Chilhowee Park, dynamite and Louis Armstrong

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Stories

The cutline for the accompanying photo read “and the band played on.” No, this wasn’t the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The headline read “Explosion Rocks Park Concert by Satchmo.”

For the uninitiated, Satchmo was legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and the park in question was none other than our own Chilhowee on Magnolia Avenue. The date was February 19, 1957, 20 years after the Jacob Building was completed following a fire that destroyed the original building constructed for the Appalachian Exposition in 1910.

Promo for the Chilhowee Park concert from The Knoxville News Sentinel, Feb. 10, 1957.

On this night, Armstrong was performing to a white and Black audience. But what some may not know is that, back then, if a Black artist was performing, it was the white audience that had to sit in the balcony. Or as the case is with the Jacob Building, on the upper, mezzanine level. My father attended a few performances there before integration, and has told me “separate but equal” felt a whole lot different when the shoe was on the other foot.

In 1957, the south was still firmly entrenched in Jim Crow era foolishness, pushing back against the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education decision in 1954 that called for the desegregation of public school systems across the country. As it was, Armstrong toured with a white drummer. So even if the audience wasn’t integrated, his band was.

Armstrong and his band were into their second set of the evening when an explosion happened outside about 10:40 p.m. Though Satchmo reportedly paused briefly and said “It’s okay, folks, it was just my telephone ringing,” the band continued on through Back O’Town Blues as if nothing happened. While some members of the audience decided to go ahead and beat feet, most stayed on for the rest of the show.

The park’s assistant manager, Ed Ailor, had been patrolling the grounds with park security officer Ulyes Mynatt. They weren’t on the lookout for dynamite tossed from side roads, but rather groups of teenagers, mostly boys, trying to find a way into the building without purchasing a ticket. Ailor said what seemed to be a small stick of dynamite with a short fuse was heaved over the fence from a late model Chevrolet on Lakeside Avenue. It landed about 100 yards from the concert venue, blowing a three- to four-foot-wide hole in the ground about 18 inches deep. The color of the car nor the license plate were discernible, as it rolled on down to Magnolia and headed toward downtown Knoxville.

No one was hurt in the incident, and Armstrong vowed to continue with his tour of the south. It may have just been a prank, but dynamite is a bit much for just a prank. Had the missile actually hit anyone, they would been maimed, possibly killed. Just a few days prior to Armstrong’s performance, Black families in Clinton had their homes damaged by dynamite, a precursor to the bombing that destroyed Clinton High School in October 1958. The racist, segregationist White Citizens Council was agitating across the state against school integration. So intimidation, at the very least, was the likely motivation.

As an aside, for those who like to wax poetic on decades past, other items making headline news adjacent to this story included “Knoxville Woman is Beaten to Death” and “Ike Talks to U.S. Tonight on Mideast.” Seems there was some trouble in Israel.

Source: The Knoxville News Sentinel, Feb. 20, 1957

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

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