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Exhibit Explores 'Black & White' Knoxville History 
During the past 12 months, an exhibit titled “Black & White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era” has been on display at the Museum of East Tennessee History. It closes this Sunday, Feb. 28, on the last day of the month, the final day of Black History Month. 

But it could easily be a permanent exhibit in our city, so intrinsic are its narratives to Knoxville's history -- and ones not often told. 

One of our favorite parts of the exhibit was the inclusion of Moses Smith, who became the City’s first permanent Black policeman in 1882. 

Knoxville was one of only five Southern cities that hired Black men as police officers in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862.

What was Officer Smith’s job like? Here are some items from Knoxville newspapers of the time: 

In May 1882, he apprehended two Black boys at the behest of their father. D. R. Hampton, who complained that he couldn't keep his sons from associating with “noted thieves of the town.” From the older boy, Smith confiscated a deck of cards, tobacco, keys and “other articles which would throw suspicion on a boy of his age.”  

In July, Officer Smith worked a case of four young white boys who had been stealing lace, hose and fans from several stores and reselling them to “Water street girls.” 

Earlier that year, he assisted his fellow Officer Ruckert in accompanying to jail a “notorious chicken thief” for stealing and reselling a turkey. 

And in August, he broke up a scuffle instigated by Deputy Marshal R. T. DeArmond with Dick “Colonel” Austin, private secretary of Tennessee's 2nd District U.S. Representative Leonidas Houk. (DeArmond seemed to have a political beef with Austin.)

In 1885, Smith was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as security officer at the U.S. Customs House. He tendered his resignation to the city council on June 12, 1885. The customs house (which also served as the post office) was located where the East Tennessee History Center stands today. 

Reports of Moses Smith’s death on Nov. 10, 1886, of “congestion of the brain,” appeared in newspapers in Nashville, Memphis, Clarksville, Morristown and Knoxville. All but the briefest mentions referenced Smith’s popularity among his police colleagues and city residents. Smith is buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery, and, each year, ETHC staff honor Moses Smith on the anniversary of his death. 

The past 12 months have challenged us all to consider our characters and actions, and the "Black & White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era" exhibit provides a fascinating exploration of an era whose legacy looms large in our current time and a brief glimpse at a Knoxville resident and public servant who made a difference in his time. 

Posted by ptravis On 26 February, 2021 at 5:08 PM