During its 52 years of existence, the Gem Theatre was the hub of Knoxville's Black business community. Its proximity attracted all kinds of enterprises and professional offices to the vicinity of Vine and Central. An early newspaper dubbed the area "Little Harlem."
The Gem Theatre was a movie house, and it provided stage shows. But it also played an important role in promoting civic affairs. One of the first such activities held there was a fundraiser on March 9, 1913, for the Alice Johnson YMCA, which had been established in 1906 by former slave Cal Johnson in memory of his late wife. The speaker was Dr. Henry Morgan Green, a local physician who had served on Knoxville City Council and for whom Green Elementary School is named.
With a seating capacity of 1,400 in the 1920s, it was the largest venue in the Black community to accommodate such events. In fact, It was almost like a mall with at least 20 businesses under one roof, including a bakery, fruit and candy store, barber and beauty shops, public baths, a bowling alley and other enterprises. It originally sat on the west side of Vine Avenue but moved into the newly constructed Dixie Theatre in the early 1920s.
On Dec. 4, 1921, a large crowd attended the lecture of William Pickens as he addressed a mixed-race audience. He was known as "America's Greatest Orator of the Negro Race" after the death of Dr. Booker T. Washington. He graduated from Yale University in 1904 and got his master's degree at Fisk University in 1908. Pickens taught at Wiley College in Texas and was dean at Morgan State College in Baltimore.
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In 1928 the Gem became the temporary home for one of our oldest Black churches. Shiloh Presbyterian Church, established in 1865, later erected a new edifice at the corner of Clinch and Henley in 1875. When the city decided to widen the intersection and took its property, the congregation held its Sunday services at the Gem much of the time until their new church was dedicated on Church Street on July 6, 1930.
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One of the early managers of the theater was Walter C. Kennedy, who had been employed by Hope Brothers Jewelers. For a number of years he operated his own jewelry store. He died on Jan. 4, 1944, leaving a son, Walter E. Kennedy, who operated several enterprises near the Gem. His grandson, Walter Kennedy III, became a local radio personality with his gospel show, "The Old Ship of Zion."
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At least two fires interrupted activities at the Gem. The first occurred on Feb. 10, 1939, when a fire broke out in the attic and damaged the Deluxe Beauty Salon, the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Co, and the L.G. Gerber Tailor Shop. Three hundred patrons were escorted from the building, but the theater reopened the next day.
The second fire occurred on July 28, 1942, when lightning struck the building and gutted much of it. The loss was estimated at $30,000 to $40,000. The three-alarm 3 a.m. fire required 10 companies to fight it. For two hours it threatened to sweep through the entire Black business section. With the cooperation of the Bijou Amusement Co., which operated the theater, the property owner and government agency that regulated supplies during the World War II years, the Gem was soon rebuilt.
Robert J. Booker is a freelance writer and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He may be reached at 865-546-1576.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Gem Theatre also served as stage for civic life in Black community