bulletin. (Courtesy: McClung Historical Collection)After serving on the Board of Alderman from 1872 to 1873, Yardley in 1876 ran for governor as an independent.

Even though he lost the gubernatorial race, Knoxvillians affectionately nicknamed him “Governor Yardley,” Booker said.

William Francis Yardley was also the publisher and editor of Knoxville’s first African-American newspaper, the Knoxville Examiner, in 1878. He also published and helped establish the Knoxville Bulletin in 1882.

Moses Smith, Knoxville’s first African-American policeman, was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1874 and 1878.

James Henry Presnell was selected as "Knoxville's Bronze Mayor" in a contest through the African-American newspaper, the Flashlight Herald. (Courtesy: Robert J. Booker)Flash forward to the 20th century - and the popularity of James Henry Presnell in the 1930s and 1940s.

According to Booker’s research, Presnell owned a medical practice in Knoxville and was respected in the city for his practice of medicine. He won a “Bronze Mayor Contest” in the Flashlight Herald, the African-American newspaper in Knoxville at that time. The “Bronze Mayor Contest” was intended to designate an African-American leader who would voice community concerns.

Booker said that Presnell won the contest “by more than 2,800 votes over his nearest rival.”

In recent decades, African-Americans have served without exception on every City Council. These elected representatives have demonstrated strong leadership. For example, Mark Brown in 2003 became the City's first elected African-American vice mayor, a position he was re-elected to in 2005.

In 2004, the City opened a neighborhood park in Mechanicsville and named it in honor of the late Councilman Danny Mayfield, co-founder of the urban ministry Tribe One and a community leader who represented the 6th District until his death from bone cancer in 2001. Mayfield had run unsuccessfully for mayor in 1999.

Former Mayor Brown believes that societal perceptions of African-Americans are positively changing - and he encourages all Knoxvillians to continue to be open-minded and politically engaged.

“I hope I am not the only African-American mayor that we are going to have in this city,” he said.

Painter Carl Hess unveils his portrait of former Mayor Daniel Brown. The portrait hangs in the fifth floor of the City County Building, part of a gallery of mayors. (Courtesy: Carl Hess Portraits)Painter Carl Hess unveils his portrait of former Mayor Daniel Brown. It hangs in a fifth floor City County Building gallery of mayors' portraits.