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Person Interviewed: Joseph Leonidas Star
Location: 133 Quebec Place, Knoxville, Tennessee
Place of Birth: Knoxville, Tennessee
Occupation: Shoemaker, Poet
If the poetic strain in the Dunbar Negroes of the south is an inheritance and not “just a gift from On High,” Knoxville, Tennessee’s aged Negro Poet,-born Joseph Leonidas Star,-but prominently known in the community as “Lee” Star, Poet, Politician and Lodge Man,-thinks that Georgia’s poetic genius Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “maybe took his writin’ spells” from him.
“My grandfather and Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s grandfather was cousins. He were a much younger man than I am, for I was eighty-one years old the twenty-sixth of December, 1937. So I reckon I give it down to my kin-man. But it seem to me, that Poets is just born thataway. Po’try is nothin’ but Truth anyway, and it’s Truth was sets us free. And that makes me a free-born citizen bothways and every ways. I were born free. I were always happy-natured and I expect to die thataway. One of my poems is named, ‘Be Satisfied!’ and I say in it that if a man’s got somethin’ to eat, and teeth to bite, he should be satisfied. You cant take your goods with you. Old man Rockefeller, when he died here awhile back, went away from here ‘thout his hat and shoes. That’s the way its goin’ to be with all us, no matter what our color is.”
“The people ’round here calls me “Lee” Star, and I want to tell you, Lee Star is a free-born man. But of course, things bein’ as they were, both my mother and father were slaves. That is for a few years. They lived in Greenville, Tennessee. My mother, Maria Guess, was free’d before the emancipation, by the good words of her young white mistress, who told ‘me [TR: 'em] all when she was about to die, she wanted ‘em to set Maria free, ’cause she didn’t want her little playmate to be nobodys else’s slave. They was playmates you see. My mother was eleven years old when she was freed.”
“When she was about fourteen and my father Henry Dunbar wanted to marry he had to first buy his freedom. In them times a slave couldn’t marry a free’d person. So he bought his freedom from his Marster Lloyd Bullen, and a good friend of Andrew Johnson, the presi-dent. My father an’ him was friends too. So he bought his freedom, for just a little of somethin’ I disremember what, ’cause they didn’t aim to make him buy his freedom high. He made good money though. He was a carpenter, blacksmith, shoe maker and knowed a lot more trades. His Master was broadhearted, and good to his slaves, and he let ‘em work at anything they want to, when they was done their part of white folks chore-work.”
“Both my father and mother was learned in the shoe makin’ trade. When they come to Knoxville to live, and where I was born, they had a great big shoe shop out there close to where Governor Brownlow lived. Knoxville just had three streets, two runnin’ east and west and one run north and south. I well remember when General Burnside come to Knoxville. That was endurin’ the siege of Knoxville. Before he marched his men out to the Battle of Fort Saunders, he stopped his solider [TR: soldier] band in front of our shoe shop and serenaded my mother and father. I was a little boy and I climed up on the porch bannisters and sat there and lissen’ to that music.”
“I remember another big man come here once when I was a boy and I served the transient trade at a little eatin’ place right where the Atkin Ho-tel is now. Jeff Davis come there to eat, when he stopped over between trains. That was in 1869. No, I disremember what he eat or how he behave. He didnt seem no different from any other man. He was nince lookin’ wore a long tail coat and his boots was plenty blacked. He favored pictures of Abraham Lincoln. Was about middle-height and had short, dark chin-whiskers. I were very busy at the time, an’ if they was any excitement I didnt know it.”
“Yes, I’ve seen many a slave in my day. One of my boy playmates was a slave child. His name is Sam Rogan and he lives now at the County Poor Farm. I make it a point not to dwell too much on slave times. I was learned different. I’ve had considerable schoolin’, went to my first school in the old First Presbyterian church. My teachers was white folks from the North. They give us our education and give us clothes and things sent down here from the North. That was just after the surrender. I did see a terrible sight once. A slave with chains on him as long as from here to the street. He was in an ole’ buggy, settin’ between two white men and they was passin’ througn Knoxville. My mother and father wouldnt lissen’ to me tell ‘em about it when I got home. And I hope I forget everything I ever knowed or heard about salves [TR: slaves], and slave times.”
Joseph Leonidas Star, no longer works at the shoemakers trade. He writes poetry and lives leisurely in a three room frame shanty, in a row of shabbier ones that face each other disconsolately on a typical Negro alleyway, that has no shade trees and no paving. “Lee’s” house is the only one that does not wabble uneasily, flush with the muddy alley. His stands on a small brick foundation, a few feet behind a privet hedge in front, with a brick wall along the side in which he has cemented a few huge conch shells.
After fifty-four years residence here, a political boss in his ward, and the only Negro member of the Young White Men’s Republican League, Star’s influence in his community is attested by the fact that when he “destructed”, the Knoxville City Council to “please do somethin’ about it, Knoxville being too big a city to keep callin’ street’s alleys,” the City Council promptly and unanimously voted to change the name of King’s Alley to Quebec Place.
When the interviewer called, Star’s door was padlocked. But he appeared soon, having received word by the grape-vine system that some one “was to see him”,-”They told me it was the Sherriff” he laughed. He came down the long muddy alley at a lively clip. He claimes he is able to walk about 20 miles each day, just to keep in condition. He wore a broad-brimmed black “derby-hat”, a neatly pressed serge suit in two tones, a soiled white pleated shirt and a frazzled-edged black bow tie. His coat lapels and vest-front were adorned with badges and emblems, including his Masonic pins, a Friendship Medal, his Republican button and a silver crucifix. The Catholic church, according to Lee, is the only one in Knoxville which permits the black man to worship under the same roof with his white brothers.
Many of Star’s poems have been published in the local and state papers. He keeps a record of deaths of all citizens, and has done so for sixty years. He calls the one, which records murders and hanging, his “Doomsday Book”, and “encoached” in it he claims is an accurate date record of all such events of importance in his lifetime. His records are neatly inscribed in a printing form and very legible. His conversation is marked by grammatical incongruities, but he does not speak the Negro dialect.