Knoxville's Second African-American Permanent Officer

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Knoxville's Second African-American Permanent Officer

James MasonOfficer James Mason was hired in 1884 and served as Knoxville's second African-American permanent officer. Officer Moses Smith was the city's first permanent officer. Post Reconstruction, Knoxville was one of just five cities in the South with black officers in its department.

Officer Mason, in light of his truly distinguished career at KPD and his contributions to the City of Knoxville, was born into slavery in Knoxville about 1840 and was owned by Major James Swan. Officer Mason was fortunate that a member of the Swan family taught him to read at an early age and, while teaching slaves was forbidden in many areas in the South, that was not the case in Knoxville. As the number of free African-Americans soon outnumbered slaves, Officer Mason was given the opportunity to earn money on other jobs when not needed by the Swan family.  

With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Officer Mason was eventually granted his freedom. Understanding the value of earning a wage as well as his freedom, he continued to work, with the goal of buying his wife Betty Fountain's freedom as well. With his wife being freed, he shifted his financial focus and used his savings to buy a house and lot on West Cumberland Avenue in 1866, making him the city's first African-American property owner and taxpayer.

Officer Mason was the first to petition the Tennessee School for the Deaf to admit an African-American pupil, unfortunately with no success. In 1879, Officer Mason established a school for deaf children in his home. In 1881, the state Legislature passed a bill for the establishment of a school for African-American deaf children with the first location being in Officer Mason's home. With the appropriation of funds in 1885 by the Tennessee General Assembly, the school was able to move to a site on Dandridge Avenue while serving the needs of 20 students.

Officer Mason was a servant of the Knoxville community and honorably served KPD until his retirement in 1902.