Category Archives: Tennessee History

A Tennessee Historical spat

Madison County historian Linda J. Higgins was involved in a “verbal altercation” with Loni Harris, wife of Madison County Mayor Jimmy Harris, at Friday’s Tennessee Historical Commission at the University of Memphis-Lambuth, according to the Jackson Sun. The mayor got involved as well and Higgins was escorted out of the meeting by a University of Memphis police officer, says a police report.

According to the report, Higgins, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam to the historical commission in 2014, was causing a “disruptive scene, arguing and waving her hands in Ms. Harris’ face.” An officer was called over, intervened and ultimately walked Higgins out of the building before the meeting began.

The argument… was over the 101 Great Things to Do special section of The Jackson Sun. …Higgins wanted to pass out copies of the section to the commission members, but when she arrived at the meeting the papers were already laid out.

An argument ensued. Higgins said both she and Loni Harris were raising their voices and that Loni denied knowing that Higgins wanted to pass out the papers beforehand. During the escalating argument, Higgins said, Jimmy Harris stepped in and grabbed her arm.

“At that time [Jimmy] moved in between me and her with his back to her and facing me,” Higgins said. “I’m assuming that I had my hand up over his head trying to get her attention to say, ‘You did know what I was talking about,’ and that’s when he grabbed my arm. He must’ve thought I was going to hit her.”

Jimmy Harris denied that he grabbed Higgins’ arm, but said he moved it out of the way.

“I didn’t grab her arm, but I did push her finger down because she was wagging it front of my wife’s face, and I thought [Higgins] was going to hit her.”

Loni Harris did not answer questions from The Jackson Sun, but did email a written statement.

“After several slurs and continual screaming at members of the Tennessee Historical Commission and myself, Mrs. Higgins lunged at me with what I perceived as intent of bodily harm,” Loni said. “My husband deflected her hand from hitting my face. I then asked a University of Memphis Police officer to remove her from the building. I am truly sorry for the public embarrassment and humiliation brought to Madison County by Mrs. Higgins’ actions.”

…The police report states, “Officer Skinner stepped between Ms. Higgins and Ms. Harris to separate them and was struck by Ms. Higgins as she waved her hands. Officer Skinner felt the strike was unintentional and ordered Ms. Higgins to cease her actions.”

Higgins said she did not strike the officer and she doesn’t think she told Skinner to shut up, but said she did question who he was at first.

Higgins told The Jackson Sun that Skinner escorted her out of the building roughly… “My being taken from the meeting was an illegal act, I think,” she said. “I had done nothing to have been removed.”

On the Cordell Hull building’s $100M remake for legislators

Excerpt from a WPLN report on renovation of the Cordell Hull building, which will become home for the Tennessee General Assembly next year.

The Cordell Hull Building rises nine stories and stretches about the length of a city block.

Built in a simplistic style popular in the early 1950s, it might not look like much. But its limestone exterior gives it a stolid feel, and inside there are rose-colored marble finishes quarried right here in Tennessee

“So I think it’s kind of exciting that it might have a use where the public gets to go in it more often and really appreciate it’s beauty — the interior beauty of the building,” (the Metro Historical Commission’s Tim) Walker says.

An architectural gem — that’s how state officials and preservationists talk about the Cordell Hull Office Building.

Four years ago, the office block next to the state Capitol was slated for the wrecking ball. Now, Tennessee is spending $100 million dollars to save it.

Renovation work on the Cordell Hull began last month and is expected to take until the fall of 2017 to complete. When it’s finished, it’ll become offices for state lawmakers, who plan to abandon their longtime home in Legislative Plaza.

It’ll thrust into the public eye a structure that up to now has really only been seen by government workers.

Many in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration were ready to see it torn down four years ago.

But now… It’s a grand old building,” says John Hull, the head of the state of Tennessee’s real estate management operation. (He’s no relation to the building’s namesake.) “We think it’s a value, actually, to renovate this old building and keep its character the way it is.”

Hull says people familiar with the Cordell Hull will recognize the building after it’s renovated. Although it’s being stripped to the plumbing and retrofitted with legislative offices, its signature traits — like its marbles — will be left in place.

But some changes will be made.

A tunnel will connect the Cordell Hull to the base of the Capitol. The state says it’ll provide access for people with disabilities. The building will also be expanded with the addition of ground-floor hearing rooms. Conceived as a workspace for state workers, the Cordell Hull building had no meeting spaces large enough for a legislative committee.

After dispute, Memphis massacre marker now in place

By Adrian Sainz, Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The simple marker tells the story of one of the darkest episodes in this city’s history, the three-day run of violence known as the Memphis massacre.

“On May 1, 2 and 3, 1866, mobs of white men led by law enforcement attacked black people,” reads the placard, placed during a ceremony this month in a tree-lined park just steps from where the violence started. “By the end of the attack, the mobs had killed an estimated 46 black people; raped several black women; and committed numerous robberies, assaults and arsons.”

The marker represents a significant step for a city and state that haven’t been eager to come to terms with their history of race relations, but it went up amid disagreement with state officials over whether what happened was a race riot or simply the wholesale slaughter of innocent people.

The city’s four black churches and 12 black schools — along with dozens of other buildings — were burned in the massacre, according to a congressional committee that took testimony in the days after the event from about 170 witnesses, many of them black victims.

Historians say that while no one was prosecuted, the massacre caused the nation to reconsider Reconstruction policies and helped lead to the passage of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including freed slaves.

The marker was erected at Army-Navy Park on May 1 by the National Park Service and the NAACP, which sidestepped sponsorship by the Tennessee Historical Commission over the wording dispute. Continue reading

TN Supreme Court building marked as historic place

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A new marker inside the doors of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Nashville celebrates the building’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

When it was completed in 1937, it marked the first time state’s highest court had its own building. The structure was funded through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration.

Today the building is used by the Supreme Court, the intermediate courts of criminal and civil appeals and a museum to state court history.

The building is designed in the stripped classicism style that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Architectural features include Doric capitals, a cornice embellished with classical images, multi-pane windows, marble interiors and historic lighting fixtures.

The building was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Senate votes to place James K. Polk home in national park system

From Michael Collins:
On the same day the U.S. Treasury announced that Andrew Jackson’s image would be removed from the front of the $20 bill, Congress moved a step closer toward declaring James K. Polk’s Tennessee childhood home a national treasure.

A bill that passed the U.S. Senate last Wednesday contains a provision directing the Interior Secretary to study the feasibility of preserving the 11th president’s home in Columbia, just southwest of Nashville, as part of the national park system.

The two-story, brick structure, built in 1816 by Polk’s father while the future president was attending the University of North Carolina, is where Polk returned after graduation and where he began his legal and political career. The house contains more than 1,300 objects and original items from Polk’s years in Tennessee and Washington, including furniture, White House artifacts and political memorabilia.

Getting the house added to the national park system not only would make sense from a historical perspective, said U.S. Sen Lamar Alexander, a Maryville Republican.

It also would bring Polk’s legacy full circle. His last act as president was to sign the legislation that created the Interior Department, the agency that includes the National Park Service.

“Tennessee is full of history, and the presidency of James K. Polk is one of our state’s great contributions to our nation’s history,” Alexander said. “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the presidential home of the president who created the Department of Interior, the home of the National Park Service, to be managed by the National Park Service? I sure think so.”

Some TN congressmen unhappy with Jackson on back of $20 bill

Many Tennesseans — including congressmen — saw the decision to move Andrew Jackson’s portrait to the back of the $20 bill and put Harriett Tubman’s likeness on front as an attack on the historical contributions of the nation’s seventh president, reports Michael Collins.

“Dismayed and disappointed would be two words we would use to describe the decision,” said Howard J. Kittell, president and CEO of the Andrew Jackson Foundation in Nashville.

Kittell and other Tennesseans say it’s unfair to judge Jackson’s actions on slavery and Indian removal in the early 1800s through the lens of the 21st century.

Although it’s hard for us to imagine today, Jackson’s positions on those issues and others “fell within the mainstream of American thinking” at the time, Kittell said, and it’s important to evaluate him in that context.

…”Andrew Jackson was a great Tennessean and American, and I am extremely disappointed that this announcement appears to be as much an attack on his legacy as it is a celebration of Harriet Tubman,” said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City.

Jackson and Tubman should both be celebrated for their historical significance, Roe said.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, called Jackson “a patriot” and said the decision to move him to the back of the bill “unnecessary”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Chattanooga, said he supports finding new ways to pay tribute “to the many deserving women throughout American history.”

But, “I would hope we could do so without diminishing the legacy of others,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburgh, also criticized the decision. Tubman was an American heroine who deserves the highest recognition, DesJarlais said, but not at the expense of distorting Jackson’s place in history.

“Jackson was a Tennessean through and through — a colorful character, a military hero, and most importantly, a man who believed in paying off our debts,” DesJarlais said. “In fact, he was the last president to pay off our national debt in 1835. Rather than push him off the face of the $20, Washington should rededicate itself to adhering to his financial policies.”

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, said while he respects and admires Tubman, “Andrew Jackson was a more significant figure in the history of this country.”

Duncan suggested he might have a solution to the Jackson vs. Tubman quandary.

“When the next administration comes in,” he said, “I hope we can convince the next treasurer to print an equal number of $20 bills with both Jackson and Tubman.”

Andrew Jackson’s $20 demotion disappoints keepers of his home

The keepers of President Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, the Hermitage, were understandably disappointed when the U.S. Treasury Department announced Wednesday that a picture of the president from Tennessee would moved to the back of the $20 bill, reports WPLN.

Hermitage CEO Howard Kittell had hoped that the former president, known for his feistiness, might just be one of several figures who would rotate on the face of the twenty.

“I think initially we were kind of devastated about it,” he says. “But at this point saying we march on, saying there are a lot of presidents who aren’t on currency.”

Even in his time, Jackson was a controversial figure. His popularity has had ups and downs over the centuries. Kittell says this is a low point. And he says the debate about the $20 bill has focused primarily on the negative side of his life.

“What frustrates me about this is the way Jackson has been portrayed in the public’s mind,” he says. “What you see continually is that he was a slave owner and that he engineered the Indian Removal Act … but it doesn’t put either of those in the broader context of the time.”

Jackson’s demotion makes way for abolitionist Harriet Tubman, which was a response to calls for more diversity on U.S. currency.

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander says it’s not Jackson versus Tubman, calling them both “heroes of a nation’s work in progress toward great goals.”

…Kittell says Jackson’s history will be told the same way it is now.

“No one has ever been ambivalent about Jackson. He always generated a certain amount of heat,” Kittell says. “But he isn’t any less important and we’re not going to back away from telling the story of his life.”

Still, there may be a new project on the horizon: collecting some of the old bills with Jackson’s face on the front before they’re no longer in circulation.

Legislature raises fees for county audits, sets up historic preservation funds

Legislation raising fees that counties pay for audits by the comptroller’s office and diverting new revenue from the state’s real estate transfer tax to historic preservation funds has won almost unanimous approval by the Legislature.

State law requires annual audits of county governments and In 89 of the state’s 95 counties, the comptroller does the auditing. Under current law, those counties pay a fee based on population — 30 cents per resident.

Under SB2654, the fee will be increase to 36 cents per resident starting next year with the comptroller granted authority to raise the cost another 3 cents per resident in each of the following years. The Republican sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin, said the extra money is needed to cover increased costs — and if the future increases are not necessary, they won’t be implemented.

The Fiscal Review Committee estimated the cost to the counties would be about $230,000 next year. Six of the state’s most populous counties, including Knox, hired their own auditors and do not rely on the comptroller.

Another provision of the bill creates two new uses for money collected from the state’s real estate transfer tax —— purchase of Civil War sites and purchase of historic properties. The Fiscal Review staff estimates that the two funds will split about $1 million next year as a result of the bill’s enactment.

Currently, funds from the tax are earmarked for four other funds — one for wetlands acquisition, one for state park land acquisition, one for local park acquisition and the Agricultural Resources Conservation Fund. Under the bill, those accounts will be frozen at their current levels of annual funding and all growth money will go to the new funds.

The bill passed the Senate 31-1 and was approved 92-1 in the House. The no votes came from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.

Congress moving to return 76 acres of TN land to Cherokees

A congressional bill seeking to return 76 acres of tribal land along the Little Tennessee River to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is making its way through a U.S. House subcommittee, reports the Times-Free Press.

Since its introduction on Sept. 24, House Bill 3599, called the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, was referred first to the House Committee on Natural Resources, then in October was referred to the subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, according to congressional records.

That subcommittee held early hearings on the bill that seeks to place the land in trust status on Feb. 24, according to bill sponsor U.S. House Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. The bill was “received well” in committee, and state officials and TVA “do not oppose the bill,” according to Fleischmann, who noted the bill also contains an anti-gaming provision.

“The only potential changes are minor and technical in nature,” Fleischmann spokeswoman Maria Dill said. “We aren’t sure about the timing of a markup [revisions] yet.”

If passed, the land of two former Cherokee capitals on the Little Tennessee River that was flooded when the Tellico Dam was built almost 40 years ago would be returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for the establishment of museums, memorials and interpretive trails. The “reacquisition of land” is part of an agreement between the Cherokee and TVA that allowed the federal utility to use some of the Cherokee land with the promise it would be returned someday.

The House bill represents that “someday.”

Groundbreaking ceremony held for new TN State Museum

News release from Tennessee State Museum

NASHVILLE April 6, 2016 — Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, Rep. Steve McDaniel, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, Lois Riggins-Ezzell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum, and Jon Meacham, Pulitzer prize winner and New York Times bestselling author, were on hand today to break ground on the new Tennessee State Museum.

The project represents a bold vision – part museum, part virtual reality and part time machine.

“What we’re planning to accomplish with a new state museum is a 100-year project — in terms of both quality and stature, and I want to thank the General Assembly for its partnership and commitment to make this investment,” Haslam said. “We’re taking an innovative, hybrid approach to the museum’s design that will be an extraordinary experience and will complement the other cultural and entertainment opportunities Tennessee has to offer.

“Tennessee’s history has played an important part in our country’s history, and we have a really interesting and dynamic story to tell.” Continue reading