Conversing with Jack Neely

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“I think the Knoxville Mercury is the model for journalism in the 21st century,” Jack Neely told me over drinks one evening at Union Jacks. The Knoxville Mercury is a weekly independent newspaper started by Jack and his associates. “The Knoxville Mercury is an example of long-form journalism,” he continued, explaining that the articles can examine topics in much more depth that features usually found in most city newspapers. Recent issues, for instance, have explored in-depth candidate positions for the Knoxville City elections.

Jack Neely is a native Knoxvillian that has done as much as anyone to help local citizens discover their own history.  He graduated from Webb High School in 1976, the same year that Bill Haslam was class president. After two years at Millsaps College, he transferred to the University of Tennessee and completed an undergraduate degree in history in 1981. He wrote freelance articles for the Knoxville News-Sentinel and then worked at Whittle Communications. He became a full-time writer for Metro Pulse in 1995. After the Metro Pulse closed last year, he co-founded the Knoxville Mercury in 2015.

Jack has authored many books on Knoxville’s history. His history of the Tennessee Theatre is reviewed in this issue. Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City, published in 2009, contains many interesting vignettes. For example, William Blount, who founded and named Knoxville, was actually expelled from the United States Senate in 1797 for plotting to join the British in expelling the French from Louisiana. He fled to safety in Tennessee. George Washington Harris, the creator of Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, died mysteriously here in 1869. Hank Williams spent his last evening alive in the old Andrew Johnson hotel on New Year’s Eve 1952.

Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth refers to a characterization of this area in 1900: “There the rich and the poor, the white and the black, jostle each other in perfect equality, and the scenes during the busy hours of the afternoon are always worth watching.”  Currently, Jack is completing a history of the Old City, which started in the late 1880s as the center of the city’s railroad, business, and saloon industries.

Jack Neely is a native Knoxvillian that has done as much as anyone to help local citizens discover their own history. 

Jack is also Executive Director of The Knoxville History Project (KHP), “a new educational nonprofit whose mission is to research and promote the history of Knoxville.” The KHP website describes this mission in more detail: “Knoxville is home to other important historic organizations concerning regions or specific groups, but the KHP is the only organization devoted just to the particular history of the city of Knoxville. The educational nonprofit offers talks and tours to schools, museums, service groups, and other organizations. It offers consultation to developers and government organizations on projects concerning Knoxville’s history.” KHP is the official sponsor of the Knoxville Mercury.

As we finished our drinks, Jack and I talked about our own personal histories. His daughter attended Sacred Heart and West High. One of my sons is currently at Sacred Heart and another at West High. We were both, at separate times, history majors at the University of Tennessee. Although I have lived here most of my life, I am constantly amazed about what I learn about Knoxville’s history from Jack’s writings and conversations. I hope to talk to him again soon.

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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