Painting the Smokies exhibition open now at Tennessee State Museum

Cora E Burke (courtesy of the Beck Cultural Center).

Home to the most-visited national park in America, the Great Smoky Mountains have enchanted tourists, nature-lovers and artists for generations. A new exhibition, Painting the Smokies: Art, Community, and the Making of a National Park, invites visitors to examine the history of the park through the work of five visual artists active around the time of its creation, about 1900 to 1940. Placing art in conversation with artifacts, the two-gallery, 8,000 square foot show opened April 22, 2022, and runs through January 15, 2023. The exhibition is complemented by a variety of public programming and digital offerings.

Appalachia became the topic of national fascination at the turn of the twentieth century. The grassroots campaign to create a national park in the Smokies occurred during a period of great change in the region, fueled by this renewed interest. Through the works of five artists who painted the Smokies during this time — Charles C. Krutch, Thomas C. Campbell, Rudolph F. Ingerle, Will Henry Stevens, and Louis E. Jones — the exhibition explores how the Smokies inspired a generation of painters, and how art brought attention, activism, and tourism to the region. Sections of the exhibition include “All Eyes on the Smokies,” “A Most Excellent Opportunity,” “Art & Activism,” “Tradition in Tension,” and “Selling the Smokies.”

The exhibition includes the diverse voices and stories of others who either called the region home or found inspiration and opportunity in the mountains, including photographer George Masa, writer Horace Kephart, furniture craftsman Lewis Buckner, and visual artist Catherine Wiley. Also represented are Cora E. Burke, activist and chair of the Negro Women’s Department at the Appalachian Exposition, Cherokee basket maker Rowena Bradley, and iconic Little Greenbrier residents, The Walker Sisters, among others.

MEET CORA E. BURKE

Cora E. Burke was one of the most famous women in Black Knoxville society due to her education, her wealth, and her involvement in multiple fraternal organizations. When it came to early 20th century Black society in Knoxville, not one aspect of life was untouched by Cora E. Burke. After moving to Knoxville from Kentucky in the late 1890s, she would go on to be involved in charity, fraternal organizations, education, and politics in Knoxville.

Serving as the female counterpart to the Knights of Pythias, The Court of Calanthe was once the largest fraternity of Black women in the South. In 1903, influential Nashville surgeon R. F. Boyd organized the Court of Calanthe of Tennessee in the Boyd Building to set his sights on expanding the organization across the state. He would serve as the Supreme Deputy up until his death. After his passing, Knoxville’s Cora E. Burke was elected to be his replacement, serving as the first female Grand Worthy Counsellor of the Court. She was the Grand Worthy Counsellor of the Knoxville Chapter at least until their Golden Anniversary in 1953. Without her guidance, the Court of Calanthe would not have been as successful. In publications throughout the state, her leadership was praised for helping the Court of Calanthe continue to grow.

As Dr. Boyd said in a 1912 speech for the Court: “I have always placed a high estimate upon the power and influence of women in the world. When any man has risen to great heights and blessed his followers in leadership, in science, in art, in invention or philanthropy, I have looked for the source in a good wife, a good mother or a good daughter, and I have found it.”

Throughout her life, Cora E. Burke’s influence was felt not only in Knoxville, but within Tennessee as a whole. A 1917 article in the Nashville Globe referred to her as the “Uncrowned Queen of Tennessee” because of her progressive ideas and actions. Her passion for equality in the face of injustice is echoed in her address to the Court of Calanthe, with words that ring true today:

“We must pray and pray hard. It was the prayers of our fore-fathers and mothers that brought us from slavery. It will take the prayers of us today to righten the wrongs which are being heaped upon us. We must pray and pray as never before for this one great thing to be wiped from the face of civilization that our people may be allowed to go their way in peace, to feel that God has made all men equal … We do not want our souls circumscribed. We want the world as a playground for our talents and to dream of stars as other races do.”

Tennessee’s Court of Calanthe boasted members from all over the state. Several of the women in the advertisement pictured here were very influential. Successful caterer Ms. Eudora Boxley from Nashville was the first Black woman to host a cooking show with her 1961 Program of Southern Cooking for WLAC-TV. Dr. Mattie E. Coleman, one of the first Black female physicians, was the medical representative of Nashville’s Court of Calanthe.

For over sixty years, the Court of Calanthe remained one of the most celebrated and prominent organizations for Black women in our state. Its impact and legacy shaped Knoxville’s Black society, and without it many women would not have been as empowered to take action in their communities.

In addition to her active involvement in society, Cora E. Burke also held a considerable amount of real estate with her husband Mitchell F. Burke. Their home at 801 Clinch Avenue was considered one of the finest in Knoxville.

Thanks to: Beck Cultural Exchange Center, African American History & Culture, 1927 Dandridge Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee 37915 Phone: 865-524-8461                        www.BeckCenter.net

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