Joseph Delaney: Return of the Native

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

As the crow flies, it’s about 4,260 miles from Greenwood Cemetery here in Fountain City to the Cimetière parisien de Thiais in Paris, France. The significance is a tale of three cities and two brothers.

The former is the resting place of Knoxville born artist Joseph Delaney (b. 1904), the latter, that of his older and more famous artist brother, Beauford (b. 1901). The brothers grew up in a home at 815 Vine Avenue, just a jump from what we now call The Old City, just across the divide of what is downtown and what is East Knoxville. The house was later demolished in the name of urban renewal.

“Vine and Central” by Joseph Delaney, Knoxville Museum of Art

Both brothers’ artistic abilities were recognized at a young age, and they attended what was then a new school for local Black children in the era of segregation, the Knoxville Colored High School. This school had replaced the original Austin High School and reverted to the name in 1928.

Much has been written about Beauford: his apprenticeship with Knoxville impressionist Lloyd Branson, his move to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, his friendships with artist Georgia O’Keefe, playwright Henry Miller and, most notably, writer James Baldwin. By 1952 he had moved to Paris, where he remained the rest of his life and died in 1979.

But this story is more about Joseph, the Delaney brother who (eventually) returned home. Like his older brother, Joseph received artistic tutelage from Branson. He left school after ninth grade and lived a rather itinerant life through most of the roaring twenties, moving through Cincinnati, Detroit and Chicago doing whatever jobs could keep him going. He even did a three-year stint in the Illinois National Guard.

Delaney made his way back to Knoxville briefly before following his brother’s footsteps to New York City in 1930. During that time, it’s possible he was working for the National Benefit Life Insurance Company. A 1929 printing of The Knoxville Negro featured a section titled “Who’s Who Among the Negro Youth of Knoxville.” A photo featuring employees of the insurance company listed one Joseph Delaney standing in the back row.

Second from left, back row is a Joseph Delaney from “The Knoxville Negro-1929.” (Photo Credit: McClung Digital Collection)

After arriving in New York, Delaney furthered his training with the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Among his notable classmates and friends was the splatter master, Jackson Pollock. He remained devoted to training as artist the rest of his life, continuing weekly drawing classes at the League. He spent his 56 years in the big apple painting life in Manhattan, in the early years doing considerable work for the Works Progress Administration.

UT’s Ewing Gallery of Art + Architecture presented the exhibition Joseph Delaney: A Retrospective in 1986. Delaney’s friend, Pulitzer Prize winning author Alex Haley, was an adjunct professor in the college of journalism at UT at the time. Haley encouraged Delaney to return to Knoxville, which he did, as an artist in residence at UT, a position he held until his death on Nov. 21, 1991.

The Beck Cultural Exchange Center is currently restoring the home of Samuel Delaney, Beauford and Joseph’s older brother, on Dandridge Avenue, with the plan to open the Delaney Museum in 2024.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

Sources: Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Knoxville Museum of Art, Ewing Gallery of Art + Architecture, McClung Digital Collection.

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