Next time you're walking along State Street in the 300 block, be sure and take note of a new plaque, installed by Marble Alley Lofts with support from the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.
The plaque - unveiled today - pays tribute to the rags-to-riches legacy of Caldonia Fackler Johnson, a pioneering African-American entrepreneur, business owner, civic leader and philanthropist.
Born into slavery in a room at the Farragut Hotel in 1844, Cal Johnson was freed at the age of 21. When he died in 1925,
he was said to be Knoxville’s first African-American millionaire.
"Cal Johnson was completely self-made," Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero said during a ceremony unveiling the plaque. "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."
Johnson started out on the bottom rung of Knoxville's economic ladder. He was awarded a federal contract to dig up the bodies of Civil War soldiers buried in temporary graves and re-inter them in the national cemetery or in private cemeteries. He used the money he earned from these burials to open a racetrack and saloons in downtown Knoxville.
Cal Johnson’s father, Cupid Johnson, had trained horses and was a winning jockey here in the mid-1800s. When Cupid died, at the age of 49, Cal was only 14 years old. But he seems to have inherited from his father a love of horses.
Interesting footnote: In 1893, there are reports that one of his thoroughbreds broke a world speed record in Chicago.
You can see the traces of Johnson’s racetrack in the Burlington community. It’s now known as Speedway Circle, and it’s an oval stretch of asphalt lined with houses. But once upon a time, it was Cal Johnson's racetrack.
Johnson was certainly an innovator. Where did the first airplane land in Knoxville? In the infield of his racetrack.
He opened his first of several saloons in 1879 on the corner of Gay Street and Wall Avenue. That same year, he ran unsuccessfully for the 5th Ward seat on the Board of Aldermen. But he ran again in 1883 and 1884, winning both times.
As Johnson prospered, he became a philanthropist. He supported an orphanage, and he’d donated a house at Vine and Patton streets that was used to open the first African-American YMCA in Knoxville. He made that donation in honor of his late wife, Alice, in 1906.
Two years later, President Theodore Roosevelt praised Cal Johnson for his contributions when an African-American YMCA was dedicated in Washington, D.C., in 1908.
Ultimately, the state of Tennessee outlawed both whiskey and horse racing – surely a financial blow to Johnson. Many of his businesses were forced to close, but he remained heavily invested in real estate. Johnson knew the value of diversifying his business portfolio.
Today, the last Cal Johnson-owned building still standing is the three-story warehouse across the street from where the plaque was unveiled today. It was constructed in 1898 and housed several Knoxville businesses, including Beeler & Suttle Clothing Manufacturers and later Deaver Dry Good Co.
However, Knoxville has paid tribute to Johnson’s business and philanthropic legacy in important ways. In 1922, the City established Cal Johnson Park, at what is now 507 Hall of Fame Drive.
Local historian Bob Booker has reported that, when Cal Johnson Park was dedicated, a crowd of 12,000 people attended. Johnson himself donated more than $1,250 for amenities that included a water fountain, a flagpole, lights and sidewalks in the park.
Thirty-five years later, the Cal Johnson Recreation Center was built in the park.
Former County Commissioner Sam McKenzie and Beck Cultural Exchange Center Executive Director Renee Kesler led the unveiling of the new Cal Johnson plaque today.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and City of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero exchange a light-hearted moment during today's unveiling.
Mayor Rogero: "You’d be hard-pressed to find a more interesting rags-to-riches story in all of Knoxville’s history than that of Cal Johnson."
Cal Johnson, photographed in 1922, when the park bearing his name was dedicated. Johnson contributed personally to help create the park. More than 12,000 people attended the opening ceremony.