Black and White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era
Thursday February 27, 2020 at the East Tennessee Historical Society and Museum. "Self Portrait" by Joseph Delaney.

Racial slavery and segregation are specters that continue to haunt the United States, especially in the American South. Knoxville is no exception to this troubling history.

The East Tennessee Historical Society latest exhibit, titled “Black and White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era,” goes through the city’s history from the 1860’s through the 1960’s, emphasizing the stories of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

The Jim Crow Era is a gruesome part of history that could never be studied enough. I commend the ETSH for tackling the topic and seeking to educate Knoxvillians about its local implications.

The gallery also provides the history of three prominent, African American Knoxvillians: artists Beauford Delaney, Joseph Delaney and Ruth Cobb Brice —simultaneously providing a general overview of the Jim Crow era while also delving deep into the lives of the three artist. The results are incredibly interesting and informative.

Knoxville has a reputation of being one of the more tolerant cities in the Jim Crow South — or as “tolerant” as any Southern city could have been. Unlike most Southern cities, as the gallery presents, African-Americans could vote, hold office, sit on juries and serve as police officers.

The most interesting thing the ETHS has done is connecting the artistic works of the Delaney Brothers and Ruth Cobb Brice to wider racial tension in Knoxville.

However, presentation left much to be desired.

It may sound strange to criticize a history exhibit’s presentation, but it’s arguably the most important factor of any good educational endeavor. Without a clear, aesthetically pleasing structure, the presented lesson will get muddled.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear what the ETHS was going for with its structure. It’s semi-chronological, with separate sections going from least to most recent. However, it’s also semi-thematic, with those sections also focusing on different aspects of the Jim Crow movement within that chronology — i.e. artistic history, social history, military history. 

It’s all interesting and important information, but it feels like the ETHS wanted to present an opus history of Knoxville Jim Crow while also telling a specific story about artistic history in the Jim Crow South. Again, it’s all interesting, but a jack of all trades is a master of none and it’s unclear what the ETHS wanted visitors to take away. 

It’s also unclear what the ETHS was going for with the look. The museum made the bizarre decision to present the exhibits information on a series of multi-colored, sporadically placed panels. I’m sure there was a thematic motivation behind this, but it simply doesn’t look good and leads to confusion about where the visitor’s supposed to look and go next.

This is a shame, because the information itself is important and intriguing. The Jim Crow Era is long, complex and still relevant to this day. I highly recommend checking the new exhibit out, as one could never learn enough about racial injustice.

I just wish the ETHS made the information more easily digestible to an untrained eye.

“Black and White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era” will be at the East Tennessee Historical Society through June 14.

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