The main faces of the Knoxville History Project (KHP), Jack Neely and Paul James, were on hand at the East Tennessee Historical Society on Wednesday to discuss their recent headline, “Downtown Knoxville.” Published by Arcadia Publishing, the book is one of the latest in a long-established series known as “Pictures of America.”
More than 50 Knoxville citizens attended the event and another 133 watched live on Facebook. Many were members of the East Tennessee Historical Society, coming to support two of Knoxville’s most dynamic historians who had previously contributed to books such as “Historic Knoxville: The Curious Visitor’s Guide” and “Knoxville Lives.”
Their latest book explores the history of downtown Knoxville, as well as segments of the UT campus, through the lens of vintage photographs and drawings. These images come from museums, galleries and personal collections throughout the East Tennessee region, many of which have never before been seen by the public.
“There seemed to be a demand for that too,” Neely said. “Every day I walk here and I see people having their pictures taken by the Tennessee Theater sign and looking around Market Square and saying, ‘What is this? Why is it here? And I thought this little book would answer some of those questions.
Among those 180 photographs are the oldest known of Blount Mansion, dating from 1880, a lithograph of downtown Knoxville in the 1850s, and a photo of a grand parade held by UT on Main Street in 1904. James and Neely wrote comments and ideas next to each. image so that readers can better understand the city center.
According to Neely, the majority of these photos are from the “Knoxville Shoebox” program, set up by the KHP in 2018. This online collection of digitized photographs, illustrations, maps, postcards and brochures has been accumulated to various households in East Tennessee, and proved essential in the collection of exhibits for the book.
In 2014, the KHP itself was founded as a non-profit educational organization with the aim of preserving the city’s heritage and history. Neely, who is a UT alumnus and founder of KHP, previously wrote a column with a similar goal for 22 years in the now-defunct Metro Pulse newspaper known as “Secret History.” Now, the KHP works with the East Tennessee Historical Society and other organizations to ensure the citizens of Knoxville stay informed about their past.
Later James, who is Director of Publishing and Development, joined Neely in his passion for preserving, promoting and interpreting Knoxville’s rich history. Prior to working with KHP, James was Executive Director of the local Ijams Nature Center for 12 years. He wrote and published a book about the Ijams family for Arcadia’s “Images of America” series in 2010, titled “Ijams Nature Center.”
James encourages curious readers to research their own sources. Many of the stories told in “Downtown Knoxville” can be found in Knoxville’s online newspaper archives, and are fascinating accounts of history as it unfolded.
“We make books because no one has ever made them,” James said. “There are stories to tell. That’s why we did this.