The skies were overcast, and the air was sticky with high humidity. It was already mid-Summer in Kingsport, Tennessee, as I walked up the steps to the Steadman Museum at Bays Mountain Park to record an interview with 92-year-old Jack Pierce.
I enjoy talking to nonagenarians. Their perspective and opportunities like this inspire me and, in my own mind, they leave me — a little wiser.
Jack’s grandfather cut logs for Tennessee Eastman and farmed the land around the park before it became a nature preserve some 50 years ago this year. His family was one of three early black American families who lived on Bays Mountain at the time. Their stories are some of the oldest we’ve uncovered about life on the mountain in the first part of the 20th century.
The gold museum lights were warming to the old farm implements from earlier times on the mountain. Many of these relics, including land, were donated by the Pierce family to the City.
Jack wore a blue dress shirt, tan trousers, and a blue baseball cap with ABC stitched across the top. Other than a restless stance, Jack was tall, precise with his words, and had the presence of a man much younger than his 90 plus years.
When I asked Jack about growing up on the mountain, he said, “I didn’t grow up on Bays Mountain.”
My brother’s lesson as a TV anchorman came into my mind immediately. I heard him say — “Do the research first.”
Jack described how he lived in “Old Kingsport” and visited his grandfather, on the mountain. He described walking there, “It took all day.”
“My grandfather was a former slave, and that was the name of his last owner.”
In Jack’s retelling of the families on the mountain, he said three black families lived on Bays Mountain, including his grandfather and father, Albert.
Albert would later marry Lena, and together, they would have 13 children, including Jack — three died before he was born.
“My dad worked for PET Dairy and he was a blacksmith. In those days, they used horses to deliver the milk. He got paid 50¢ a hoof to keep those shoes on. Back then, new horseshoes were important on a horse, like a flat tire on a car today.
Jack mentioned Old Kingsport about three different times in our short meeting, and I asked him, “What do you mean by Old Kingsport? Where is that?”
He responded, “That’s around the Netherland Inn. That’s where I was raised.”
“We were the only black family that lived there, and everybody got along just fine. I didn’t know about segregation until I came to New Kingsport.”
New Kingsport was closer to downtown, and Jack went to high school at Douglas High School. Douglas was a segregated school with a remarkable history all its own.
“There were no rich people. We were all raised on a farm, and we shared everything. If you had milk and someone else didn’t, we shared. We killed hogs, and if you didn’t have meat — that’s just the way we were.
Jack’s memories of New Kingsport include his first experience with “colored water.”
“I thought it was (he emphasized) colored water.”
I imagine every City has an Old Kingsport. Perhaps a time where people helped each other when there was a need a little more than we do today in a Doordash society?
Jack Pierce has a clear memory of the early days of Kingsport and Bays Mountain, particularly the shared farm life of a pre-Industrial city.
As we started to wrap up, Jack told me about going to high school at Douglas around the mid-1940s.
He recalled how his high school football team had equipment and uniforms that were hand-me-downs from Dobyns Bennett. Despite that setback and many others, Jack was part of another story that will long represent the “Kingsport Spirit.”
Jack Pierce and his 17 or so teammates went to the High School Football State Championships and beat Howard University in 1948. This victory was quite a feat since they could barely get enough to play the big teams in Chattanooga. There’s a detailed blog post about this legend, and it has all the ingredients of a heroic comeback story.
I like Jack’s “Old Kingsport.” I also told him I lived near Old Kingsport, but he pointed out that I lived across the river — “Over in Hawkins County.”
Maybe that’s the lesson here in this perspective from Jack. Old Kingsport surely had its challenges as a farming community evolved into a City of Industry.
Even then, the democracy was still working toward a more perfect and equal union among its citizens. I’m hopeful our future will be better, and although we may evolve to a higher perspective in the future, maybe there are a few clues in the stories from our past.
In a recent article from The Atlantic, George Packer describes the Four Americas we face as our democracy continues its struggle. It’s a worthy read for deep perspective in our modern America at the time. George summarizes the article with new hope for the future — one based on the past.
“But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities — the only basis for shared citizenship and self-government — is a road that connects our past and our future.”