Knoxville reinvests in community affected by urban removal

By KATE COIL

The city of Knoxville is reckoning with past projects that negatively impacted the city’s African-American community and hoping to move forward with a new initiative that aims to right past wrongs.

In December 2020, the Knoxville City Council unanimously approved a measure brought forward by Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie to invest $100 million in public and private funds over ten years in projects determined by a new African American Restoration Equity Task Force.

The first African-American woman to serve as vice mayor of the city, McKenzie said the resolution came after she did her own research into why members of the city’s black community seemed to be disproportionately impacted by poverty. The result was a story from black history that has been long left untold.

She discovered Knoxville was one of many cities across the U.S. that saw once-thriving neighborhoods and business districts torn down to make way for projects like the federal interstate system or federal housing projects. Urban renewal projects undertaken in Knoxville between 1959 and 1974 negatively impacted the majority of African-American populations of Willow Street, Mountain View, and Morningside. The construction of the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, James White Parkway, and Interstate 40 were only accomplished through the destruction of these neighborhoods.

“We haven’t talked about this in years,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t realize this had happened. For others, it’s like pulling a scab off a wound. A lot of the older people, especially in the black community, still feel so much hurt from that time period. There are some who actually lost a home. How my heart got put on this was two years ago, there was a lady who came here and talked about Knoxville’s black poverty rate. I just started thinking that we didn’t get here over night. When I started looking back at history, it really went back to this urban renewal, which a lot of people call urban removal.”

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted assistance and loans to local governments to eliminate slums, urban blight, and substandard housing, yet programs intended to help urban residents who were most in need were often used to destroy already disenfranchised communities nationwide. As a result, 70% of the Knoxville’s African-American population were displaced, some leaving the city for good.

“A lot of people left Knoxville because they couldn’t get fair market value for their properties,” McKenzie said. “The only business operating at that time that is still operating today is Jarnigan and Son Mortuary. The poverty created then is generational. If even half of those businesses had been able to stay or rebuild, they could have been passed down to that next generation. That is what generational wealth building looks like, and we, in the black community, have just not had that. In talking with people who experienced this, there was a spirit of hopelessness that set in.”

According to Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which has documented this period in the city’s history, the urban removal project also to the closure of 107 primarily black-owned businesses, including local landmarks like the Gem Theatre and the neighborhood’s Carnegie Library. More than 2,500 churches were also closed or forced to relocate. Monuments erected in these neighborhoods to honor local leaders were torn down.

Due to federal practices like redlining, African-American residents were also unable to qualify for mortgages, loans, and other financial aid that would have aided them in finding new housing or restarting businesses.

The ramifications of these policies can still be seen in the city’s black poverty rate – 31.4% of the city’s African-American residents live in poverty despite being only 17% of the city’s population. Knoxville still has significant racial disparities in homeownership and business ownership.

McKenzie said the projects fostered by the resolution are intended to be a hand up, not a hand out.

“The whole point of my resolution was to break that cycle of poverty and provide opportunity and access for generational wealth building,” McKenzie said. “We have some families in my district and here in Knoxville who have never had a family member go to college, buy a new car, or buy a new house. The first thing we needed to do was to make a sincere apology for that restoration and reconciliation to take place within the community. That pain and that hurt is still there.”

So far, McKenzie said the city has received more than 50 applications from citizens interested in participating in the task force to guide the reinvestment in the city. Those chosen for the task force will be announced at the end of February.

The new task force will work with agencies already active in the city to address gaps and barriers as well as meet certain benchmarks including reducing the poverty rate, black unemployment rate, and increasing homeownership.

“When we look back, services and programs designed to help black people help all poor people. They’re inclusive,” McKenzie said. “Anything supported out of these funds will support all people living in poverty. The task force is going to have a lot of work ahead of them, but the great thing is we have some great nonprofit agencies already in these lanes. It is a matter of the task force identifying what additional assistance or expansion of programs has to happen. I don’t envision that we will have to create a lot of new programs.”

McKenzie said her biggest goal for the project is that it inspires hope in Knoxvillians who haven’t had a chance to dream big before.

“What I want to see is a more thriving Knoxville, a Knoxville that has closed the wealth gap in black and brown communities,” she said. “I want to see Knoxville encourage and grow entrepreneurs, creators, inventors, and artists. I want this to help people who hunger and thirst for greatness, to be more. When people live in poverty, they can’t always dream big. Sometimes their dream is just getting through the day or getting through the week. The support for this task force has been overwhelming and diverse.”

McKenzie said anyone with questions regarding the initiative or starting similar projects in their own communities can contact her at gwenmckenzie@knoxvilletn.gov.