*Originally posted in the Tennessee Conservationist—May/June 2023
Two large state flags fly over Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville. Park rangers refer to the twin flagpoles as the park’s birthday candles. Each pole represents 100 years of Tennessee history, and added together, they mark 200 years of Tennessee—our bicentennial.
So, when is the birthdate these flags proudly represent? June 1 is Tennessee’s birthday, also referred to as Statehood Day. Over its history, Tennessee has found many ways to celebrate its people, places, and statehood.
Spanning three decades and the creation of multiple different governments, the events leading to the establishment of the State of Tennessee were complex. Before the founding of the United States, the land west of the Appalachian Mountains was reserved exclusively for Native Americans—an agreement set up through a system of treaties. Despite this, prior to and after the creation of the nation, frontiersmen began making more and more hunting trips and excursions into the area now known as Tennessee. The first contracted settlement of colonists in the area was the Watauga Association. These settlers began arriving in Cherokee territory in the 1760s. By 1772, the Wataugans created a constitution for their settlement and signed a lease agreement for the land with the Cherokee. Neither the lease, nor the later purchase of the land in 1775 were accepted by all Cherokee.
During the Revolutionary War, a group of men from the Watauga and surrounding settlements crossed the mountains to aid the colonies in the fight against Britain. This group were given the name “The Overmountain Men.” In 1780, these men helped defeat British loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain, halting the British advancement into the southern colonies.
After the Revolutionary War, the area that became Tennessee was considered part of the territory of North Carolina. But the few counties of North Carolina west of the mountains felt disconnected from the rest of the state, and were susceptible to Native American raids caused by settler encroachment. To gain more protection for themselves, in 1784 these settlers formed the State of Franklin and elected John Sevier as the first governor. Sevier was one of the leaders of the Overmountain Men and the Watauga settlement. The State of Franklin, however, never managed to receive the two-thirds majority vote required by the Articles of Confederation to be recognized as a true state.
To further complicate things, jurisdiction of the land passed back and forth as North Carolina tried to pay off war debts to the new federal government. After conflict among different settlers, and pressure from North Carolina, the State of Franklin ceased to exist four years after its founding. In 1790, the federal government finally took lasting control over the land, and it became the Territory South of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory. Around this time, the new statehood. Finally, a state constitution was drafted by a constitutional convention over the course of 27 days. The new constitution borrowed heavily from both the United States’ and North Carolina’s constitutions. The new constitution allowed free males 21 or older who owned land to vote, without regard for race. John Sevier was again elected governor of the new state west of the Appalachian Mountains. After the approval of Congress, President George Washington signed off on Tennessee as the 16th state in the union.
100 Years of Statehood
Although Statehood Day has been celebrated each year in one way or another, the first large-scale celebration of Tennessee’s statehood was the Centennial Exposition. During the two decades leading up to this event, expositions were established as the most popular way for cities and nations to showcase developments in art, industry, and technology. Large expos, including the 1876 national Centennial Expo in Philadelphia and 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, helped inspire Tennessee’s Centennial Expo.
On the grounds of a former racetrack, the state built a small compound of 20 buildings, a man-made lake, and extensive walking paths. Due to the scale of the project and the vast resources dedicated to creating the Expo, the area was even granted full powers as a separate city!
Despite Tennessee’s centennial birthday taking place in 1896, the Expo experienced planning and construction setbacks and didn’t open to the public until May 1, 1897. The Expo was staged to showcase Tennessee’s technological, educational, and social progress in its first 100 years of statehood. Thanks to the industrial revolution and the machine age, technology was positioned front and center. One goal of the Expo was to highlight Tennessee’s place in the New South, showing the best that Tennessee had to offer, from electric lights on buildings to automated brick-making.
The Expo also represented different aspects of Tennessee’s growth, including agriculture, commerce, and transportation. Some focal points were a women’s building, a children’s building, and a building housing African American products and educational feats. But due to segregation, Black citizens could only visit the Expo on specific days. The African American showcase, along with the invitation to advocates of racial progress and cooperation, highlighted the contradictory aspect of racial politics in the New South. The Expo also featured lectures and demonstrations that dove into other political topics, such as education reform.
Many expos had a central architectural feat, like the Eiffel tower at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. Tennessee’s Centennial celebration boasted a one-to-one scale replica of the Greek Parthenon, created to highlight Nashville’s moniker as the Athens of the South. Over its six-month run, the Expo was visited by almost 1.8 million people, making it the most successful expo in the Southeast during this era. All the buildings at the Expo were built to be temporary. At its conclusion, they were all torn down—except for the replica Parthenon. The original wood and stucco Parthenon was later replaced with the current concrete structure during the 1920s.
200 Years of Statehood
During the century between the centennial and bicentennial statehood celebrations, Tennessee changed in many ways. Communication, media, and travel became far more facile and helped connect communities separated by large distances. In contrast to the large, centrally-located Centennial Expo, organizers of the bicentennial celebration felt that it would be better for the next celebration to take place across the state.
A decade before the bicentennial, Tennessee held a year-long, statewide celebration called “Homecoming ’86.” During this celebration, local organizations and communities focused on two major goals: researching a community’s history, and planning a project to preserve, promote, or enhance the qualities of the community. Many of the organizations created during Homecoming ’86 continued through to the bicentennial and helped lay a foundation for the celebration.
In 1992, the state established the Bicentennial Commission and a nonprofit called Tennessee 200 to help coordinate the bicentennial celebration. To help bring the party directly to the citizens of Tennessee, the Tennessee State Museum created three mobile trailer exhibits called “Tennessee Treasures,” that carried artifacts from the museum to all 95 counties between 1993 and 1994. “The Spirit of Tennessee” train was also created by the State Museum and Tennessee 200. This choo choo was an eight-car exhibit train that traveled across the state to showcase Tennessee’s trade and transportation. Local community organizations joined the fun by creating many smaller items including apparel, cookbooks, history books, and more.
Although many of the bicentennial statehood events took place across the state, the decision was made to build a permanent location to celebrate Tennessee. Throughout the 20th century, skyscrapers had popped up around three sides of the State Capitol building, obstructing the view that at one time had been the highest in Nashville. So the location of the permanent bicentennial celebration was placed on the north side of the Capitol building. This location guaranteed that one side of the Capitol would always remain open for people to enjoy the skyline. This site was also the location of a multi-day festival in 1996. Not wanting to simply mark the bicentennial and be done, the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park was created to showcase the historical and natural aspects of Tennessee every single day.
Celebrating Statehood Every Year
Over the past decade, Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park has been joined by new neighbors—the Tennessee State Museum and Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA). Although it has always been the goal of each of these entities to mark Statehood Day in their own way, all now partner up to celebrate the state they all help to preserve.
Each year, the TSLA displays the three constitutions written throughout Tennessee’s history and invites state historians to discuss Tennessee history. The State Museum holds lectures and showcases special items from Tennessee’s past. The state park hosts tours discussing the history of the Volunteer State and, importantly, makes sure that the state has a cake to celebrate its birthday!
Whether it is the significant celebrations of landmark anniversaries or the yearly celebrations at institutions that preserve Tennessee’s history, Statehood Day and Tennessee’s birthday will continue to be shared and celebrated every June 1 for decades to come.
Learn more: tnstateparks.com/parks/bicentennial-mall.