Vivian Underwood Shipe: voice of the voiceless 

Betty BeanFeature, Inside 640

Today is winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Tonight, Vivian Shipe will attend a memorial service dedicated to the memory of the 33 homeless people who died on Knoxville’s streets in 2017. She fears the 2018 number will be greater.


“We’re going to be calling out the names. And if we do not provide some kind of housing, when we have that memorial service in December 2019, that number’s going to go up.”

Shipe, who retired from a 31-year career with the post office earlier this year, hasn’t stopped to catch a breath, except for taking a few weeks off to have knee surgery.

She’s an active member of the new East Knox Lions Club and serves on the board of the East Tennessee Eye Bank. She’s in her fourth year as a member of the League of Women Voters board of directors and has served as a liaison to the state. She’s on the CAC executive board and is focusing on elder abuse. After working for years to help get the behavioral health center open, she’s looking at ways to prod the state to open a similar diversion program for mentally ill offenders.

But her major focus is affordable housing. Early this fall, she and City Council member Seema Singh-Perez starting having a series of “quiet conversations” on that topic around the city. They worked hard and learned a lot.

“We found that foster children are aging out of the system and being given a bag of clothes and let out in front of KARM (Knox Area Rescue Ministries),” Shipe said. “We looked at the number of people getting out of jail who can’t find housing, and we found out that the elderly are needing housing – families are needing wraparound services. We’ve got a generation taking care of another generation, and 53 percent of the city’s population are renters.”

She’s gearing up to help her pastors, Evans and Ashley Kariuke of Eternal Life Harvest Center, prepare to open warming centers for the homeless, and she’s already thinking about the song list she’ll use when the temperatures plunge in January. She figures she’ll lean on the old favorites she learned while growing up in East Knoxville, where she had plenty of role models.

Her father, George Taylor Underwood Sr., was one of the first blacks hired by the post office here. A veteran of World War II and Korea, he first worked for the post office as a janitor; then he moved up to mail handler and then to letter carrier. He was eventually elected president of the union.

Shipe, who followed in his footsteps and was active in the union for 25 years, said memories of her father have spurred her on.

“He’d come down the stairs in his Sunday suit and shiny shoes, briefcase in his hand. I’d know he had a case. So here I am, doing the same thing.”

She also remembers him struggling to get his work boots on in the years before he died of pulmonary edema.

Her grandmother, Louise Underwood, worked as a maid for the family of Home Federal President Bill Walkup for 45 years. She was also a Sunday school teacher who had memorized most of the Bible (out of necessity because she had such poor vision).

“I’ve met more people my grandmother raised,” Shipe said. “They called her Mother Underwood.”

Her mother’s parents hailed from Claiborne County. Her grandfather Clarence Herrell was a coal miner who spent more than 40 years underground. Her grandmother Charity Yeary was a Cherokee Indian and stood nearly 6 feet tall, towering over her grandfather, who was extremely short. Shipe’s brother is attorney George Underwood.

She is a 1973 graduate of Austin-East High School, where she was salutatorian and class president – “Class of ’73 – baddest class there’ll ever be.” She’s a little rueful about missing out on finishing in the top spot.

“Missed it by a 10th of a point,” she said. “Deborah Duncan and I were neck and neck.”

She’s looking forward to this summer’s 150th anniversary reunion of Austin and Austin-East graduates (she’s on the planning committee, of course). There will be a long list of activities, and a crowd of 1,500 is expected.

She’s extremely proud of her class, which staged a walkout when they were given old books for their studies.

“We got the leftovers from the rest of the city. We demanded some black teachers. My mother got in a Yellow Cab and got me back in school. That’s how we got Mr. Jimmy Thacker (as principal). He would have closed-door sessions – come-to-Jesus meetings. Started the first A-E singers. Created pride that we are A-E.”

Thacker went on to become a well-regarded administrator with Knox County Schools.

Shipe attended the University of Tennessee for two years before she married James Shipe and had three children: James Shipe Jr., Jacob Martin Shipe and Madonna Shipe Murphy.

She went into labor with Madonna the day she was sworn into her job at the post office. When Madonna started school, she came home complaining about her name.

“She said some of the kids were saying she was named after that girl singer. I told her to tell them that she was named after Madonna, the mother of Jesus.”

After her children were older, Shipe went back to school and got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Tusculum University and is working on a doctorate from Grand Canyon University – all while working full-time at the post office and serving as a union steward. Today, she coordinates her daily activities from an office at Connect Ministries on Magnolia Avenue.

So when does she rest? Does she ever stop to catch a breath?

“You rest when you die,” she said. “That’ll be plenty of time to rest.”

And that’s why Vivian Underwood Shipe is my 2018 Knoxvillian of the Year.

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