Tennessee History: History shows that terrible times have been inevitable

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The flag ceremony at the Indian Creek Productions Powwow

The flag ceremony at the Indian Creek Productions Powwow, held every year in Knoxville

Perhaps you have seen worse times, but among the pandemic, the tornado and the racial violence, I believe this is the worst stretch I’ve ever endured. 

As a former officer in the U.S. Navy, I am sad to say that I hope my kids live in a better country than the one I live in now.

I take some solace in the realization that we’ve been through horrible times before. I’m not just talking about wars. The way we teach history implies that wars are the most miserable things people experience. In some cases, that’s not true.

Here are some examples:

Epidemics: The COVID-19 pandemic is very serious, but at least it isn’t our first. 

Approximately half of the Cherokee nation died of smallpox between 1738 and 1739. The 1849 cholera epidemic killed tens of thousands of Americans, the best known of whom was former President James K. Polk (which is why his body was, at first, buried in a mass grave of cholera victims in Nashville). In the summer and fall of 1878, 17,000 people in Memphis got yellow fever, and 5,000 died. 

Finally, the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed twice as many people worldwide as World War I. (My great-aunt in Montgomery, Alabama, lost two children on the same day during this epidemic.) 

Contrary to what some people think, this epidemic completely disrupted the lifestyle and economy of America. Church services were called off for months in some cities and much of the college football season was cancelled, for instance.  

Racial violence: The violence that took place on May 30 in cities throughout America was disturbing, to say the least. However, to put it in context: The worst racial violence in Tennessee history occurred on May 1-2 of 1866. 

It started because of a false rumor that African American U.S. Army soldiers killed several police officers who tried to arrest a black soldier. By the time it was over, 48 people were killed (46 of them black), 75 people were injured, 100 people were robbed, five women were raped, 96 homes, eight schools and four churches were burned and hundreds of black people were jailed. 

Until recently, this was known in textbooks and historical markers as the Memphis race riot of 1866. However, because of the disproportionate number of African American deaths, it is now often referred to as the Memphis massacre of 1866.

Economic depression: Because textbooks overemphasize the Great Depression of the 1930s, we often forget that there were others. There have been about a dozen economic depressions in American history — in 1797, 1857, 1873 and so on. 

The economic depression of the mid-1890s was so bad, in fact, that Tennessee postponed celebrating its 100th anniversary. That’s why Tennessee celebrated its centennial on its 101st birthday, in 1897.

Misery on top of misery: The deadliest maritime accident in American history happened along Tennessee’s western border only weeks after the worst war in American history ended. About 1,800 men, most of them Union soldiers on their way home from prisoner of war camps, drowned after the USS Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. 

Today, a lot more Americans have heard of the Titanic than the Sultana, even though the Sultana explosion killed more people. In fact, because this horrible incident happened when it did, it was downplayed in the media even then. 

Perceived violations of the Constitution: The other day, while getting a haircut, I heard another man claiming that never in American history had the government so fervently violated its bounds. I kept my mouth shut. However, here are three historical anecdotes to put today in context: 

In the mid-1830s, Tennessee passed a law that said the act of publishing abolitionist letters, articles, speeches or books was a criminal offense. In other words, if you wrote and published an abolitionist opinion in Tennessee, you could go to jail. This clear violation of the First Amendment remained on the books for decades.

During the Civil War, to make sure Maryland didn’t leave the Union, President Lincoln had the U.S. Army arrest the state’s governor and a third of the state’s legislature — acts that most historians today believe overstepped his bounds. 

After World War I, there were unconstitutional crackdowns all over America to stop people from peaceably attending communist rallies. One of these crackdowns occurred in Nashville, where, on May 1, 1919, the police padlocked Ryman Auditorium, prohibiting a peaceful labor rally from taking place. 

I repeat these stories not to imply that American history is all awful, because it isn’t. American and Tennessee history has many heroes, brave people and people who were trying to do the right thing. But there is also tragedy and suffering in it. 

And as far as being patriotic while still acknowledging imperfections in our history: In 1838, the Cherokee Indian nation was forced to migrate west, even though I believe they had the legal right to remain on their land in northwest Georgia and southeast Tennessee. 

Because of this event, which has come to be known as the Trail of Tears, it would seem logical that Cherokee Indians would hate the American nation and its flag. However, if you think that, go to a powwow, watch the American flag ceremony, and see if you can restrain your emotions.

Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids.

(1) comment


Polk wasn't buried in a mass grave, he was buried in a cholera section of city cemetery in Nashville but he got his own plot.

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