Whether traversing mountain peaks or forging new ground in the political, scientific and artistic arenas, Tennessee’s most creative, courageous minds have made their mark in history. Below are a few of our most prolific pioneers.
The first governor of Tennessee, Sevier, served 6 full terms. He was the first and only governor of the State of Franklin and was elected to Congress four times.
Kiffen Yates Rockwell
The first American aviator to shoot down an aircraft in aerial combat was also a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille. He was born in Newport.
Born in Sparta, this legendary member of Flatt and Scruggs was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor.
The Tennessee Volunteers baseball team’s home field wears the name of this nationally famous sportscaster. Getting his start on the Vol Network, Nelson went on to announce 25 Cotton Bowl games for CBS.
This American country comedienne appeared at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years. She also could be seen on the hit show Hee Haw from 1969 to 1991.
Actress, talk show host, entertainment executive and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey has been named the wealthiest African-American of the 20th century. Oprah is a graduate of Tennessee State University.
The University of Tennessee Lady Vols head basketball coach, Pat Summit is the “all-time winningest coach” in NCAA basketball history.
Peter Hillsman Taylor, Robert Penn Warren, Cormac McCarthy, James Agee and T.S. Stribling
are all Pulitzer Prize winning authors that lived and worked in Tennessee.
This Knoxville native has been named by Total Film as the 12th greatest director of all time for his nonlinear storylines and award-winning films. He has earned the Icon of the Decade award at the Sony Ericsson Empire Awards. Most recently his movie Inglorious Basterds was nominated for 8 Oscars and won for Best Supporting Actor.
The coach after which University of Tennessee’s football stadium is named, Robert Neyland is the “all-time winningest” coach in Volunteer football history with 173 wins in 213 games, 6 SEC championships and 4 national championships.
Born in Nashville, Grooms proved himself as a multimedia artist, painter, sculptor, printmaker, filmaker and theatrical showman. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Design in 2003.
Houston, the only person in U.S. history to be elected governor in two different states, moved to Maryville when he was 14 years old. At 16, he ran away from home and was adopted by the Cherokee nation. He returned to Maryville at age 19 and founded the first school built in Tennessee.
This music legend started Sun Records in Memphis. He is credited with the discoveries of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and numerous other rhythm and blues and rock and roll stars of the period. Sun Records produced more rock and roll records than any other record label of its time.
Samuel Powhatan Carter
Born in Elizabethton, Carter is the only person in American history to be both an admiral in the Navy and a general in the Army. A Tennessee Historical Marker located on West Elk Avenue in front of the S. P. Carter home in downtown Elizabethton commemorates his life and naval career.
Sequoyah (George Gist)
This Cherokee silversmith is the only known person in history to singlehandedly develop an alphabet. Born in the Cherokee village of Tuskegee, Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee is the first written language for a Native American people. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore tells his story and is dedicated to the history and culture of Native Americans.
Born in Clarksville, Rudolph suffered from polio as a child. She later became a star member of Tennessee State University’s track team. On September 7th, 1960, Rudolf became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. June 23rd is Wilma Rudolph Day in Tennessee.
William M. Bass
This forensic anthropologist, renowned for his research on human osteology and decomposition, is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, or more popularly known as “The Body Farm.” Dr. Bass has assisted federal, local and non-U.S. authorities in the identification of human remains, as well as being a prolific author and speaker.
This popular Hee Haw writer and actor was instrumental in starting Knoxville’s first country music television show, Country Playhouse.
This Queen of Soul, born in Memphis, was the first female artist inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, holding the record for the most Best Female R&B Vocal Performance awards.
B. B. King
This blues legend and his famous custom guitar “Lucille” got their start in Memphis’ Sun Studios. B. B. King has received multiple awards for his accomplishments including being named third on Time magazine’s list of the ten best electric guitarists.
This committed journalist, raised in Knoxville, bought Chattanooga Times at age 19 and transformed it into one of the South’s leading newspapers. He went on to purchase the New York Times at age 36, making it a legendary paper.
Buried near his childhood home in Henning, this prolific journalist began as a writer for Playboy, interviewing such influential subjects as Muhammad Ali, Miles Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. His book Roots: Saga of an American Family won Haley a Special Award from the Pulitzer board, and his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X was named by Time as one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Anne Dallas Dudley
This prominent women’s suffrage activist was instrumental in getting the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in her home state of Tennessee, She founded the Nashville Equal Suffrage League and later went on to serve as the president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and the Third Vice President of the National American Women Suffrage Association.
Benjamin Lawson Hooks
Born in Memphis, this Baptist minister and practicing attorney served as executive director of the NAACP for 15 years, an active campaigner for civil rights in the United States.
One of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, this “Empress of the Blues,” born in Chattanooga, is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era.
This former teacher was hired as narrator for a supposed three-month series commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Heartland Series had a 25-year run, Landry narrating every one of the 1,900 short episodes and 150 half-hour programs. The final episode filmed at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris attracted a crowd of 10,000 people, one of the largest in the museum’s history.
Also known as “Mr. Guitar,” this country music legend is credited with creating the smoother country style known as “the Nashville sound” which expanded country music’s appeal to pop music fans as well.
A gradute from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Brown proved himself an “actor’s director,” listening to his actors, respecting their instincts and incorporating their suggestions. His films garnered 38 Academy Award nominations and earned 9 Oscars.
After moving to Tennessee as a young boy, Saunders created the first modern grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, in Memphis, in 1916.
The frontier exploits of this American explorer made him one of the first folk heros in the United States. The Wilderness Trail that now runs through the Cumberland Gap was blazed by Daniel Boone.
This prolific singer-songwriter, author, actress and philanthropist earned the title of “Queen of Country Music.” Born in Sevierville, she has a record 41 top ten country albums. She is one of the most honored female country performers of all time.
The “King of Rock and Roll” began his career at Sun Records in Memphis. Today, Elvis is regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th-century popular culture. His estate, Graceland, commemorates his life and achievements.
This American inventor and entrepreneur is considered the father of miniature golf. He sold his patent for “Tom Thumb Golf” to found the Rock City Gardens in Chattanooga.
Born in Nashville, this musical legend is best known for his famous rock ’n’ roll band, The Allman Brothers.
The first woman elected to serve as a United States senator, Hattie Caraway was born in Bakerville.
Born as Jasper Newton, this originator of Jack Daniel Distillery founded the largest Tennessee whiskey maker in the world. You can visit the distillery in Moore County, which is, ironically, a dry county.
The media appearances of Knoxville native Jack Hanna have made him one of the most notable animal experts in the United States.