KNOXVILLE (WATE) – This month we celebrate Black History Month by taking a look at the contributions of African-Americans in East Tennessee.
Chances are if you live in Knoxville, you’ve seen the name “Cansler” around town. Well, the story behind the matriarch of that name is a fascinating look at education in Knoxville.
Laura Ann Cansler left an undeniable mark on Knoxville in the 1860s.
“She was a person who was not only active in teaching school but she was very much involved with the women’s temperance union and she was very much involved with civic activities. She was a well rounded lady,” said Robert Booker.
Booker, a historian, has written several books on Knoxville’s African-American history. He says the Canslers contributed so much to Knoxville.
“Laura already begun to do things in her own right by 1863. During the Civil War, Gen. Ambrose Burnside occupied the city and she got permission from him to open a school for free blacks. And thus she became Knoxville’s first black school teacher,” said Booker.
Laura Cansler School was called Burnside School and it was named for General Burnside, a Civil War general and U.S. senator.
“She operated her school for a number of years on Detroit avenue which was in the University of Tennessee area before urban renewal took that street out,” said Booker.
In 1917, her son Charles, who was considered a mathematical wiz, would push for the then mayor of Knoxville to open a library for African-Americans. It was called the Free Colored Carnegie branch of the Lawson McGhee Library.
Her son, Charles, would go on to write a book called “Three Generations: The Story of a Colored Family in Eastern Tennessee.”
In 1952, a Knoxville school was dedicated as Cansler Elementary. Fast forward to 2016 and it’s still carries on Laura’s memory and spirit.
Cansler Elementary School soon became the Cansler Boys and Girls Club. Now, it houses The Wesley House Community Center. Students playing and learning in a building dedicated to a woman who fought for free blacks to be educated at a time when society thought otherwise.
More than a century later, Cansler remains a name Knoxville should not forget.