Nov. 26, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of the vote to incorporate the Collegedale community as a Tennessee municipality. Collegedale's unique flavor as a majority Seventh-day Adventist community had much to do with the incorporation, and more particularly, the almost now-vanished enactment of Sunday "blue laws," which required that businesses close to observe the day. Adventists observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and frequently conduct the personal business adherents of other religions do on Saturday on Sunday. The center of the community, then known as Southern Missionary College, came to that part of Hamilton County in 1916 after Sunday laws were invoked against Adventists in Graysville, Tennessee, in 1895.
In 1968, Chattanooga enforced Sunday laws. Enforcement of blue laws in Collegedale would have caused serious disruption of the community's economy. Stores there did a large business on Sunday, and since businesses elsewhere were closed, many non-Adventists came to town to shop. Further, residents and students of the college, who were not working on Saturday for religious reasons, also would not work on Sunday.
Faced with increasing poverty in the inner city, and the reputation of being one of America's most polluted cities, a population shift to Chattanooga's suburbs (which affected the city's tax base) was well underway. A change in Tennessee's annexation laws made it possible for Chattanooga and other municipalities to annex territory by ordinance, without input from the residents of an affected area. Whether real or imagined, Collegedale residents perceived a threat of being annexed by Chattanooga, which would include its Sunday closing laws.
According to Glenn McColpin, the attorney who filed the petition to incorporate on behalf of its advocates, the residents of the Collegedale community had discussed incorporation as early as 1963. The effort in 1968 began when the residents of neighboring Ooltewah held a town hall meeting to discuss incorporation of that community. Chattanooga Mayor Ralph Kelley made it clear that efforts to incorporate on the periphery of Chattanooga would bring about annexation from the larger city. Indeed, the law at that time allowed a larger city (of more than 100,000 citizens) to delay incorporation of an area within five miles of its boundaries for a period of 15 months. Chattanooga annexed a portion of I-75 (then permissible, but later an illegal "corridor" annexation) to put it within five miles of Ooltewah and Collegedale, buying itself a bit of time. The group favoring incorporation in Ooltewah dropped its plans.
But McColpin and Collegedale residents favoring incorporation figured Chattanooga did not in fact want to annex their community, which was somewhat isolated in a pocket hemmed in by the ridges and mountains of East Hamilton County. Further, as the law required annexations to be contiguous, Chattanooga would have to bring in a large tract between its then city limits and Collegedale, and provide municipal services — police and fire protection, garbage services, street lighting, road paving, etc. Chattanooga simply was not in a position to do that in 1968.
The vote was held on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1968. Of the estimated 400 registered voters, 290 cast ballots. The vote was 216 for, 74 against. Many of the area's total of 3,000 residents were college students and not qualified to vote. The initial area of the city was 2,900 acres.
In the following weeks, McColpin, the new city's attorney, and others struggled with the legal and practical issues of establishing the city government. An election was held for the town's first city commission on Jan. 28, 1969, and Fred Fuller, L.D. Housley and William Hulsey were elected the first commissioners. Fuller and Hulsey were Adventists, Housley was not. Fuller, who had the largest vote total, was selected by his two fellow commissioners as the town's first mayor, and Hulsey was elected vice mayor. Interestingly, both Fuller and Hulsey, who are now deceased, would return to serve on the city commission decades later. By Jan. 1, 1970, the town was fully functioning and offering all necessary services to its citizens.
In the end, Chattanooga did not exercise its right to interfere with the incorporation. In 1970, Fuller was quoted as saying that "[a]ctually, Chattanooga officials have been very helpful to us. We've gone to them for advice, and they couldn't have been more cooperative." And as time has passed and the two municipalities know about one other, mutually beneficial cooperation between the two has continued.
Local attorney and historian Sam D. Elliott has been Collegedale's city attorney since 1999. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.