The historic mansion that houses the heart of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville has witnessed volatile years of hatred and violence. But it has survived and has become the foundation from which the legacy and inspiration of the past drive a vibrant, community-focused present.
Named for the home’s final private owners, the mansion at 1927 Dandridge Ave. (originally numbered 1691) in the Morningside neighborhood was designed and built in 1912 by James H. and Alice Saxton Cowan. Cowan was the great-grandson of Knoxville founder James White, and the Cowan family was among the earliest settlers of the city.
The house went up for sale in 1945 after Cowan’s death. Described as an “aristocratic English type home,” it had fireplaces upstairs and down, a master bedroom and three other bedrooms, a den or sewing room, a concrete basement with a steam furnace and a spacious laundry room, and views of the Smoky Mountains to the south and the Cumberland Mountains to the north.
Neighborhood residents, including the Cowans, mostly were white people, though not exclusively. When Dr. Edgar F. Lennon, a prominent Black physician, and his wife, Helen Mae, a nurse, bought the house in 1946, it quickly became clear that the majority of the neighborhood did not want to welcome them.
Because the doctor wasn’t given privileges at Knoxville General Hospital due to his skin color, the couple opened the Helen Mae Lennon Hospital and nurse training center on East Clinch Avenue in 1923, and operated it until its closing in 1933. They were a respected and esteemed couple.
Yet, after purchasing the home on Dandridge Avenue, even before moving in, Lennon received threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan. On the night of May 25, 1947, a group of Klansmen gathered in the front yard, erected a 12-foot-tall cross and set it ablaze. Helen Mae Lennon telephoned the police to request help three times, but they ignored her. Only after sticks of dynamite planted under the cross exploded, shaking the neighborhood and setting a tree in the Lennons’ yard on fire, did police and a fire crew respond.
A KKK member later confessed to the crime and named several co-conspirators, but they were never indicted. Afterward, the Lennons were left in apparent peace.
James Garfield and Ethel Benson Beck bought the house and, after extensive renovations, moved in in 1968.
James Beck, born Nov. 22, 1881, in Alabama, moved to Knoxville in 1898 to pursue further education, first at the Normal School (class of 1902) and then at Knoxville College (1906).
At KC, he was an orator and enjoyed debates, wrote for the school newspaper and pitched for the college baseball team. He became proficient in foreign languages, especially Greek and Latin, and earned an A.B. in political science and history.
He taught briefly in Kentucky before returning to Knoxville as an administrator and teacher. He taught English and coached football at Austin High School before resigning to take a position with the post office in 1912. He became Knoxville’s first Black postal clerk.
On June 9, 1913, he married Ethel Benson in Hamblen County. The couple loved tennis and traveling, advocating for the Black community and making life better for children. She devoted her time to the Knoxville Colored Orphanage, and he spent his free time assisting her.
Beck was an integral figure in the community, helping to launch the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), serving as an officer in the National Alliance of Postal Workers, managing the Knoxville College baseball team, umpiring Negro League Baseball games, promoting the East Tennessee Colored League sponsored by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, organizing many theater and music events, and teaching Bible classes and serving the Presbyterian Church in several capacities. Along the way, he and his wife became extremely wealthy thanks to their work in real estate.
Beck was the first person elected to the Knoxville College Hall of Fame (in 1963). He was also a lifelong Republican and served as sergeant-at-arms at the 1940 National Convention. He ran for city council in 1951 but did not win. He died Feb. 9, 1969, at 87.
Ethel Benson Beck was born in 1896 in Morristown, where she grew up and graduated from Morristown College. It’s speculated that she met James Beck at a baseball game in Morristown. She was also an avid tennis player and won several competitions, holding the title of City Negro Net Tennis champion back to back in 1928-29. She competed on a national level as well.
She was involved in high social circles and philanthropic work. She was a Grand Matron of the Tennessee Order of the Eastern Star for eight years (a chapter of the lodge in Gallatin was named in her honor). She was very active in the Tennessee State Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers and the East Tennessee Association of Teachers in Colored Schools.
The Becks had no children of their own, but children were close to Ethel’s heart. In 1919, she helped establish the Knoxville Colored Orphanage at 1835 Brandau Drive. It was lauded as the “first home of its character” in Tennessee. Financing came from white and Black supporters, churches and the Community Chest. When Ethel Beck became chair of the board in the late 1930s, she paid off all of the orphanage’s debt and renovated the facility.
In 1941, it was renamed the Ethel Beck Home for Children and operated as such until its closing in the 1950s. The $20,000 remaining in the orphanage’s bank account later was used to help create the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Ethel Beck died in 1970 after suffering a medical emergency following an unsettling encounter with a police officer.
During Knoxville’s era of urban renewal, the Morningside neighborhood was where many Black families who lived closer to downtown were relocated. The Beck home was used as a project site office and a place for the community to voice their comments on the changes going on around them. A committee was formed Nov. 2, 1974, to initiate the creation of a cultural center to preserve the Black history of the area, and on Jan. 21, 1975, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center was chartered and incorporated. The Beck property was purchased May 15, 1975, and the grand opening was held Sept. 21, 1975.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys spotlighting Downtown, South and East Knoxville.