Tennessee’s year-long Homecoming '86 initiative consisted of activities throughout communities in the state that focused on Tennessee culture and heritage. Over 6,000 projects and celebrations were part of the festivities in 1986, with more than 800 communities participating by researching their history and planning projects for their residents. Minnie Pearl and author Alexander Haley served as the honorary Co-Chairmen for the initiative, both citing their experiences during childhood as reasons they wanted to help capture the history of the state and to participate in sharing stories. With an $11-million budget for advertising, promotions for Homecoming '86 were extended beyond Tennessee communities to a national audience, even influencing the 1986 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to focus on Tennessee. Some local Homecoming ‘86 projects laid the foundation for community initiatives that continued through the state’s Bicentennial in 1996.

During 1986, staff from the Tennessee State Library and Archives visited the county seats of thirty-nine counties, soliciting community members to bring in their photographs to be copied for the collection. Contributors were asked to submit information (subject, date, location, classification and significance) about their images. The end result, the "Looking Back at Tennessee" Photograph Collection, contains over 7,700 images covering the period of 1890-1981, with the bulk largely concentrated from 1900-1940. Photographs are grouped under the following subjects: agriculture/landscape, architecture, business/industry, cemeteries, costumes, crime, disasters, education, folk customs, home/domestic services, military/public service, portraits, public events, recreation/entertainment, religion, towns and cities, and transportation. Examples of life recorded include early automobiles, baptisms and revivals, Civilian Conservation Corps, fashion, floods, a German Prisoner-of-War camp, moonshine still raids, Mule Day, parades, quilting, schools and homes, social events, steamboats, street scenes, threshing, train wrecks, and traveling salesmen. By reflecting certain periods of life in the past, the "Looking Back at Tennessee" Photograph Collection preserves a permanent visual record of ways of life in Tennessee not often documented in records of the period.