I Am Very Grateful For Beta Theta Boule Honor

By John J. Duncan Jr.

My Dad told me many years ago, “You know how long it takes people to forget you when you leave office?…About as long as it takes the ripples to disappear when you throw a rock in the water.”

On June 8, I found out this was not true, at least as far as Knoxville’s African-American community is concerned. I was given a very beautiful crystal plaque and honored that day along with two black men, John Wright and Rev. Jesse Jones.

This was part of a very nice program to promote excellence in fatherhood put on by Beta Theta Boule, a fraternity of leading African-American men.

The event was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and I saw many friends there that day and several men and women who told me I had helped them or someone in their family.

But I owe this honor mainly to my longtime friend, Hallerin Hill, who seems to be active in everything, and Dennis Upton, the fraternity president.

I am very proud of and very grateful for the relationship our family has had with Knoxville’s black families.

Ultimately, I owe this recognition to our mother and father, who taught us – by their words and actions – to be kind and respectful to everyone.

As a young lawyer in 1956, Daddy started Knox Federal Savings and Loan Association which became the first local bank to routinely make home loans to blacks.

Marshall Mitchell, who later became a CPA in the Atlanta area, was the first black student at Holston High School where I also attended. He once proudly told me that my Dad had given his parents the loan for their first home.

When I started practicing law in Knoxville in 1973, Ed Freeman, a veteran black lawyer, told me how proud he was when he first started his practice in 1953 that Daddy took him around to introduce him to all the courts and judges.

I told the Beta Theta group that Daddy, in his three races for mayor, had carried the African-American precincts by votes of 90% or more. I also told them if my Dad had not won those races for mayor, it is possible that neither he nor I would ever have been elected to Congress.

My Dad’s last race for mayor was in 1963 against two very popular opponents. Bill Tallent had been elected countywide two or three times as county finance commissioner, and Lowell Blanchard was a popular radio announcer who was the voice of the Vols basketball team.

Below are a few examples listing the Duncan vote first, Tallent second, Blanchard third:

College Home:

591 / 36 / 27

Cansler YMCA:

167 / 12 / 3

Sam Hill School:

370 / 20 / 24

Mountain View:

803 / 55 / 47

Daddy led the peaceful integration of Knoxville starting as city law director on Jan. 2, 1956, and as mayor starting in 1959. People look back now and just do not realize how difficult this was when polls showed 80-90% of Knoxvillians favored segregation.

I think it is fair to say Knoxville’s blacks loved Daddy and he loved them. Then, thanks to him, I ended up with many black clients. I represented the largest black church and the largest black construction company and many others.

I continued to try to help as many people as I could – both white and black – in my  years as judge and as congressman. I think I was probably the only Republican in Congress who was ever grand marshal of a Martin Luther King Parade as I was many years ago.

I think my sisters and brothers and I were raised to be about as colorblind as possible, and Joe (my brother) in 1970-71 was the only white player on a very good semi-pro baseball team called the Knoxville Reds.

I have noticed that many white liberals have never spent much time around blacks and feel they have to try to act black, as Hillary Clinton foolishly did when she tried to speak in an African-American dialect at a church in Alabama.

I am glad I never felt that I had to act differently around blacks than around whites. And I am glad that Beta Theta Boule members realize that too many young boys – white and black – are growing up without good male role models and are trying to do something about it.