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  Learn more about Black History in the City
  Check here for information on City government and departments, noted Knoxvillians, political engagements, Beck Cultural Center and other history links related to Black History in Knoxville.
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MLK, Jr. Commemoration Set for January 12, 2022 through June 19, 2022

MLK quote
The MLK Commemorative Commission will observe the 40th Annual King Week Celebration starting January 12, 2022. The 2022 theme, "Forty Years of Not Turning Around; Continuing the Journey for Justice and Equality", is attributed to the Dream and the Dreamer who affirmed, "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. And Justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love."
View Commemorative Events

Knoxville Poet Nikki Giovanni was Keynote Speaker for Virtual King Day with Northwest African American Museum

The Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, WA hosted a hybrid King Day 2022 on January 17, 2022, with a virtual afternoon program called "The Poetics of Infinite Hope," featuring Knoxville poet Nikki Giovanni as the keynote speaker. More about the program available at naamnw.org Watch the video below.

New E-Resource for Black History Research

Knox County Public LibraryThe African American Historical Series Collection is now available through the Knox County Library.

The database contains a full text archive of periodicals that document the history of African American religious life and culture between 1829 and 1922. Primary sources include newspapers and magazines, plus reports and annuals from African American religious organizations, including churches and social service agencies. Find the collection in Historical Newspapers. You will need a Knox County Library account to search the series.

The EBSCO’s Historical Digital Archive Viewer replicates the experience of browsing and reading original archive material and enhances it with keyword search, note-taking tools, and other useful features.

African American Historical Series Collection is the product of more than ten years of organizing and collecting fragmentary, widely-dispersed, and endangered materials. The collection documents much of the rich history of African American life and religious organizations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Zion Church, and many Baptist churches.
View the Collection

History of Knoxville Urban Renewal with the Willow St. Project (The Bottom)

Video from the Beck Cultural Center describing Urban Renewal in Knoxville. The video focuses on the Willow Street Project (The Bottom) and the site of the newly proposed stadium for the Smokies baseball team.

Charles Cansler: Knoxville's First African American Author to Receive National Attention for a Book Exploring His African American Roots

Charles Warner CanslerMay 2021 marked the sesquicentennial birthday of a Knoxville African American educator and author named Charles Cansler.

Cansler was born on May 15, 1871 (a day prior to what would one day become National Biographer’s Day). He would be memorable just as a teacher. He was the longtime principal of old Austin High, Knoxville's high school for Black students. He led the establishment of Knoxville's Carnegie Library, the city's only library for African Americans, in 1917. 

And he has a footnote in art history.

One of his students at Austin High, about the same time he was working on the public-library project, was an especially talented teenager named Beauford Delaney, who within 20 years was drawing national praise for his colorfully imaginative works on canvas, in a career that would take him from New York to Paris. One of Delaney's first known works was a becoming portrait of his principal, Charles Cansler. Its whereabouts are unknown. 
Read More at VisitKnoxville.com

Poetry Reading by Nikki Giovanni for Black History Month

Poet and university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech Nikki Giovanni delivers a poetry reading for the New York Times.

Exhibit Explores 'Black & White' Knoxville History

During the past 12 months, an exhibit titled “Black & White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era” has been on display at the Museum of East Tennessee History. It closes Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021 on the last day of the month, the final day of Black History Month. 

But it could easily be a permanent exhibit in our city, so intrinsic are its narratives to Knoxville's history -- and ones not often told. 

One of our favorite parts of the exhibit was the inclusion of Moses Smith, who became the City’s first permanent Black policeman in 1882. 
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Local Business Owner Horace Andrews: ‘You Have to be Ready to Compete’

Andrews Bucket TruckDecades before he owned Andrews Electric Services, Horace Andrews got started in the electricity business at the ground level – literally.

He was 12 years old, and his Uncle David, the founder of the company, would hire him for jobs that didn’t involve electricity but did require a small nimble body. So Horace would get dirty working in crawl spaces and other tight quarters. “My work ethic was set early on,” Horace Andrews says. “My uncle would pick me up at 6 a.m., and he’d be sweating because he’d been working already.”

David Andrews started the company about 35 years ago – “one man and a truck,” Horace says. David had learned his trade in the Air Force, and he worked at Y-12 while he got his company up and running.
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KAT Permanent Exhibit Displays History of City's Urban Renewal

KAT HistoryIn December 2020, Knoxville City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for making amends for decades of urban renewal which displaced and harmed the City’s Black communities.

As described by the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “the city, largely through eminent domain, systematically tore down entire blocks of homes, churches and businesses in Black neighborhoods in the 1950s through 1970s for projects like the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum and construction of new routes like James White Parkway and Interstate 40, among others.”

According to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, urban renewal displaced more than 2,500 families, more than 70% of whom were Black. Knoxville Station Transit Center rests on land that experienced urban renewal.
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Former Black-owned Motel Will Get New Life as Supportive Housing

Dogan-Gaither Motor Court A former Black-owned motel that provided lodging for Black travelers in Knoxville during the segregation era will soon provide much-needed permanent supportive housing for men with prison records. The building with the double butterfly roof at 211 Jessamine, between Jackson and Magnolia avenues, was built in 1963 as the Dogan-Gaither Motor Court. During the 1960s, it was one of very few places that Black travelers to East Tennessee could find lodging during a time when a majority of area motels refused to serve Black customers. The building’s new incarnation will be as Dogan-Gaither Flats, 16 one-bedroom units of supportive housing owned by 4th Purpose Foundation, a Knoxville-based criminal justice reform philanthropy, and managed by Men of Valor, a nonprofit focused on reducing recidivism among ex-offenders through “encouragement, support, accountability, and training.”
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MLK, Jr. Commemoration Set for January 13, 2021 through June 19, 2021

MLK Jr. The MLK Commemorative Commission will observe the 39th Annual King Week Celebration starting January 13, 2021. The 2021 theme, A Legacy of Righteous Purpose: Social Justice and racial Equality - A Must Reality, is attributed to the Dream and the Dreamer who affirmed, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars".
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City Council Passes Resolution Asking to Exonerate Maurice Franklin Mays

Maurice Mays
Maurice Mays was executed in 1922 at the Nashville State Penitentiary for killing a white woman in Knoxville, however, experts and court documents show there was no evidence that he had committed the crime. 

101 years later, Knoxville City Council recognized that injustice by unanimously passing a resolution asking Governor Bill Lee to exonerate Mays.

The resolution passed unanimously and all Council members wanted their names as a co-sponsor of the resolution.
Read More  |  Watch WBIR Video

Rejuvenated Cal Johnson Building Pays Tribute to African-American Innovator and Pioneer

Cal Johnson Bldg
There are places around Knoxville that hint of the fascinating legacy of one of Knoxville's most notable sons: Caldonia Fackler Johnson, who was born a slave in 1844 and by sheer willpower raised himself up to become the City's first African-American millionaire. There's a plaque at Marble Alley Lofts that marks the approximate location of his final home. A City recreation center on Hall of Fame Drive bears his name; Johnson had financially supported the park at the site that served African-American families. The oval-shaped roadway in Burlington, Speedway Circle, was once a Cal Johnson racetrack. But no place evokes the spirit and drive that defined Johnson so much as the three-story 14,848-square-foot Cal Johnson Building at 301 State Street, the warehouse he constructed in 1898 in the Vernacular Commercial style.
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Black History Month: KMA Exhibit Salutes Delaney's Pioneering Work

Beauford Delaney art
Knoxville native Beauford Delaney is revered internationally for his work as a 20th century artist. He is best known for his modernist style of painting, which often featured scenes of New York streets and jazz clubs and well-known African-American figures. He has often been referred to as one of the most important African-American artists of the mid-20th century. Yet despite his immense artistic contributions and recognition of his work in Paris, Delaney is often underappreciated in his hometown.
Read More  |  Watch Video

Knoxville's MLK Commission Plans Events for King Week

MLK Commission Week
For the 38th year, Knoxville’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Commission presents its annual King Week Celebration, which includes several opportunities to contemplate the life and legacy of the civil rights leader. This year’s theme – “Let Freedom Ring: Through Social Justice, Economic Empowerment, Love, Peace and Unity” – will echo through the week’s events and is reflected in the works on display through Jan. 31 in the MLK Gallery of Arts Tribute exhibit at the Arts and Culture Alliance at The Emporium, 100 S. Gay St. 
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Poet Nikki Giovanni Unveils Historic Marker

Nikki Giovanni unveiling historical marker
A big crowd warmly greeted acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni back home to Knoxville on May 23, 2019.

The Knoxville-born writer, educator and activist read poetry and told stories to those who came Thursday to the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, 507 Hall of Fame Drive, for the unveiling of a historic marker honoring Giovanni and reminding passersby that near here once stood her grandparents' home.

"Nikki Giovanni is our native daughter, and we’re proud of her powerful writing voice and all she’s accomplished as a visionary poet, activist and educator," Mayor Madeline Rogero said. "She represents the best of Knoxville."
Read More | View Photo Gallery | Watch Video

The Travelers' Green Book

Travelers' Green Book
The "Green Book," a travel guide created for African Americans from the 1930s through to 1960s, was brought to the notice of many people this year through a movie by the same name that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center has used a photocopy of the 1956 Green Book as a teaching tool for many years. The Green Book illustrates the realities for African Americans traveling in the South during a time when Jim Crow laws allowed businesses to discriminate against people of color, determining where they could stay and eat in America. The actual title of the book was the “Negro Motorist (later Travelers') Green Book,” and it was published from 1936 to 1966.
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Bob Booker Recalls Entertainment Venues in Segregated Knoxville

Gem Theatre photo from Thompson Photo Collection
To say that Robert J. “Bob” Booker is busy in February is an understatement. The author, historian, Knoxville College graduate, military veteran, former state legislator and co-founder of the Beck Cultural Center is a priceless resource for stories and details of Knoxville history, especially the history of the African-American residents who have shaped our city. It stands to reason that his calendar is booked solid during Black History Month with interviews, speaking engagements, and book signings—all on top of the deadlines for his regular columns published in the News Sentinel.
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Listen to Bob Booker Talk About Live Music at Chilhowee Park

Historian Robert J. "Bob" Booker spoke to City of Knoxville communications staff about seeing live music at the Jacob Building at Chilhowee Park, when audiences were racially segregated.

Listen to Bob Booker Talk About Seeing Movies in Segregated Knoxville

Historian Robert J. "Bob" Booker spoke to City of Knoxville communications staff about going to the Bijou Theatre as a boy to see a movie with his white friends and using different entrances.

Restoration of Odd Fellows Cemetery Continues with City Support

Odd Fellows Cemetery
It had become a field of weeds and destroyed tombstones. Odd Fellows Cemetery, one of Knoxville’s first African-American cemeteries, was neglected and overgrown.

In 2009, a community restoration effort began with the University of Tennessee School of Architecture, the volunteer-based Knoxville ReAnimation Coalition and the City of Knoxville. 

Established by various civic groups in the early 1880s, Odd Fellows serves as the resting place for some of the city's most prominent early black residents, including Cal Johnson, Knoxville's first black millionaire. The work of restoring and preserving the cemetery’s history continues today on the property, which is located on Bethel Avenue and adjoins Walter Hardy Park off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. 
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City Continues to Help Preserve Cal Johnson's Legacy

Cal Johnson Park Entrance
The City of Knoxville has long been involved in preserving the legacy of one of its most notable sons: Caldonia Fackler Johnson. 

Born into slavery in a room at the Farragut Hotel in 1844, and freed at the age of 21, this pioneering African-American entrepreneur became Knoxville’s first black millionaire, a business owner, civic leader and philanthropist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He died in 1925. 

"Cal Johnson was completely self-made," Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said in 2017, when a privately-funded plaque honoring Johnson was unveiled at Marble Alley Lofts, across State Street from the Cal Johnson Building. "You can't read his history and not be impressed by his relentless drive. Nor can you name anyone who came so far after starting with so little."
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Booker Honored by Knoxville History Project 

Bob Booker
The Knoxville History Project honored Robert J. Booker on April 17, 2018 for his significant contributions to recording and preserving the history and culture of Knoxville. 

Booker grew up in the “Bottom” area of East Knoxville, and graduated from Austin High School in 1953. Following a three year stint in the U.S. Army, stationed in France and England, Booker returned to his hometown to study at Knoxville College on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1962 with a B.S. in Education. At Knoxville College, as a two-term president of the student body, Booker became involved in Knoxville’s Civil Rights movement, organizing sit-ins to advance desegregation.

In 1966 he was elected as Knoxville’s first black Tennessee State Representative. In the 1970’s he served as administrative assistant to Mayor Kyle Testerman, and on the Tennessee Civil Service Commission. Later he served on Knoxville City Council. For 11 years, he was the executive director for the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. 
Read More  |  Listen to Q&A with KHP's Jack Neely [MP3]

New Mural at Beck Cultural Exchange Center Promotes Local Heritage

Mural at Beck Center
The Beck Cultural Exchange Center, a non-profit museum that preserves African-American history of the region, unveiled an art piece in February 2018 that celebrates the roots and lineage of local African-Americans. "At Beck, we are dedicated to the rich legacy of great people, places, and artifacts that make up this beautiful region of our country,” said Renee Kesler, President of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. “This art piece is an example of our generational roots and our continuing family heritage, including photos of local families involved in the entire community.”
Read More  |  Learn about the Beck Cultural Exchange Center

KAT's 1st African-American Female Driver Had Something to Prove

Geraldetta Dozier
Geraldetta Dozier was walking home one day when she happened to look up as a bus topped the hill on Harriet Tubman Street. To her surprise, a woman was driving. "I said, 'Wow,' and I walked right over to the bus offices, which at that time were at Jessamine Street and Fifth Avenue," Dozier said. "I was a student, living in the projects, a single mother raising my baby. I needed to make some money. "I thought: If she can do it, so can I."

Dozier, now 68, made good on her impulsive career choice. She earned her chauffeur's license (now, a Commercial Driver's License), and in May 1976 was hired as the City's first female African-American bus operator in Knoxville.

Dozier came on board and drove for Knoxville Area Transit during a pivotal time in the transit service's history. Just a decade earlier, the City of Knoxville had gotten itself into the transit business. 
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Listen to Geraldetta Dozier Talk About Driving for KAT

Knoxville Police Department Integrated Since 1882

After the Civil War, the Knoxville Police Department made history. It hired the City's first African-American police officer in 1882 - and continued to recruit and hire black officers, even at a time when it was virtually unheard of to have minority representation in the uniformed ranks.

Moses Smith was the first African-American police officer in Knoxville, says Civil Rights pioneer and historian Robert J. Booker. Smith served on the Knoxville police force for several years before being appointed as a federal marshal. Additionally, Smith served on the City's Board of Aldermen in 1874 and again in 1878.

How rare was Smith's employment as a black police officer in 1882? It was extremely unusual. After the Reconstruction era ended, Knoxville was one of just five cities in the South with African-American police officers in its department, according to Booker. The four other cities were located in Texas. 

The Police Department hired its second full-time African-American police officer, James Mason, in 1884. 
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Listen to Knoxville Police Chief Rausch Talk About Integration in KPD

First African-American Volunteer Fire Department Formed in 1868

In 1854, the first volunteer fire department in Knoxville formed with 100 volunteers.

Fourteen years later, in 1868, William F. Yardley and William Luttrell formed a separate African-American volunteer fire department - and Yardley served as its first fire chief.

However, while African-Americans have been protecting lives and property from fires in Knoxville for 149 years, they weren't paid and professionally trained by the City until the 1950s. And the City maintained segregated fire halls for another decade. “In some ways, Knoxville was progressive, and in many other ways, we lagged behind,” says Fire Chief Stan Sharp, who studies KFD's history and cherishes its rare historic photos.

Sharp, who places a high priority on diversity, bemoans the City's slowness in hiring African-American firefighters and integrating its fire halls. "The Fire Department organized in 1885 as a paid department, but it remained segregated for the next 80 or so years," Sharp says.
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Listen to Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp Talk About Integration in KFD

One of City's 1st African-American Firefighters Rose Through the Ranks

Luther Bradley
As a young man, Luther Bradley never envisioned how his life and career would unfold. Then in 1952, an opportunity at the Knoxville Fire Department presented itself. Mayor George Dempster decided to hire African-American firefighters for the first time. Bradley and 10 other African-American men were hired and trained for Fire Department duties. The firefighters, housed at the Engine Company No. 4 fire station in East Knoxville, started battling fires and protecting families on Aug. 6, 1952, after only about a month of training. “I never, in my early years, dreamed of becoming a fireman,” says Bradley, who made firefighting his career. He served as captain and later was assigned as the fire inspector for the Fire Prevention Bureau. Seven years after his promotion to fire inspector, he became assistant chief in charge of the bureau. Then in 1980, Luther Bradley was promoted to Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal. He was born on Aug. 2, 1927, in Knoxville to Roy Bradley and Alma Hardin Bradley. Luther Bradley married Harriet E. Lee in 1948, and they have five children together.
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Listen to Former Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Luther Bradley

African-American Political Engagement in Knoxville Dates Back to Mid-1800s

Mayor Daniel T. Brown
Knoxville City Councilman Daniel Brown has always embraced service - as a U.S. Army soldier in Vietnam in 1970, as a 22-year public servant with the U.S. Postal Service, and as an East Knoxville community leader. But on Jan. 10, 2011, he made Knoxville history. This was the day that Daniel Brown became Knoxville’s first African-American mayor. 

But while Brown was Knoxville's first African-American mayor, the City's black citizens have long been politically engaged. The first African-American aldermen were elected shortly after the Civil War, and in the early 20th century, Knoxville had a "Bronze Mayor," who was selected by votes cast through an African-American newspaper. 

Consider this context: In 1860, about one in four Tennesseans were living in slavery. Less than 3 percent of the 276,000 blacks in Tennessee were free. So how did African-Americans gain a foothold in politics in that era?
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Listen to Knoxville Mayor Daniel T. Brown Talk About Being the City's First African-American Mayor

Cal Johnson, Knoxville’s First African-American Millionaire

Cal Johnson
A former Knoxville slave made rags-to-riches history in the early 1900s, becoming Knoxville’s first African-American millionaire.

Caldonia “Cal” Fackler Johnson was born a slave on Oct. 14, 1844, in Knoxville’s Farragut Hotel. Both of Cal Johnson’s parents were born slaves, belonging to the McClung family at Campbell Station.

Robert J. Booker, an African-American historian and founder of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, has researched and published articles on Cal Johnson’s life. Booker’s research indicates that Johnson’s mother, Harriet McClung Johnson, learned to read and write, as evidenced by the handwritten items in her Bible. She owned and operated a “hotel / restaurant / grocery” store on Willow Street in Knoxville. 
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Listen to Historian & Civil Rights Activist Robert J. "Bob" Booker Talk About Cal Johnson

How Basketball Took Paul Hogue from Five Points to the NBA

Paul Hogue
For Knoxville native Paul Hogue, basketball proved to become his ticket for living "the American dream."

Paul H. "Duke" Hogue was born April 28, 1940 in Knoxville, Tennessee to Otis Thomas Hogue and Melissa Mae Holland Hogue. Born and raised in a house on Wilson Avenue in the Five Points community, Hogue played basketball on courts in the park across the street, which was previously known as Union Square Park. 

Hogue was a standout basketball player at Austin High School (where his father was principal) and Vine Junior High School.  After graduating high school in 1958, Hogue went on to play for the University of Cincinnati, where he helped bring the basketball team to two NCAA National Championships (1961 and 1962).  

A 6'9" center, he averaged 16.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per game as a senior. In 1962, Hogue was named MVP of the Final Four, U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association first team All-American, and Helms Foundation Player of the Year.
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Literary ‘Roots’ Embodied in One of Knoxville’s Landmarks

Alex Haley Statue
One of Knoxville's iconic landmarks holds the title for the second tallest statue of an African-American in the nation.

Second only behind the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., the 13-foot-tall Alex Haley statue resides in Haley Heritage Square off of Dandridge Avenue and atop Morningside Park.

The bronze statue is sculpted in the likeness of Alex Haley (1921-1992), American author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

Haley spent some of his earliest years in Henning, Tennessee before returning to his birth town of Ithaca, New York, and lived his final years in the greater Knoxville area in Clinton, Tennessee.

Roots was a Pulitzer prize winning 1976 novel said to help make societal breakthroughs for the African-American community by vividly depicting the experience of slavery in America beginning with capture in Africa.  
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From Tennessee Theatre Porter to Painter

w James Taylor
W. James Taylor has always loved the smell of buttery popcorn and the soul-pleasing sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Tennessee Theatre - first as a teenager working as a porter in the 1960s, and now, as an accomplished musician and artist.

In April 1963, Taylor was working when students from Knoxville College were protesting segregation of businesses on Gay Street. He'd never participated in any sit-ins or protests, but he was drawn to the demonstration outside the segregated theater. He quit his job and joined the protest. 

Taylor went on to experience different cities and cultures - as an artist and as a drummer in a famous funk band - before returning to Knoxville in 2010. 
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Film Pays Tribute to Civil War Solders Interred in Odd Fellows Cemetery

Odd Fellow Cemetery
Be sure and view this video, "The Cemetery of Life," by local filmmaker Siam J. Manuels with the Knoxville Re-Animation Coalition and others.

The documentary tells the story of the Odd Fellows Cemetery in East Knoxville, the final resting place for 30 Civil War veterans who'd served in the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery unit. The African-American soldiers are hailed as "the protectors of Knoxville." But many of their graves lack identification, and preservationists who aim to honor the families and veterans interred in Odd Fellows Cemetery have to both pick up litter and beat back invasive vegetation.

The film applauds members of the coalition, City of Knoxville crews and the University of Tennessee researchers for their preservation efforts, but more work is needed to fully restore dignity and honor to Odd Fellows.  
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Watch the Cemetery of Life Video