JAMES GARFIELD BECK (1881-1969)
ETHEL BENSON BECK (1896-1970)
James Garfield Beck and Ethel Benson Beck were two of the most glamorous
and influential members of Knoxville's black community during the 1920s,
'30s, and '40s. They were in the forefront of most civic, church, and social
activities. They were extremely attractive, had money, and were athletic.
Beck was an intellectual, while his wife had a business mind. He came to Knoxville in 1898 from Camden, Alabama, to attend the Knoxville College Normal School, which he finished in 1902. He was graduated from Knoxville College in 1906. In college, Beck distinguished himself in several sports, and he was particularly good in baseball. After graduation, he taught at several schools, including Austin High in 1910. He also served as the first athletic director at Knoxville College.
Mrs. Beck was a native of Morristown, Tennessee, and received her early training at Morristown College. It is possible that the Becks first met when he played baseball against the Morristown team. They were married in 1913, the same year he became the first black postal clerk in Tennessee when he was hired by the Knoxville Post Office. Over the years, they amassed a fortune in real estate.
The Becks were involved in the establishment of the Knoxville Colored Orphanage in 1919. That summer a group of citizens saw the need to care for and protect unfortunate black children and formed a board of management to organize an orphanage. A popular subscription raised about $7,500 and property near Knoxville College was purchased for the project. After several months, the project seemed doomed to failure, until Ethel Beck was elected to head the board. Within two years, she had wiped out all debts and announced that she intended to build a first-class brick building to cost approximately $10,000. She made good on that promise, and by 1941 the name of the orphanage was changed to the Ethel Beck Home For Children.
James Beck was a life-long Republican, who served as a sergeant-at-arms at the 1940 National Republican Convention. He was one of the chief organizers of the Knoxville Branch NAACP in 1919. He was a candidate for city council in 1951.
Ethel Beck was active with the Order of Eastern Star and served as Honored Grand Conductress for eight years, She was president of the Tennessee State Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. Being a sports enthusiast, she played in a national tennis meet in Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1928. She was the superintendent of the playground at the popular Cal Johnson Park for four years. The Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville is named for the Becks.
Robert J. Booker