During the Jim Crow south in 1949, John’s Place was the one business in Cookeville where everyone socialized together regardless of race. Michael Birdwell, history professor and Tennessee State Review Board for the National Register of Historic Places member, has submitted a registration form to Washington to have John’s Place listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”It’s symbolic of a specific period in time, and if we don’t preserve it, that history of black-white relations in Cookeville and the uniqueness of them will be lost,” Birdwell said.
John’s Place, originally called Ed’s Place and McClellan’s Café, is an African American owned establishment located on Gibson Avenue. It was established in 1949 by Ed McClellan as the second grocery store to be operated by African Americans in Cookeville. The building was originally divided by a partition wall, with a door on the south side opening into a restaurant and the door on the north side opening into a grocery store.
John’s Place served southern meals, including fried chicken, fried catfish, meat loaf, and corn bread. They had a license to sell beer in the grocery store up until 1953, when it was revoked due to a racist sheriff. In 1957, they regained their license to sell beer, but it was only to be sold in six-packs.
In 1963, Ed sold his part of the business to his brother John Lee McClellan. John Lee took the partitioning wall out and made it into one open space with a kitchen area and horseshoe bar, where he sold beer to be consumed on the premises after receiving a license.
Every place in Putnam County was segregated except for John’s Place. Many people had their first encounter with an African American at John’s.
“Between 1963,” Birdwell said, “when the place reopens and throughout much of the 1960s, the only place that you could interact interracially was at John’s and not feel any kind of threat.”
With John’s Place being located beside Highway 70, where truckers and blue- collared workers traveled, the reputation of their good food spread throughout the counties.
When they stopped serving full meals, John Lee met with James Foutch of Foutch’s Meat, a local meat producer, to come up with a recipe for their own hot dog, later known as the John Dog. The recipe for the John Dog and its condiments are a family secret.
The John Dog became a local favorite. People of every race went to John’s for a John dog. The rugby team would take a case of John Dogs with them anytime they traveled.
“John Dogs have been served in England,” Birdwell said. “They’ve been served in Scotland. They’ve been served in New Zealand and served all over the United States.”
“When I was in high school, we would go to John’s after school, and we’d go to the drive-thru because we couldn’t go in,” Birdwell said. “Heaven forbid we be seen going in, but there would be cars lined up at 3:30 in the afternoon any day of the week getting sacks of John Dogs.”
While there were whites whom would go into John’s and eat, there were also a lot of whites whom would prefer to go to the drive-thru instead.
Even though there was racial tension in Cookeville, John’s Place never had any race-related trouble.
“In the whole history of race in Tennessee,” Birdwell said, “John’s is this bizarre story where there has never been, not to say there was never trouble at John’s, there was, but it was usually between fraternities but not among blacks and whites,”
John Lee McClellan was seen as a well-respected man in the white and black communities. He was the first African American elected to a public office in Putnam County.
His nephew, “Shakey,” also John Lee McClellan, was well-respected. He was the first African American tennis player in Cookeville. Part of the reason Cookeville has tennis courts is because of “Shakey.”
The McClellan’s helped put a lot of students through school, both white and black. If anyone needed a job or money to go to school, they offered their assistance as a gift. They didn’t care what race the person was. Anyone was welcome to eat at John’s.
“As Mr. Farley said, ‘We didn’t care what color you were as long as your money was green,'” Birdwell said.
“When I went in there for the first time, it was like everybody’s everybody,” Birdwell said, “I mean everybody’s equal. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is.”
From 1965 to the mid-1980s, John’s Place became the hangout for Tech students. There was never any trouble between the black and white students at John’s.
“There never has been racial tension there,” Birdwell said, “and it has been integrated from the get-go before Cookeville was integrated.”
John’s Place was significant as an interracial hangout until 1973, when other businesses began integrating.
John’s Place is now run by John Lee’s widow, Mary Alice McClellan.
“That blacks and whites interacted harmoniously is unusual,” Birdwell said, “given the time period.”
“It was the only nomination to get an ovation at the review board meeting,” Birdwell said, “and there were ten other properties, including the WSM tower, which is an iconic structure.”
Birdwell submitted the registration form to Washington on Jan. 24. He will find out whether or not John’s Place will make it onto the list by the end of March.
A documentary on John’s Place will air on WCTE in April. Birdwell said he is hoping it will be in high enough quality that it will be picked up nationally.