Community Conversations: Urban renewal razed thriving Black communities, but from the ashes rose Beck Cultural Exchange Center

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — When you think of the American dream, buying a home, starting a business and building a community are often a big part of the picture. For a large population of Blacks in the 1950s -70s those dreams would be dashed. Urban renewal in Knoxville would legally wipe out a community that would never recover.

If you take a drive through the heart of Knoxville you’ll likely see Knoxville’s Civic Coliseum. To build it, in 1961, dozens of homes, nine businesses and two churches were razed through eminent domain – in what was once a thriving Black community. 

“So, in Knoxville, it’s going to devastate predominantly African-American communities where Black and brown people live,” says Rev. Reneé Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Most of the businesses and churches would never recover. In this era of urban renewal there is no compensation package to help people start over. 

Established in 1886, Jarnigan & Son Mortuary would make it. The business now sits on Martin Luther King Avenue in East Knoxville. 

“And that would be one of the only businesses that would survive urban renewal, longterm, if you will. There were many that tried to survive. Many that began to try but they won’t survive longterm but Jarnigan is one of the few success stories and it is the oldest Black businesses in Knoxville.”

Gone are resources like the Free Colored Carnegie Library which opened in 1917. The segregated library was the first municipally-supported library for African-Americans in Knoxville. 

The Gem Theater, which hosted films and shows for African-Americans, before desegregation, would be replaced by the James White Parkway. 

“When we talk about urban renewal, to your point, it wasn’t that long ago and when I talk to people they not only share with me what happened to their family business, to their school, to their houses — but they talk to me about the reverberating effects of how urban renewal felt to the people.”

The impact of urban renewal would bring about the idea of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center — a place to collect the history of Black Knoxville, as its communities were being taken away. 

“Beck was established as a result of Knoxville’s Urban Renewal projects. With the support of the Mayor of the City of Knoxville, Kyle Testerman, Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and the people, Beck became an institution in 1975, and was named in honor of James G. and Ethel B. Beck,” according to the Beck Center website. 

“James G. and Ethel B. Beck were two of the most glamorous and influential members of the Black community in Knoxville during the period of the 1920s-1960s. James and Ethel married in 1913, and together they established the Ethel Beck Home for Colored Orphans in 1919. The Becks invested their money wisely and amassed a fortune in real estate and cars. James and Ethel were the last people to live in the Beck mansion. Funds from their estate were used to establish the Center.

James G. Beck came to Knoxville to attend Knoxville College Normal School in 1898 from Camden, Alabama. He finished in 1902, and graduated from Knoxville College in 1906. In 1913 James became the first Black postal clerk in Tennessee. He was hired at Knoxville Post Office where he was employed for 29 years, retiring April 7, 1942. James was among the chief organizers of the Knoxville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement Colored People in 1919, and served as the first treasurer of the organization. Beck was instrumental in the establishment of the Ethel Beck Home for Orphans in 1919 where he served as treasurer of the organization. James was a life-long republican who served as a sergeant-at-arms at the 1940 National Republican Convention. He was a candidate for City Council in 1951. Later in 1963, James was elected first member of the Knoxville College Hall of Fame. 

Ethel B. Beck was born and raised in Morristown, Tennessee and received her education at Morristown Normal College. In the summer of 1919, the Colored Orphanage was established for the care and protection of the unfortunate children of the Negro race. In 1941, the Board of Directors unanimously voted to change the name to the “Ethel Beck Home,” a monument, to the faithful work of a noblewoman. Ethel served as President of the Tennessee Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, and she was Grand Matron of the Tennessee Order of the Eastern Star.”

Beck Cultural Exchange Center

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