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Losing Home: Black Neighborhoods and Urban Renewal

ABOVE: 1935 aerial photography shows Black neighborhoods in Knoxville that were later demolished by urban renewal projects. Modern aerial photography shows how the same area looks today. Slider graphic by Claire Heddles; annotations by Brandon Hollingsworth.

From the mid-1950s to 1974, Knoxville used federal dollars intended to curb blight and improve the general look of urban centers. Similar efforts took place across America during that period; they were collectively labeled "urban renewal." Regardless of urban renewal's goals, its reality became the mass dislocation of Black residents. Robust neighborhoods were essentially erased, and cultural and economic effects have spanned generations. In this special series from WUOT News, you will hear the voices of Black residents who remember what was lost when their neighborhoods were razed.


WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan and Beck Cultural Exchange Center President Renee Kesler join host Brandon Hollingsworth for an episode ofDialoguededicated to urban renewal. They discussed the effects of urban renewal projects and how to responsibly tell these stories to modern audiences.


Knoxville’s City Council agreed last year to apply for $100 million in grants to make amends for the damage caused by urban renewal. The redevelopment program’s destruction of Black neighborhoods continues to shape Knoxville today and into the future. In the first installment of our series, WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan explores how.


Knoxville demolished most of the Black neighborhoods near downtown between the 1950s and ‘70s. In the second episode of our series about urban renewal past and present, WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan talks with people who grew up in those neighborhoods about the churches, schools and businesses Knoxville lost.


In Knoxville's downtown Black neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal, neighbors were family. In the third installment of our series, WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan has the story of how the renewal program uprooted thousands of people, taking homes and tearing the web of community support.  


Urban renewal was often framed as the sacrifice of existing, mostly Black neighborhoods for the great good of the broader community. In Knoxville, that approach to redevelopment has extended beyond urban renewal -- and beyond downtown. In the fourth episode of our series, WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan reports that a prime example of this approach can be found in the expansion of the University of Tennessee in the 1960s and continued pressure on the neighboring Mechanicsville community.


The prospect of a baseball park in a neighborhood taken from Black residents during urban renewal has raised both hopes and red flags in East Knoxville. WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan brings us the fifth episode in our ongoing series about the cascading effects of urban renewal.


Urban renewal destroyed more than a hundred Black-owned storefront businesses in Knoxville and wiped out countless home-based businesses in Black neighborhoods. WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan shares the sixth installment of our series.


Public housing offered a step up for many families, but it came with new limits, too. Public housing and urban renewal were intertwined with each other, and with racial segregation, from the beginning. WUOT News contributor Heather Duncan has this online-only, final installment of our series.


To learn more about how urban renewal affected Knoxville’s Black neighborhoods, consult the following:

The Beck Cultural Exchange Center: Urban Renewal

Story Map: The Effects of Urban Renewal on African American Businesses

Knoxville African American Tours of Cultural Heritage


S. Heather Duncan is a WUOT News freelance contributor. She has reported on the environment, local government, business and education for 20 years, mostly for newspapers. Her work won dozens of state and several national awards, and she was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the Biloxi Sun Herald. For this series, Heather recorded close to twenty oral histories with Black former residents of Mountain View, Morningside and The Bottom.

Tyson Jordan is the engineer who mixed the audio stories. Tyson is a Knoxville native and graduate of Austin-East High School, class of 1997. He holds an AAS in Mechanical Engineering Technology from Pellissippi State Community College.  Currently, Tyson is an Associate Nuclear Technician for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He's a loving husband and proud father of three daughters. He has over 25 years of audio experience. He shares his knowledge to churches, schools and businesses around the Knoxville area. He's an active community leader donating time to numerous organizations and events. Tyson's passion is to help enhance life in people and culture through his talents, education and experiences.  


The Beck Cultural Exchange Center was created in 1975 as a result of Knoxville’s Urban Renewal projects. Knoxville’s Black residents knew their history was at risk due to the changing landscape of the city. The entirety of Beck’s archive of over 50,000 objects related to Black history and culture in East Tennessee was donated by the community in order to ensure their safekeeping. Beck is the only organization designated by the state as a primary repository of Black history and culture in East Tennessee. For nearly fifty years, the mission of Beck has remained unchanged: “Beck is the place where African American history and culture are preserved, nurtured, taught, and continued.” Beck is proud to collaborate with institutions such as WUOT to educate the public on local and regional Black history and culture. WUOT will donate these important oral histories to the Beck Archives. Archival photos and supportive historical content provided for these stories were courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

If you are interested in in sharing your own experiences through an oral history or donating materials to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, please feel free to contact them at (865) 524-8461 or visit www.beckcenter.net for more information on how you can help Beck's collection grow. 

Funding for "Losing Home: Black Neighborhoods and Urban Renewal" came from the East Tennessee Foundation's "Hope in Action" Fund. The fund was established in 2018 to support programs that protect populations most likely to face discrimination or programs that nurture hope and equality in our culture. In 2020, ETF activated this fund to award grants to nonprofit organizations addressing racism and injustice in our region.

Special thanks go to Beck Center President Renee Kesler and Beck archivists Janine Winfree and Briana Flanagan for their help and guidance in producing this series.