Making progress: Monroe County moving forward from days of prejudice

Madisonville, Tenn. - A stroll around the Monroe County Courthouse speaks volumes about the past.
At all four corners of the lawn, as well as on street-side utility poles, there are memorials to soldiers from this area who died in service to their country.
The street banners, complete with color photos and pertinent personal information, honor men who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those who perished in the Korean and Vietnam wars are listed alphabetically, including the date of their death.
Something stark, however, stands out on the memorials from World Wars I and II.
The warriors commemorated here are separated. On each granite face, there’s a long, main list. Then a smaller one beneath.
Under “colored.”
Such an observation should not be construed as New Age, politically correct judgment of Monroe County. Nor of small towns throughout America, particularly in the South, that continue to divide the memory of military service in this manner.
This practice is understandable. It is accurate. It is historical fact.
U.S. armed forces were segregated during those wars. So were many of the societies whence these brave men lived, worked, raised families, were drafted or volunteered their last measure.
They grew up separately, served separately, died separately, are memorialized separately.
Some communities have erased these old lines by posting new plaques that combine the victims into a single group. Some communities have not chosen to do so. To each its own.
Nonetheless, it does strike the casual visitor ironic that at this very courthouse, race — not damning testimony — determined the outcome of a long-whispered-about criminal trial.
On Sept. 4, 1968, jurors decreed a local white man not guilty of felonious assault in a heinous, cowardly attack. In so doing, they disregarded the testimony of law enforcement officers and four eyewitnesses.
Eyewitnesses who were “not from around here.” Including the victim, who happened to be “negro,” in the language of the day.
Life is neither fair nor perfect. It won’t ever be. Here or anywhere else.
But, locals say, if nothing else positive came out of the trial of Fred Ellis, accused in the shooting of Charles Moulden, it did spark a social awakening.
“Nobody is proud of that trial,” says 89-year-old Charles Hall, revered businessman and historian who served 16 terms as mayor of Tellico Plains until stepping down from office in 1990.
“Attitudes have changed immensely since then. Tellico Plains has made a lot of progress. So have communities all around here.”
Hall recalled a high school basketball game, not long after the trial, pitting Tellico Plains against a Knoxville team with a lone black player.
“I met with our boys before the game and said, ‘There aren’t going to be any problems, are there?’
“They assured me no. And there weren’t. They just played basketball.”
Marty Cook, longtime Monroe County Circuit Court clerk, says she was in high school when Jim Crow-era restrictions fell by the way.
“I don’t remember it being a big deal for any of us students,” she said. “If there were any concerns, it was among a few adults. Everybody else got along. They still do.”
“Yes, I remember those times,” says Monroe County sheriff Bill Bivens, “but I can assure you it’s not like that now. It’s changed a lot.”
A black deputy, Chris Francis, serves on Bivens’ staff.
“Chris is as fine an officer as you’ll find,” said the sheriff. “He came here from the Sweetwater Police Department. He has great respect in this community.
“I’ve also had a couple of black female deputies. One retired, and one moved on to another job.”
“I came to Tellico Plains in 1968,” said Pennsylvania native Dick Conley, a retired biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency who now lives in Madisonville.
It didn’t take Conley long to realize he had moved into a hotbed of bigotry: “Honest to gosh, I thought I’d stepped back in time.
“But it’s not that way now,” he emphasized. “Things certainly have changed for the better.”
To illustrate, Conley cited Leon Tillman, who serves Blount and Monroe counties as a representative for the USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service.
Tillman, who is black, frequently calls on farmers and timberland owners deep in the wilderness. This is the same remote territory where his skin color would have invited inevitable trouble in years gone by.
“One time I asked Leon if he wanted me to ride with him on some of those calls,” Conley says with a laugh.
“He shrugged it off. He didn’t need any help. It was sort of like, ‘Why?’ He’d never had a problem.”
Fifty-six-year old Monroe County Mayor Tim Yates recalled “a few” racially charged incidents from his teenage years.
“It’s sad things used to be like that,” he said. “It’s sad the way the Indians were treated long before that, too.
“But that’s in our past. It’s history. I hope that’s where it stays.”
All of which brings the casual visitor back to those courthouse monuments. Specifically, the one memorializing veterans of the Civil War.
No individual names are listed here. Just the battalions, regiments and companies to which they belonged.
It is not lost on the observer that a single stone now blends these combatants from opposite sides of a bitter, four-year campaign dividing the nation.
They are divided no more.
One sculpted side of the monument reads: “Monroe County Confederate.” A few inches away, the script says: “Monroe County Federal.”
This stone was erected in 2004, a full 139 years after hostilities ceased.
Who knows?
Perhaps after sufficient time, all of the Monroe County soldiers who lost their lives in World Wars I and II finally will be memorialized as one.

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