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Public Notices

April 23, 2014

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Historical Lecture Takes Look At Post-Civil War Greeneville

Originally published: 2013-04-25 10:46:04
Last modified: 2013-04-25 10:48:55



Federal troops occupying Greeneville several years into the Civil War received "a joyous reception," an indication of Unionist sympathies prevalent in Greene County, Dr. Robert R. Orr said Tuesday night at Tusculum College's Thomas J. Garland Library.

Orr spoke during the third lecture in a series of four on East Tennessee's role in the history of the civil rights movement.

The lectures are being given at the Tusculum College library. The series concludes with a talk from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30.

His topic next Tuesday night will be the early 20th century to the modern civil rights movement.

Orr, the president of Washington College Academy, holds a doctorate in history and has taught college-level regional history and Civil War history.

He has also written extensively on the life and career of President Andrew Johnson.


"Greene County's Unionist society remained strong throughout the war," Orr said. "East Tennessee became hostile to the Confederates."

By the end of the Civil War, Greene County and "the entire area was under investigation by the Confederate Congress for disloyalty," Orr said.

Andrew Johnson, who was born in Raleigh, N.C., but had lived in Greeneville since 1826, "was not a stranger" to the world of secret societies that sprang up in opposition to slavery during the Civil War era, Orr said.

But after the war and with the advent of the Reconstruction period, "troubles came from many sources," Orr continued.

Johnson favored rights for African-Americans, but only after they became educated enough to handle the responsibilities of full citizenship, Orr stated.

Yet to maintain that Johnson held racist views "is unsustainable in my opinion," Orr said.

Some statements made by Johnson, he added, have been taken out of context, "using 20th century definitions for 19th century language."

Some historians "imposed a modern definition on his speeches, and they completely miss the point," Orr said.


Johnson "wanted full civil rights for the blacks once they were educated and earning a living, and (President Abraham) Lincoln pretty much thought the same thing," Orr stated.

"When Johnson returned to Greeneville in 1869, he was celebrated by his hometown blacks as a liberator," Orr noted.

Optimism about increased rights for African-Americans in the 1870s was dampened by an economic crisis in 1873 and a political crisis surrounding the presidential election in 1876, he explained.

"Whenever you have an economic depression, you start getting racism," he said.

Whites disenfranchised by Reconstruction began to lash out, as was documented by African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, "who recognized the demographic problem," Orr said.

Legislation advancing civil rights was dealt a major setback in 1883 by a Supreme Court ruling striking down the acts that was "one of the worst decisions of the Court," according to Orr.

"In effect," he said, "it stopped the progress of an integrated society."


In the 1870s, there were African-American lawmakers and police officers in Tennessee, Orr noted, and there was a movement to allow African-Americans to serve on juries.

Augustus Herman Pettibone served in the Union Army during the Civil War and as a U.S. Congressman in Tennessee's First District from 1881 to 1887.

Pettibone, who practiced law in Greeneville after the Civil War, was a champion of equal rights and "enlightened race relations," Orr said.

But the overall climate in the South for harmonious race relations was deteriorating by the 1880s, Orr pointed out.

"Integration was working, and it failed ultimately," he said. "The Supreme Court pulled the rug out from beneath them."

Efforts by African-Americans here to get an education were embodied in the establishment in the late 19th century of an African-American school called Greeneville College, Orr said.

Prominent figures such as Booker T. Washington recognized that African-Americans must "be prepared for the exercise of (citizenship) privileges," he continued.

"I think [Booker T.] Washington's moderation helped the movement along during a very difficult period," he said.

But the new science of anthropology "was a disaster for the blacks" because some people in the field mistakenly believed they were "less talented mentally," Orr said.


The "rise of vigilante justice" and an accompanying "crime wave" between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century paralleled the aging of the generation that fought the Civil War.

Violent acts such as lynchings, Orr said, may have been linked to a condition associated more with recent wars -- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

"They [the Civil War soldiers] went through unbelievable trauma, and it had to do with this PTSD," Orr said.

But by the first years of the 20th century, the Civil War generation "is getting old enough so they are no longer causing violence," he explained.

Applying 1960s civil rights standards to the years following the Civil War doesn't give an accurate reading of conditions of the time, Orr said.

"You end up projecting racism when other causes are possible," he said.

"The failure of integration was complex. It wasn't just racism."


Orr reiterated Tuesday night his contention that what has traditionally been known as "The George Jones House" on North Main Street was a stop on the "Underground Railroad" used by slaves escaping to Northern states before and during the Civil War years.

He cited writing by the late Richard H. Doughty, a lifelong resident of North Main Street and a leading local historian who wrote the definitive history of the first century of Greeneville's history: Greeneville: One-Hundred-Year Portrait, 1775-1875.

Doughty's book, Orr said, mentions the presence of the George Jones house, which he stated was called a "lot" in the 19th century.

Traditionally, it has been believed by Doughty and in general that the house was built around 1830 by prominent Greeneville businessman George Jones and his wife, Keziah Sevier Jones, daughter of Valentine Sevier.

"Greeneville people at the time spoke of a 'lot,' not a house," Orr said. "They used numbered lots to refer to houses."

Orr has explained before that, although no written documentation linking the house to the Underground Railroad is known to exist, some oral traditions that have come down over the years do indicate such a link.


The property belongs to Walters State Community College (WSCC), and the house was torn down by the community college earlier this month as part of the major WSCC expansion project in that area of the block.

The college's own extensive research in 2011 into the background of the house unexpectedly (to the college and to others) found no documentation that a house belonging to George and Keziah Jones had ever stood on the property.

Instead, the WSCC research strongly indicated that that there was no house at all on the lot until the mid-1860s and that, when a house was built there, it was associated with a different, younger George Jones and his wife.

WSCC's research also produced no documentary evidence linking the house or property and the Underground Railroad.

But, Orr said Tuesday, "I doubt Walters State's interpretation of that [research] is accurate."

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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