Whenever we talk about black history, we have to admit that there are large parts of it that are off limits to us. Before the civil-rights era, black lives were rarely chronicled in newspapers and books. We have to rely on unexpected clues.
Lodged in an old sidewalk near the Old City is a peculiarity. It’s very small, but bound to be noticed more as there are more reasons to walk down East Jackson Avenue.
For a few decades, the Old City has ended, by common agreement, just east of Barley’s, when you get to the James White Parkway overpass. People don’t like to walk under the overpass, and until recently there has not been much obvious reason to. Only the curious venture beyond the broad shadow of the highway, and except for the Rail Salvage place, there aren’t very obvious attractions. So what they do is just turn around and walk back toward Central, where the fun is.
That’s changing. There’s now a big free parking lot under the overpass, and it’s popular. Another block or two past that is the new boutique jeans place, on Randolph Street, and beyond that, the opera company and the brewery with its tasting room. Even David Dewhirst, who never invests in a neighborhood unless it’s just about to bloom, has a long-term project out that way.
You don’t have to go far, along the block past Patton Street, to puzzle over that thing imbedded in the sidewalk. There was a time, early in the 20th century, when the city marked intersections not just with street signs on posts, but with brass markers underfoot.
The curio is just this side of the defunct old Lay’s Market. In the sidewalk are letters marking an intersection that no longer exists, and that very few people remember. In one direction, it says EAST JACKSON AVE. That’s easy to understand. It’s been East Jackson for more than a century, and it still is.
But perpendicular to it, sometimes obscured by a thin layer of dark mud, is another phrase: KINGS ALLEY.
It’s an odd thing to see, because there’s no alley there now. It’s just partway down the extra-long block that accommodates Knox Rail Salvage. There’s a paved bit suggesting maybe it used to be a driveway into the salvage yards, but even that’s not open now.
I went to the library to see what I could figure out.
King’s Alley—in city directories, it’s most often spelled with the apostrophe–hasn’t borne that name, at least not officially, since the early days of the Coolidge administration. That brass marker is at least 90 years old.
The word “alley” is disreputable these days, but a century and more ago an alley was a small urban street. Alleys were usually just one-way affairs, and probably didn’t get much through traffic, but they weren’t just service alleys at the backs of buildings, either. There were residences in alleys, and sometimes businesses, too.
A century ago, King’s Alley was on city maps. It was once home to probably 100 people.
It first appears in public records in 1891. King’s Alley was just a little residential street off the industrial railroad-frontage avenue then known as Hardee Street, before Hardee was renamed East Jackson.
Who it was named for is not obvious. There’s a King Street a few blocks away, just a little bit more than an alley off Fifth Avenue, but it doesn’t line up in such a way to suggest it’s related in any way to this old alley marked on East Jackson. Oddly, another King’s Alley pops up in 1891, the same year this one did, just outside of Knoxville’s tight city limits, over near the university.
The King’s Alley over here, near the railroad, was a residential street when it appeared, home to several households. It started at Hardee, several years before Hardee’s name was changed to East Jackson, and went south to First Creek, crossing Campbell Street and Paddleford Street on the way.
That first year, it was home to 13 households, eight of them black, five of them white. They were all working people of modest means, several of them single women who worked as laundresses or cooks. But there was one black cobbler named Lee Starr who would put down roots on King’s Alley and survive its several eras.
The street was part of the neighborhood known as Cripple Creek, which was a mixed-race neighborhood, especially in its earliest years. It became more and more purely an African-American community, though, and by 1900, all of King’s Alley’s residents were black.
It became more dense with the years, a handy place to live if you worked for the railroad, for the packing houses, or at Keller’s Foundry, just down the street.
In 1925, King’s Alley’s name was changed, for reasons I wish I could even guess about, to Quebec Alley. I can’t tell whether any French Canadians were ever involved in this part of town, but you never know. At the time, one of the most powerful men in Knoxville was UT president Harcourt Morgan, a Canadian who’s sometimes portrayed as the good ol’ boy of academia, but he was from Ontario.
Quebec Alley’s new name didn’t change its basic makeup. By then, it was home to 20 or 25 households, all black.
Meanwhile, the term Alley as a name for a residential street fell out of favor. Around 1938, its name was changed to include a plausibly French proper noun: Quebec Place. But it didn’t change much. Lee Starr, the shoemaker who’d been one of the first residents on King’s Alley in 1891, was still a resident of Quebec Place, 50 years later.
However, historian Bob Booker, who grew up in that neighborhood after it was renamed Quebec, says nobody was fooled by it. “I knew people who lived on King’s Alley,” he says.
He says there were a lot of residential alleys in that neighborhood, as he recalls it in the ’40s: Rock Alley, Drew’s Alley, Fairchild’s Alley.
“In later days they tried to clean up the old addresses for the young people, so the stigma of living in an alley wouldn’t be there.” He says most people kept calling it “King’s Alley.”
In the early 1950s, there were still about 20 families living on the little street. They might still be there today if not for urban renewal. In 1957, eight of the houses on Quebec Place, a.k.a. King’s Alley, had been torn down. By 1958, they all had. Its former residents moved elsewhere, some into housing projects.
Over the next 15 years, other streets closed, buildings were torn down, and to downtowners, the old Cripple Creek area, overshadowed by a new elevated highway, no longer seemed a part of things.
And by then, only the old timers remembered when it had been known as King’s Alley. It’s mentioned for a few more years as a little street without any addresses. Then, in the early 1970s, Quebec Place disappears altogether.
But here’s this small brass plaque in an old sidewalk. Dislodged, it would fit in your pocket. It may be the only reminder of a time when thousands of people lived down here, in a place once known as Cripple Creek.