Cookeville, Tennessee – The legacy of three Tennessee Tech University professors is living on in an organization they began on campus in the mid 1980s.
The Upper Cumberland Humanities and Social Sciences Institute began when English professor Homer Kemp and history professor Calvin Dickenson joined forces to create a way to foster historical research and be of public service in the Upper Cumberland. They were later joined by their former student, Tech history professor Michael Birdwell, who was commonly called “Birdie.”
With the last of these three men passing away earlier this year, their fellow Tech history professor and friend, Troy Smith has taken over the director position.
“I’ve spent a few months going through all the old paperwork and figuring out how everything is set up, and now I’m envisioning how to continue with what they started,” Smith said.
One of the first projects that the three professors undertook was finding former coal miners who had worked in the mines in Fentress County in the 1930s and had taken part in a large labor strike. They interviewed the former miners, getting audio and sometimes video of the men speaking about their memories of their time there. The material was ultimately used in a documentary for the public broadcasting television station WCTE titled “The Wilder Davidson Story: The End of an Era; The Legacy.”
“It’s such a valuable thing for labor historians,” Smith said.
The professors’ major project in the 90s was an architectural survey of the Upper Cumberland. They worked with students to find every house they could that was more than 50 years old and compiled as much information about each one, especially if it had known historical context.
“Dr. Dickenson’s expertise was actually in English architecture,” Smith said. “And all three of them – Dickenson, Birdwell, and Birdie – put together a book called, ‘Architecture of the Upper Cumberland’ that was published in 2005.”
They used royalties from the book to set up the Upper Cumberland Studies Endowment, which they funneled back into their projects. For a time, they also held an event they called the Elderhotel where they gave tours of historical places in the region.
Kemp passed away in 2020, while Dickenson passed away in 2021, both already retired from teaching at Tech. With the increased work load, Birdwell reached out to Smith to be the assistant director of the Upper Cumberland Humanities and Societal Sciences Institute. Now, with Birdwell’s passing earlier this year, Smith is in the process of organizing a new project.
“I want to do what they did with the coal miners,” Smith said. “But I want to do it with people who worked in shirt factories, and tobacco farms. Because, you know, when I was a kid in the 70s, everybody I knew did one or both of those things, and then in the 90s that all went away.”
Smith decided on this topic after stumbling across a photograph that snagged his interest: an image of a group of 200-300 angry women outside a Sparta shirt factory. After some digging, he discovered that the women were largely wives of coal workers who had recently unionized and then sent representatives into the shirt factories to help the women do the same.
“At one point, one of the members of the Sparta Chamber of Commerce who favored the factory owner made some unwise comments about the ladies at the American Legion building. The women heard about it the next day. They marched right down that hill to the square and snatched him up along with a bunch of other business owners who were with him and beat the crap out of him,” Smith laughed. “Several of them were arrested for assault and public profanity. And that just demonstrates how if, like a spool of thread, you just start picking at a bit of history and it unravels all these things you never even thought to look for.”
Smith hopes that with the small bit of funding in the endowment and with the help of future donations, he can purchase updated equipment to be able to go out and capture the untold stories of the factory workers in the Upper Cumberland. He also plans to have students participate in the project, giving them hands-on experience on interviewing and recording the stories. The ultimate vision is creating a digitized oral labor history of the Upper Cumberland – and to honor the work started by Kemp, Dickenson and Birdwell.
“It’s my fervent desire to honor the past accomplishments and continue the legacy of these three giants of Tennessee letters who were my mentors and dear friends,” Smith said.
Donations to the Upper Cumberland Studies Endowment can be made at www.tntech.edu/univadv/giving/online-giving.php, selecting “Other” and typing in the endowment name, or mailed to: Tennessee Tech Foundation, PO Box 1915, Cookeville, TN 38505 with the endowment name in the check memo line.
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