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Jack Neely and Paul James

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Q&A with Jack Neely and Paul James

Knoxville History Project

Jack Neely has a long history as a local journalist, first in magazines and eventually in the now-folded Metro Pulse. In addition to covering local news, he wrote a long-running, city-centric weekly column called “Secret History,” a series that transpired into a collection of books. Jack’s interest in Knoxville’s history deepened over time, so much that he started writing full-length narrative books about Market Square, the Tennessee Theatre, and the Old City. At the same time, Paul James was enjoying his role as executive director at Ijams Nature Center, a position that connected him to Jack when WBIR-TV produced a documentary on the Ijams family for its Heartland Series. By 2014, both Jack and Paul were looking to shift their careers, and it just so happened that Knoxville didn’t have an official organization solely devoted to researching and conserving the city’s history. The next step felt like an obvious one for both of them. 

What is the history of the Knoxville History Project?

Jack Neely, Executive Director: We put it together about seven years ago, mainly just as a way to make a living when it appeared my time as a print journalist was coming to an end. When the bottom fell out of Metro Pulse in 2014, it took us all by surprise. With few other options, a few of us tried to start a new paper. Originally, KHP was partly a way to help launch a nonprofit newspaper called the Knoxville Mercury. But to me, there seemed to be a need for a city historical organization anyway. 

What impact does KHP have on Greater Knoxville, both seen and unseen?

Paul James, Director of Development: Through KHP’s research, programs, and publications, local residents and visitors can gain a better sense of Knoxville’s history and culture—in short, how Knoxville got where it is today, or why it looks the way it does today. Publicly, we give talks and tours and our books are widely read locally. Our Historic Knoxville: The Curious Visitor’s Guide has sold almost 6,000 copies since 2018 and has been embraced by the city’s flagship programs, Introduction Knoxville and Leadership Knoxville. Our series of 30 Downtown Art Wraps on traffic boxes elevate the city’s artistic heritage by showing local artworks from the past—they beautify the city and are seen by thousands daily. What is less visible is the research we do for landowners, developers and local government departments, to help them understand the history of buildings and properties, providing important clues on how to preserve them, maintain character and culture—not only for the building, but also for the communities in which they reside. 

JN: We weren’t the only factor, but I do believe Knoxville has a much keener and more sophisticated sense of its history than it did, say, 25 years ago. People used to think Knoxville history was mainly Cas Walker, but now people recognize the names of people like Beauford Delaney, George Barber, Cal Johnson, James Agee, Lizzie Crozier French, Everly Brothers, Parson Brownlow, Ida Cox, many others. 

What are the things you’re working on each week? 

JN: Every week’s different, which is one thing I love about the job. We’re always working on small research projects, histories of buildings, neighborhoods, and occasionally homes—a few months ago, we did a rush job on the history of the baseball stadium site, which is very complicated and also dramatic and has a lot to do with the biracial heritage of the city. But we also get occasional big projects, like a centennial history of the Knoxville-area United Way, which like most organizational histories turns out to be much more complex and fascinating than you might assume, especially in terms of the lives of the people involved. 

PJ: We might be researching a story for our ongoing biographical series, Knoxville Lives, on fascinating Knoxvillians (that has spawned three books already.) In the past few years, I have written about Prof. Joseph Ijams, who managed the Tennessee School for the Deaf here after the Civil War; Jim Thompson, the city’s most prolific photographer and conservationist; and Col. David Chapman, a Knoxville wholesale druggist who arguably did more to help establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park here than anyone else. Many of these individuals have rarely been written about in depth before. Alternatively, we might be working on a fundraising appeal or a social media campaign to engage the community. There’s never a dull moment!

Tell us about the new book focused on Downtown Knoxville photography.

PJ: This is something new for KHP. So far we have published our own books, but this one is with Arcadia Publishing as part of its highly popular “Images of America'' series. Having written a title myself for this series on the Ijams family back in 2010, I saw a similar opportunity to tell the city’s story through the visual lens of downtown where most of its memorable stories and events have happened. This new book combines long held classic photographs of Knoxville alongside ones that you are unlikely to have seen before—several have definitely never been published before.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about you or the Knoxville History Project?

JN: Maybe just that we’re wide open. We’ll take on almost anything, in any format, as long as it’s earnest history. I never knew how flexible we were until 2020, when suddenly the bottom fell out of several of our business plans. We couldn’t bring people together for our talks and tours. We couldn’t have book signings for our books, including our then brand-new Bearden book, which already had a gala launch planned. We couldn’t host our annual fundraising luncheon. But we came up with a series of driving tours, a short documentary, an audio cell phone-accessible walking tour, and our first experiment with podcasts. People seemed to appreciate it, because our website visits skyrocketed during that shutdown period.

What are some long-range goals you have for the organization?

JN: My goal is to make myself obsolete, so that people will know these stories as well as I do. But basically we want to create good access to all of Knoxville’s history, for anyone who might find it useful or instructive or inspiring, through our books and programs, including tours, and the multiple options on our website. And I want people who live in other states to have heard of the place, and to make an impression in the American mind. 

PJ: We want Knoxville’s history and culture to become better known and appreciated, not just by residents, but also visitors to the city as well. Our bestselling guidebook, Historic Knoxville: The Curious Visitor’s Guide was designed for everyone to gain a good overview of the city’s history and highlight where you can find historic homes, buildings, important cemeteries or learn more about UT campus, as well as the history of interesting neighborhoods.

In future years, when we have the luxury of looking back, we want all facets of the city’s history to be available in all kinds of media.  We want Knoxvillians to collectively say, “Through the work of KHP, we know and appreciate our history and understand why the culture is what it is.” We want our work to be recognized as a model of how to cover the history of a city.”

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  • Jack Neely and Paul James
  • Jack Neely and Paul James