Morristown’s newest park sits on the site of significant history

The rebuilt colonnades of Heritage Park honor the Morristown College buildings that were on the site for decades, serving the area’s African-American population.

The Heritage Park colonnades stand, serving tribute to the sentinel that stood watch for more than 100 years over African-American students who came to a hill in Morristown in search of the opportunity to learn, grow and better themselves through the miracle of education.

But history is complicated; it’s never all good or bad, never all success or failure.

And as much as the colonnades serve as a tribute to one of Morristown’s true shining beacons, an educational lighthouse atop the hill, they also serve as a stark reminder of the failures of generations to protect and save the historic site of Morristown College.

The colonnades stand on the spot that used to connect two of Morristown College’s historic brick buildings, but they are not original, rather replicas built because the originals, like all the other buildings on the former site, could not be saved in a financially reasonable manner.

In the end, in as much as the Heritage Park colonnades serve as a tribute to the site’s former mission, they also stand as a reminder of what was lost through neglect, lost through the deterioration of time and ultimately lost in ravaging infernos.

Still, out of those ashes comes a new beginning, a hopeful rebirth of a historic location that had become unsalvageable, unusable and dangerous to surrounding neighborhoods.

Heritage Park – built upon the former site of Morristown College – is the shiny new centerpiece of the Morristown Parks and Recreation system. Heritage Park is a place to for the community to come walk, explore the park’s wide green spaces, soak in the area’s natural beauty and, of course, reflect on the history of the site.

The park will be celebrated Saturday, Nov. 16 with A Salute to Heritage Park, a daylong celebration featuring musical artists, vendors and, at the end of the evening fireworks.

Addition to the fanfare, hoopla and regalia, there will be solemn acknowledgement of the site’s history. There will be recognition of the vital role the site – and the college – played in the lives of the African-American communities of Morristown, East Tennessee, and the nation itself.

There will be acknowledgement of the key role that the college – and the people who lived, learned and educated there – played in the growth of Morristown and Hamblen County.

Morristown College was founded in 1881 by the National Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church and closed in 1994 after a brief affiliation with Knoxville College. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, Morristown College, Knoxville College, and the Swift Institute were distinctive educational institutions in East Tennessee for African Americans, according to the Knox Heritage website.

Prior to the college’s founding, the site had figured in a local skirmish in the Civil War and became a federal camp during the final days of the war and into reconstruction. The site had been the location for a slave auction and one slave sold there, Andrew Fulton, returned to serve as one of the college’s first professors.

Almyra H. Stearns established a Freedman’s Bureau Grammar School for recently freed blacks on the site in 1869 and for more than 100 years, the site served the community as a place of education.

“This wasn’t an easy process due to racial tensions,” Knox Heritage’s Todd Morgan told the Tribune in 2012. “Community leaders rallied to protect the teacher and student from taunts, threats and even arson.”

Originally founded by Judson S. Hill as Morristown Seminary, in 1881, it soon became Morristown Normal and Industrial College and was used after the war as a secondary school where freed slaves were taught reading, writing and arithmetic.

Fred McMahan, a prominent African-American builder from Sevierville, designed many of the college’s buildings in a Classical Revival style.

According to the book, “A School for Freedom,” edited by JoVita Wells, Hill won the respect and financial support of the white community

The book states that when the original Clary Hall burned in 1921, local merchants and citizen contributed nearly $10,000 to its reconstruction. Of course, acceptance and support wasn’t universal.

While the Hall burned, one bystander reportedly told Hill “Guess this puts you out of business, doctor.”

Hill replied, “There will be more and better building starting tomorrow.”

Over the years, serving African-American students from Morristown, East Tennessee and beyond, the college gained ownership of a 300 acre dairy farm and had 12 buildings. At its height, it was at the center of culture and education for the African American community of the region. Numerous luminaries visited the campus, including Alex Haley, Hank Aaron and the daughters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Morgan said that in the 1913 book “A history of Tennessee and Tennesseans” the strength of the Morristown College diploma was lauded and that the school had furnished more than 2,000 teachers for public schools in the south.

“For over 100 years, Morristown College graduated generations of African American leaders, including ministers, college presidents, educators, businesspeople, scientists, attorneys and civil rights activists,” Morgan said.

The students were also known for their masonry skills and bricks manufactured on site were used in campus buildings as wlel as for hundreds of other structires in Morristown.

In addition to serving as a college, the school was also an African-American high school for Morristown and the surrounding areas during segregation.

The school began to struggle financially as early as World War II and in the years following the Civil Rights movement, as open, legal segregation ended and other colleges began admitting African American students, Morristown College’s prominence faded.

By the middle of the 1980s, the college was in serious financial trouble and was shuttered in 1994.

Over the ensuing decades, the college campus fell into a serious state of disrepair. Ideas to save the campus were floated – and then faded away in seemingly regular intervals.

In 2007, the college sold to a Knoxville businessman who died a day after the purchase. With no clear plan or action taken, the condition of the college’s buildings worsened. Two separate fires claimed a pair of buildings on the site – including the Laura Yard Hill Administration building – and eventually the site was sold again to a company that salvaged scrap materials before eventually selling the site to the city of Morristown.

Thus, the plan for Heritage Park began.

Now the park, at more than 50 acres located along a hill overlooking Buffalo Trail, offers wide green spaces for visitors to enjoy.

The Great Lawn, located at the highest elevation of the property, was the former Morristown College baseball field. A walking trail and a sidewalk will be constructed from the parking lot to the lawn area. The other two divisions of the park are the educational area and the replica of the Great Colonnade that once connected two of the college buildings.

A courtyard near the Colonnade will be a great place for movies at the park and special events like weddings. The Great Lawn is expected to host other types of special events, like music concerts and community gatherings.

A celebration of the park is planned for Nov. 16, featuring musical acts, fireworks, special recognitions and more. As part of the event, the Morristown Task Force for Diversity will host a booth and banner, celebrating the site’s historic purpose. Morristown College alumni will also be recognized at the event.

The headliner is Chris Blue, a Knoxville-based entertainer who was 27 in 2017 when he won season 12 of “The Voice” television singing competition. Since that time, he’s been performing to sellout crowds across the nation and abroad.

Another Knoxville-based singer who appeared on “The Voice,” Emily Ann Roberts, a country music artist, will be performing at the event. Starstruck Records signed Roberts after she left “The Voice.”

Stuart Clawson, who grew up in Georgia but is now writing and recording music and playing clubs in Nashville, will also appear at the salute to Heritage Park. Clawson grew up in Thomasville, Georgia before moving to Tennessee five years ago. He plays original songs, along with covers from modern and classic country artists.

Rounding out the lineup will be Further Born, a Morristown band who gained more notoriety after starring in the Encore Theatrical Company’s production of Rock of Ages. Guitarist Mitch Smith and vocalist Chris Morelock began their collaboration at the production, and since have been co-writing and performing music.

The other members of Further Born are bassist Rodney Tomlinson and drummer Derrick Blankenship.

Admission to the event is free.