Gateway to the Big South Fork

John J. Duncan Sr.

As a farm boy from Scott County, few could have predicted that John J. Duncan would one day be mayor of Knoxville and rise to become one of the senior Republicans in the U.S. Congress. 

Few, that is, except Duncan himself.

As a congressman, Duncan developed a reputation as a politician who worked harder for his constituents than any other, and one who was respected on either side of the aisle. As a mayor before that, Duncan helped Knoxville avoid the violent racial strife that was taking other Southern cities by storm during the turbulent ‘60s by ushering in an end to segregation. 

But before he was a politician, he hoed corn on his parents’ farm in Huntsville.

Duncan was one of 10 children born to Flem and Cassie Lee Duncan. His father was a veteran of the Spanish-American War; his mother was a career educator and his maternal grandfather was a superintendent of schools in Scott County.

As his brother — former Knox County criminal court judge Joe Duncan — tells it, they were hoeing corn on a hot day in 1939 when John slammed down his hoe and announced that he was going to Knoxville. “He said, ‘I’m going to Knoxville, get an education, be mayor and then go to Congress,’” Joe Duncan once said.

John Duncan famously hitch-hiked from Huntsville to Knoxville with $5 in his pocket, planning to attend school at the University of Tennessee on promise of a $100 scholarship from Sears & Roebuck. He did, too — earning his bachelors degree before joining the U.S. Army during World War II.

Following the war, Duncan attended law school at Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tenn. He asked Joe to join him. But, “I was a big Vol fan at the time and I said I was going to go with the Volunteers,” Joe Duncan said. The two did practice law together at one point in Knoxville, however, and Joe Duncan later served as criminal court judge in Knoxville, though his time on the bench as a trial judge did not overlap his brother’s tenure as mayor.

John Duncan served as an assistant district attorney in Knoxville for several years before being elected to replace Mayor Jack Dance, who had died in office. The mayoral campaign was Duncan’s first foray into politics, but he had already been politically active. He was a strong supporter of Congressman Howard H. Baker Sr. of Huntsville, who represented Tennessee’s 2nd District.

One of Duncan’s first initiatives after his 1959 election was to renovate Knoxville’s Market Square. Against the opposition of history buffs who wanted to save the old Market House, Duncan pushed forward with his plans to have the old building demolished and replaced with Market Square Mall, and the downtown area has thrived since.

Duncan was very early in his tenure as mayor when racial strife that had been unfolding across the South reached Knoxville. Black students from Knoxville College organized a series of sit-ins to protest segregation at downtown lunch counters. Duncan partnered with the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and formed a Good Will Committee, which encouraged the downtown businesses to integrate. By July 1960, segregation had all but disappeared from the downtown area. The widespread racial violence that plagued other Southern cities in the early ‘60s never visited Knoxville.

“It was a difficult issue for the new mayor to face almost immediately upon taking office, but less than a year later anyone could be served and enjoy the food in downtown Knoxville,” politico Ray Hill — who once interned with Duncan — later wrote. “The leadership of John J. Duncan is one big reason why Knoxville never experienced the violence that afflicted many other cities throughout the South during that period of time.”

John Duncan was a popular mayor — “neither flamboyant nor one to seek publicity,” he “approached his work quietly and methodically,” according to Hill — and he was extraordinarily popular in Knoxville’s black community.

Duncan was re-elected as mayor, but something else was playing out. On Jan. 7, 1964, Congressman Baker died of a heart attack while shaving. His widow, Irene Bailey Baker, was victorious in a special election to replace him, but promised from Day 1 that she would not seek re-election after the conclusion of her late husband’s term.

Once Baker’s son, Howard H. Baker Jr., decided not to enter the race, Duncan decided to seek election to Congress. He faced stiff opposition in the Republican primary from Judge J. Frank Qualls of Roane County.

Duncan’s mother, Cassie Lee Duncan, campaigned for her son in Scott County.

“She was the politician of the family,” Joe Duncan said of his mother. “She was involved in everything. She was a school teacher, chairman of the Eastern Star, president of the PTA. So when John was running for Congress I told him not to waste his time in Scott County. I said, ‘We can get Mama fired up and hire her a driver, and she’ll get everyone in Scott County. So we turned Scott County over to Mama. She went to Norma, Paint Rock, everywhere. She had taught school in all of those places.”

Duncan won his native Scott County handedly, and went on to narrowly defeat Qualls in the primary, winning by 868 votes out of more than 46,000 votes cast. He also won Campbell, Knox and Loudon counties, while Qualls won Anderson, Blount, Morgan and Roane counties.

The general election was also close in 1964, but Duncan defeated Knox County Commissioner Willard Yarborough and was never again seriously challenged in an election.

As a congressman, Duncan had a reputation for constituent service. He always had a booth at the county fair, where he served free ice water. And it’s been written that he held constituent meetings in the old federal building downtown, where lines would wrap through the hallways. He made time to talk to everyone who wanted to address him.

“I distinctly remember several occasions when Congressman Duncan made simple talks, never failing to remind folks he was happy to help anyone and everyone, Republican, Democrat and independent,” Hill wrote.

Duncan won re-election 11 times, including by some of the widest margins in the country. In 1986, he won by a 3-to-1 margin. He was twice unopposed. Even in 1976, when Jimmy Carter’s popularity when he was running for president helped Democrats claim several key seats in Tennessee and caused party operatives to eye the 2nd District as a possible flip, Duncan won handedly.

Duncan died in office on June 21, 1988, following a battle with prostate cancer. He was 69. Within hours of his death, Congress passed a resolution to name the federal building in downtown Knoxville in his honor. The resolution was carried in the Senate by a Democrat, Tennessee’s Al Gore.

Duncan’s son, Jimmy Duncan, won a special election to replace his father. He served in Congress for 30 years before retiring in January. His daughter, Becky Duncan Massey, is also in politics. She represents Knoxville in the state senate.

This article first appeared in the Independent Herald.

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