On a visit last summer to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, senior Stella Takvoryan was viewing the abstract paintings of artists like Jackson Pollock when she came upon Knoxville native Beauford Delaney’s Composition 16 (1954-56, the title denoting the 16th work Delaney painted in his years in Paris). It is a study in heavily textured ribbon-like swirls of green, red, and Delaney’s signature bright yellow hue.
“I was so excited,” said Takvoryan, who as an intern at Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center had spent months examining and cataloging family photos, letters, and other artifacts from the ancestral home of Delaney (1901–1979) and his brother Joseph (1904–1991), also a renowned artist. “Seeing that painting was a very bizarre experience, almost spiritual. It amplified the experience of looking at the Delaneys’ art and appreciating their family legacy.”
A year ago, Takvoryan, an English major and history minor, had taken Distinguished Lecturer Pat Rutenberg’s course The City as History: Introduction to Public History. For that class, students combine their studies with service for the greater good by interning at historical societies, libraries, museums, historic houses, or other organizations that do historical research and present history to the general public.
“These internships are all intended to engage the students in current public history scholarship and practices that emphasize the importance of telling the complete story,” said Rutenberg. “For example, my students read a text on the enslaved at Blount Mansion written by Lisa Oakley, curator of education at the East Tennessee Historical Society. That text provides a more comprehensive narrative about the work and lives of all those who were connected to Blount Mansion.”
For Takvoryan’s internship, she chose Beck, located on Dandridge Avenue and dedicated to preserving Black history and culture in East Tennessee. When she walked into the center, she met its president, Rev. Renée Kesler. “I’d never met anyone like Renée,” said Takvoyan. “She was upbeat and such a powerhouse, with that infectious energy. I was star-struck and extremely intimidated.”
Kesler said interns provided through UT’s public history program are unique. “These are students who chose to come to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center because of their background and research interests. It is always a special experience when a student specifically seeks out an opportunity to work with Beck. Their passion and interest show in their exceptional work.”
The Courage to Discover—In the Deep End
A Knoxville native, Takvoryan grew up in Sequoyah Hills and graduated from West High School, where Kesler’s husband, Chris, had taught her math.
“Renée kind of threw me in the deep end. For my report, she told me to weave my thoughts about Knoxville’s Black history with the stories and facts. We talked about it, and I wrote the longest paper I’d written to that point—about 7,000 words—about the fracturing of Black communities through urban renewal and its impact on education, health, and medicine as well as Knoxville College. Renee was overjoyed and I’ll never forget how positive she made me feel after all the work I’d done.”
That experience lit a fire in Takvoryan in the best sense of the Volunteer spirit. She and Rutenberg set up an independent study at Beck for the summer of 2021 titled Race and Public Memory.
“Renée told me to answer the question Why is it important for people to come to the museum to learn about the Delaney family? She emphasized the family as a unit, with all its web of relationships. Part of my answer is that it’s important for other people to be able to access materials from the archives in the future,” said Takvoryan. “And broadly, it feels like a very small part of a very big picture that Beck is chipping away at.”
Working under Beck archivist Janine Winfree and assistant archivist Briana Flanagan, Takvoryan helped make the first complete inventory of papers, letters, photos, and artifacts from the Delaney family home, the family’s only remaining ancestral home, which will be the future Delaney Museum at Beck. It will serve as a permanent tribute to a family that produced the great artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney and dedicated to sharing their history.
“I started looking through materials found in the Delaney house,” said Takvoryan. “Some were random. Some were interesting. As I went through them, I asked myself, ‘What items look like they can be put together with other materials, and if I were a researcher, what would I want to know?’”
She came upon a large notebook of graduate school notes that had belonged to Joseph and Beauford’s niece (and portrait subject) Lois Imogene Delaney (1925–1975), who went on to teach in Knox County Schools.
“My personal favorite find is a 1964 passport application,” said Takvoryan. “The address was the original Delaney home at 815 East Vine Avenue rather than their later home at 1935 Dandridge Avenue.”
At the end of the summer, Rutenberg asked Takvoryan if she wanted to be a paid intern at Beck for the coming semester. “I said yeah,” said Takvoyran.
“Students who work at Beck want to go back,” noted Rutenberg with a smile.
Paid Internships Support a Passion for Public History
In 2020, Rutenberg received a grant to fund paid internships at Beck from the Office of Community Engagement and Outreach in UT’s Division of Diversity and Engagement. That support was supplemented by the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences as part of UT’s commitment to its land-grant mission of helping to preserve the cultural history of the state.
The first paid internship, in spring 2021, went to UT alumna Kate Hansen, a history major from Eldersberg, Maryland, who the spring before while in Rutenberg’s class had started re-organizing files of pictures, letters, and other documents in the Beck’s research lab. “It’s tedious work, and not everyone enjoys that kind of work,” said Hansen, who has a gift for making order of files and filing systems. “But I love it.”
She had made it through the letter C before the COVID-19 lockdown. As Hansen started her paid internship, she said, “It was a surprise to be able to be back in the research lab to finish what I had started. I made it all the way to Z.”
She also worked with archivists Winfree and Flanagan in the main archive, which stores sensitive documents, yearbooks, films, and newspapers dating back to 1882 in a climate-controlled environment.
The Beck collection consists of 50,000 objects documenting over 200 years of local African American history and culture. Among this unique collection are approximately 5,000 documents, photos, materials, and audiovisual recordings related to Knoxville’s Urban Renewal Program, all of which help tell the story of the ramifications of urban renewal on the largely Black population it affected. Beck is in the process of digitizing this collection in order to make its content accessible to the public for further research and understanding of and connection to the past.
“I always supported Beck’s mission to preserve African American history,” said Hansen. “I understand how important it is. Renée does a great job of keeping history alive. It’s super important that people know what happened to that area.”
Kesler said the Beck Cultural Exchange Center appreciates the work of all interns who have come through their doors. “Interns are valuable insights into the latest developments in higher education. Though they may not have much practical experience before they come to Beck, their minds are brimming with bright ideas and new information passed from qualified professors. We appreciate the ideas, creativity, and passion interns bring into the workplace. We also feel driven to guide these creative, passionate future preservationists.”
When Hansen graduated in June 2021, she became the first undergraduate student to win the Department of History’s Bryan–Groce Public History Award, for her work with Beck and other organizations. “I can’t thank Dr. Rutenberg enough,” said Hansen. “She gets so much credit for giving undergraduates the opportunity to preserve public history. And she opened so many doors for me.”
During Takvoryan’s paid internship at Beck, she continued curating materials from the Delaney house. “At the conclusion of the fall 2021 semester, I came to the end of archiving the collection in the house. It was all coming together—a more complete look at the materials from the house, looking toward building out the digital collection.”
Rutenberg said both Hansen and Takvoryan are outstanding students. “They ask great questions and have hearts for this kind of work,” she said. “They both have indicated that they see public history as a part of their future careers.”
Takvoryan said she enjoys seeing history unfold and how it is presented to the public. “I’m very grateful that I found people to help me through this experience,” she said. “It fits in with what I’m looking at in my English major. I’m half linguistics and half public history. I like words.”
But Kesler said the work to preserve Black history and culture doesn’t end as an internship at Beck comes to a close. “This is work that passionate interns will continue to choose in their future opportunities. Not only does their work strengthen Beck, it also strengthens the field of public history, which includes Black history, as a whole.”
Brooks Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org, 865-974-5471)
Amanda Womac (email@example.com, 865-974-2992)