Knoxville historian talks about urban renewal project impacts; why he backs vice mayor’s atonement proposal

Top Stories

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Before urban renewal projects between the 1950s and 1970s, Black residents in Knoxville had their own community, with their own businesses, churches and homes.

For the urban renewal projects to take place, that community was forced out, and it was impossible for those residents to recover, according to Bob Booker.

Booker, a local historian who lived in Knoxville during that time, said that’s why he backs Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie’s proposal, dubbed the “African American Equity Resolution.”

Booker said the community was separate and viable because it had to be, due to city ordinances and state laws, such as segregation, at the time.

“We had our own taxicab companies; we had our own cafés; we had our own barbershops and beauty shops and everything else that we needed in that community,” Booker said.

During that time, Black people only had a portion of a ward at UT Medical Center, because all other hospitals didn’t take Black patients.

“The Greene Medical Arts building was a treasure because Dr. Greene built that facility because Black physicians could not practice at Knoxville General Hospital,” Booker said.

But then, the urban renewal projects came, destroying all their hard work.

Only one business still stands to this day: Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.

Booker said there were blighted areas of their community that needed to be rebuilt, but the urbanists went too far.

“It went too far and destroyed mansions that people lived in, it went too far and destroyed the iconic buildings of the Black community. It destroyed hundreds of homes; it destroyed scores of businesses,” Booker said.

According to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which was built as a result of the urban renewal projects, there were 107 black-owned businesses before urban renewal, 15 Black churches were removed and more than 2,500 residents were displaced — with more than 70% of which were Black families.

Some might ask, why couldn’t they simply rebuild?

Booker said for several reasons.

“So we found ourselves in what I call a triple whammy: Trying to find a new home, trying to find a new church and trying to build a new business; which was impossible. And statistics will show that it was impossible because we couldn’t do all three,” Booker said.

Booker said the residents might have received fair-market values for their homes, but by the time the land was bought for the urban renewal projects, the area was already in need of repairs, so the fair-market value was below what houses in other parts of the community cost.

He said in order to move to comparable housing, they need an extra $10,000, and that put so many people in debt.

At the same time, they had all lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to live in private housing anymore. So they had to move into public housing.

So imagine losing your home, business and church all while trying to find jobs in a time when many jobs were still segregated.

Booker said it was the worst tragedy ever perpetrated on the Black community in the history of Knoxville.

He did say there were blighted areas that needed revitalizing, but had the urban renewal projects not destroyed all those businesses and cultural icons, who knows what they would’ve looked like today.

As the mayor’s administrative assistant in 1972, Booker would get asked where the Black community was.

His response: “It’s buried under the James White Parkway and under the renovated parts of the Old City.”

As Booker said, you didn’t have to live in Knoxville during those years, because the impacts are still evident.

One local entertainer said that’s why he supports Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie’s atonement proposal.

Patrick Durham said he’s looked into the history of Knoxville, especially football at the University of Tennessee, but what exactly happened never truly dawned on him until someone pointed it out.

Durham posted on Facebook about the memory.

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to have a gig hosting UT Game Day entertainment at a local bar. I would play music before the game, during half-time, and sometimes after a win. I would also play games and give out prizes during commercial breaks, mostly UT Football Trivia. I found a great website full of trivial knowledge dating all the way back to the first days of Tennessee football.

A couple weeks into the season, a friend (who has been coming out to see me DJ since 2001) was kind enough to point to me, “hey man – some of us don’t care too much for everything that happened before 1967.” He wasn’t rude about it. He realized that I had just never even had to consider the harrowing fact that the University of Tennessee didn’t allow Black men on the team until Lester McClain.

I was crushed. Here I am, every commercial break, jovially throwing out a bunch of trivial nonsense about the team while simultaneously reminding everyone about the harsh reality of segregation. A reality that all of us grew up hearing about and some of us painfully endured. I rescripted my trivia and changed my whole outlook on the value of traditions.

Facebook post from Patrick Durham

Durham told WATE 6 On Your Side he can tell the impact of this specific history of Knoxville by simply driving around town in communities he didn’t grew up in.

“I can’t imagine that an entire community of people would just deliberately uh, you know, continue to not advance with the other surrounding zip codes. So, you know, I think that some of that is on the city,” Durham said.

Durham believes the proposal shows some leaders are trying to right a wrong.

Booker said the apologies for what the city’s predecessors have done aren’t really necessary as they were laid out in the proposal.

However, he said the committed grant funding, and what the city does with that grant funding, would be a start to leveling the playing field for the black community.

“The grants I think will serve as the apology that’s really necessary,” Booker said.

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie speaks to WATE 6 On Your Side about her atonement proposal:

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories

WATE 6 Storm Weather School

WATE 6 On Your Side Twitter