Looking at Cement Hill from downtown Kingsport, you would not have known there were many homes on the hill's summitt. That's because former Cement Hill resident Ethel Ruth Russell says, none of the houses faced downtown.
"There were homes on the top of the hill, but not in the front of it facing downtown," she says. "I guess they (the city) figured it would make the downtown look bad, so they didn't let them build houses on the town side. They were all on the back side.
Mrs. Russell was born in Kingsport, and lived on Cement Hill until she was 11 or 12 years old. She admits to not remembering a whole lot about "life on the hill" that early. She does say the homes were nice and comfortable, even though they were close together, and everybody "had it pretty easy."
Most of the homes on Cement Hill in the 1930's and 40's, Mrs. Russell says, were on the south side facing the Holston River and the railroad track and bridges connecting Tennessee Eastman with the Holston Army Ammunition plant. There was no Industry Drive, she remembers.. only a narrow dirt road at the base of the hill that really didn't go anywhere, but it had hog pens, vegetable gardens and storage areas.
"Most of our neighbors were black families," she says. "There were maybe 2 or 3 white families, but there were more blacks than whites. Most of the black families were all from South Carolina that came to work in Kingsport. At my house, it was me, my grandfather Reed Alexander, my mother Corrine, and my uncle June in our little house."
But many Penn-Dixie Cement workers had the convenience of living in homes, on land owned by their company that was very nearby. Mrs. Russell says, the only person who lived on Cement Hill, but did not work at Penn-Dixie was Eddie Ervin. He was the mail carrier.
1942 DOUGLASS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Family was important, living that close together on Cement Hill. Apparently, just like in the Riverview Community that had just been started less than a mile away, Cement Hill was one big family. "Our next door neighbors were the Rays, Henry Ray, Ronnie Ray -- they called him 'Chicken' Ray," says Mrs. Russell. "The McClintocks also lived there on the side of the hill. Levenus and them all lived there, because Uncle Edgar had a job at the cement plant, too."
She says, when she was born, her family had arrived from Woodruff, South Carolina just a little while earlier. Her grandfather also came to work for Penn-Dixie Cement.
"My grandfather Reed Alexander, was a well-respected man," she says. "I always called him 'Pap.' I used to roll his cigarettes with this little machine he had. He never called me Ethel or Ruth, he called me 'Daughter' even though I was his granddaughter. In the house with us, was my uncle June and my mom Corrine. I did not know my grandmother much.. I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I been told that I was the best-dressed little girl around. She belonged to the Holiness Church and I would go with her and I was dressed nice from head to toe. My uncle June also dressed nice.. a sharp dressed man. He used to shine shoes at Jason Taylor's hat shop."
FOOT BRIDGE OVER THE CLINCHFIELD-KINGSPORT RAILROAD YARD, FROM CEMENT HILL TO DOWNTOWN KINGSPORT
Mrs. Russell does not remember a lot of cars around Cement Hill, but she does remember a foot bridge between the hill and downtown Kingsport. "Scared to death of it," she laughs. "I used to crawl under the trains, just to keep from walking that bridge. It was too high up, I guess, but I sure didn't like to cross the tracks on it. I guess I was too young to know that it was probably fine to use it, but I saw it the first time and I hated it. They couldn't have dragged me across it. Eveyrbody else used it, though, going back and forth to downtown."
Mrs. Russell attended Douglass Elementary School, when it was "up on East Walnut Avenue and the Bristol Highway (the corner is now East Sevier Avenue and East Center Street), and sometimes I would just walk to school from home. Other times, I would just call a Gilliam's Cab. Pap had an account with Gilliam's, and whenever I need one, it was right there. Gilliam's came in handy too, when I started going over to Riverview from home. Me and Janie Goodwin became good friends because we were in the same grade, and I started spending the night with her and her mother and Miss Bly. When I started coming over, the last memories I had of Cement Hill, was staying with Florida Lytle. She lived in Riverview Apartments #46. Since I was 11 years old, I would come over and stay with her because I was best friends with Janie."
Many people knew that African-Americans lived on Cement Hill, but nobody had heard about what life was like there. Peaceful... calm... but what was the history of Cement Hill before anybody lived on it? Oddly enough.. it shares the same form of history as its successor, Riverview.
"The top part where you went to observe and take pictures from, Calvin" says out-going Kingsport City Manager John Campbell, "was pretty much a covered landfill. In fact, there are 3 landfills that Domtar has to monitor on a regular basis, and that would pretty prohibit any future development up there, except a passive recreation area. That's where we feel the future lies for Cement Hill."
When the ballfields are built on the General Shale site, Campbell says, the athletic theme would fit in nicely with Cement Hill.
"We actually have some money set aside to purchase Cement Hill at what we think is a reasonable price," he says, "although we're not sure Domtar thinks it's reasonable. There's also money set aside to do a master plan. Our vision has been for the past two years is a passive recreation area for the most part, with walking trails and mountain biking trails. The idea of taking advantage of the views with some picnic shelters and overlooks is a good one. Also, planting trees in certain ways that would look good in artwork, even a waterfall there at the train station, have been talked about."
"The idea of developing Cement Hill, in conjunction with the new ballfields is a good one," Campbell says, "and it's definitely an idea we're considering."
"I wouldn't mind seeing the history of Cement Hill preserved in any development they build," says former resident Ethel Ruth Russell. "I've never really thought about going back up there, other than just passing by on Industry Drive. Every time I do, I think about the gardens, the nice homes, and of course the hogpens."
"There's not too much to look at now, except a bare hill. Maybe that will change back to the nice area I knew, growing up."
TO SEE THE MAGNIFICIENT VIEWS FROM CEMENT HILL IN DOWNTOWN KINGSPORT, SEE THE SLIDE SHOW BELOW:
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