A few weeks ago, I randomly ran into my stepfather, Tom Underwood, at Pratt’s Country Market in Fountain City. As it turns out, we were both headed to Lowe’s, so I hopped in the car with him and off we went. As we headed out Tazewell Pike, he turned down Oakland Road next to Greenwood Cemetery.
Now I have driven through this area many times to bypass traffic at Beverly Road. But as I was the passenger this time, I was able to take in my surroundings. A long-buried memory was tickling the back of my brain. As Oakland Road made a hard left, I looked right. Up on the hill was what looked like a well-kept but old brick school sitting next to a tidy, white brick church with a red tin roof.
“What’s that old building up there?” I asked. He explained to me that it was the old Oakland School, a school for Black children during segregation. The school was designed by architect Frank Barber and constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. Tom also informed me that the whole stretch along the road was known as Oakland and had been an historically Black community as well.
This wasn’t the memory tickling the back of my brain (we’ll get to that shortly), but I was rather aghast at my ignorance. My family’s been in Fountain City for a century, I have family buried right next door in Greenwood, and I never knew this.
Tom’s perspective on the school is valuable because he served in the old Knoxville City Schools’ administration during the era of integration and on until I was in high school. His first visit to the school, though, was to make his acquaintance with the school’s two teachers after it came under the umbrella of the city school system following the annexation of Fountain City in 1962.
Another interesting perspective came from father, Mike Kinnane, himself a former teacher at Carter High School. His family moved from Fremont Street in Old North Knoxville to a two-story clapboard farmhouse on Greenway Road when he was still a boy. The house stood down from the road behind where Cortese Tree Service now sits. The house burned in the 1980s, but the last time I went down there, part of the steps and foundation were still there as well as my great grandmother’s magnolia trees.
Daddy told me about his and his brother Joe’s playmates from back then, R.C. and Mitchell Toms, who lived in a log cabin on the other side of the railroad tracks that cross Greenway. They were just children then and didn’t know, much less understand, the Jim Crow laws that sent their friends that lived basically next door to the Oakland School while he and his brother went to Smithwood. They just had fun playing in the creek and riding an old wagon down the ridge with little concern for how it would stop or if they bounced out of it.
These days, the old school is used as the Oakland Community Center. The church is currently The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Ministries but was founded as the Oakland A.M.E. Zion Church. The current building dates to 1921. Just up the road is the original Foster’s Chapel Baptist Church founded in 1909. The current building dates to 1958. The area also includes the Band of Mercy Cemetery. Similar to this story about the Golden Cross Cemetery on Dantedale Road, the Band of Mercy was a Black fraternal lodge that people joined primarily to ensure a proper resting place in the era when public cemeteries were segregated.
Now, to the memory that was tickling my brain. I could remember when I was young going down Oakland Road to something like a children’s museum. And my cursory look into the history of the Oakland School confirmed I had not, in fact, lost my mind. The old building did indeed house the Akima Club’s Students’ Museum for close to a decade.
The Students’ Museum was founded in 1960, and bounced around several locations from the War Memorial Building to a room in Bell House School to the Tom Black Peanut Company before landing in the Oakland School. It was long run by Edna Clark. Eventually it outgrew its space, and was moved to Beamon Street near Zoo Knoxville in 1976. And that, kids, is how the Students’ Museum begat the East Tennessee Discovery Center which later merged with M.U.S.E. Knoxville in 2011.
Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com