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Losing Home: When Urban Renewal Came to Knoxville

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Beck Cultural Exchange Center
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When Knoxville City Council apologized to the Black community last year for urban renewal, it may have seemed like ancient history. After all, the program that demolished the city’s downtown Black neighborhoods ended almost 50 years ago.

But many sociologists, historians and local Black residents agree: Urban renewal isn’t over. 

Uprooting most of the Black population between 1959 and 1974 directly contributed to today’s Black poverty, struggles for education, poor housing conditions, crime and unsafe neighborhoods. It also helped create today’s affordable housing crisis and shaped public housing for half a century. 

Today, at least one in five Black families in Knoxville live in poverty. Knox County schools acknowledge discipline policies that disproportionately remove Black students from classrooms. And Black teens are getting shot and killed at an alarming rate. The predominantly Black Austin-East High School has lost five students to violence this year -- including Anthony Thompson Jr., shot by police inside the school.

Enkeshi El-Amin founded a creative community nonprofit named for the Bottom, one of the neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal. A sociologist and folklorist, El-Amin says the destruction wrought by urban renewal created feelings of loss and instability that still shape Knoxville’s Black community. 

“The... young people that were killed in East Knoxville: That is not separate from the destruction of black places. These things are all connected,” she said. “Black folks are completely disregarded in Knoxville and we’re constantly pulled out of our places.”

Some East Knoxville residents perceive patterns established by urban renewal repeating today, as the city pursues new projects in the old Black neighborhoods. On the drawing board are a children’s science museum and a baseball park. 

Because of all these factors, urban renewal has become a current political issue. Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie authored a proposal that passed city council late last year, acknowledging the damage of urban renewal and agreeing for the city to seek $100 million in grants over the next decade to make amends to the Black community.

A task force will advise the city, identifying needs and coordinating local partners. McKenzie said it has taken a long time to vet the many applicants, and the process was delayed by the need to focus immediately on youth violence in East Knoxville. But she said City Council will be asked to approve the task force members in June.

“Urban renewal created a mindset of poverty and generational poverty,” McKenzie said in May. “I felt like it was our responsibility to say we’re going to be intentional -- just as intentional as the federal urban renewal program was -- at helping provide the training, the access, the financial literacy, the coaching, the life skills that people who were affected and living in poverty are having to deal with.” That in turn will break that cycle and start building generational wealth, she said.

Federal incentives, racial overtones

James Fraser was an urban geography professor at Vanderbilt, now writing a book about housing justice called “The Making of the Precarious City.” He explains the philosophy behind urban renewal: “The actual stated goal was to modernize cities and get rid of what some people called blight,” he said.

That often meant unstable houses that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. But Fraser says the term was often applied unevenly and too broadly, especially to Black neighborhoods.

“There were many cases across entire country where white power was used to obliterate certain neighborhoods in order to provide subsidies to kind of a whole development industry, to upgrade areas in the name of helping people,” he said. “But it didn’t take into consideration the unstated goals. We’re talking about an era in which White power was used to create cities in the image of colonizers -- people who came in and decided what they wanted was better than what was there.”

A 1958 News Sentinel article did in fact proclaim that the Bottom“is almost ready for a new wave of ‘pioneers,’ very different from pioneers of old. These pioneers will be modern industries and businesses.” 

Like many cities, Knoxville was eager to revitalize a tax base that was dwindling as houses aged and white residents fled to the suburbs. The Housing Act of 1949 established the urban renewal program to help cities knock down decrepit buildings and clear space for new development. 

The same year, a Knoxville planning engineer told the City Council that “slum property” was bringing little money to the city’s treasury but received “a disproportionate share” of city services like police protection, social workers, public health support, and garbage collection. 

“It is literally true,” he said, “that good residential sections of our city are subsidizing slums.” He claimed the areas were havens for juvenile delinquency, tuberculosis, and “family disintegration.”

To cities across America, urban renewal looked like a great deal: The federal government would pay two-thirds of the cost, and the local contribution could be through services or materials. Over the course of the program’s life, federal officials approved over $13 billion in grants to more than 1,200 cities. 

The relatively-new Knoxville Housing Authority was put in charge of urban renewal locally. The agency was not a stickler for following the law’s (limited) requirements to help affected residents find better-quality housing. In 1960, the News Sentinel reported that urban renewal funds had been frozen because Knoxville hadn’t created housing codes or formed a citizen advisory committee for relocating these families. 

But that was just a hiccup. By 1967, Knoxville’s participation in urban renewal ranked second-highest among Southeastern cities of a similar size.

Nationally, people of color made up 60 percent of those forced to move by urban renewal. In Knoxville, it was 70 percent, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which preserves the history of urban renewal in the city. 

The Willow Street project was the first of three to level African American neighborhoods downtown. It took a neighborhood known as the Bottom, the onetime “Little Harlem” of Knoxville that also had a residential section as well as stockyards built around a railroad spur. Next came Mountain View, once its own town, a residential neighborhood with commanding river and city views. That project eventually bled into Morningside and extended east toward Five Points. 

A fourth urban renewal project cleared a neighborhood known then as “West Knoxville” to double the size of the University of Tennessee campus starting in 1962. The majority of the 393 families relocated from there were white. But a middle-class Black neighborhood there was destroyed too. 

Downtown destruction

Downtown, urban renewal came in waves, uprooting of every aspect of life for thousands of people. 

“Losing your business, losing your home, losing your church, that’s a lot to rebuild,” El-Amin said. “Something’s got to go, because you can’t build everything back at the same time. You didn’t build it all at once to start with.”

The entire Black business district around East Vine Street was wiped out. Only Jarnigan & Son Mortuary survives today. According to the Beck Center, about 2,500 structures, including at least 107 businesses, were destroyed. Urban renewal also took community institutions like schools and the Carnegie Library, built for Black residents in 1917. It took the Phyllis Wheatly YWCA and the YMCA established by Cal Johnson, the former slave and wealthy Black businessman. 

Housing conditions were rough in some areas. A 1967 report by the Southern Regional Office of the Urban League indicated that only 40 Census tracts in the entire country were in worse condition than Mountain View, which had “some of the country’s worst ghettos.” There, 65 percent of families earned less than $3,000 in 1959 and 52 percent of men over 25 didn’t have an eighth-grade education. 

The Bottom had some very run-down areas too. According to the Knoxville Housing Authority, of the 518 families required to move out of the Bottom, 24 had incomes of less than $50 a month, and 170 earned from $50 to $400.  

“What I see is that urban renewal was necessary in my old neighborhood down in the Bottom. Most of the structures there were dilapidated or on the verge of being dilapidated,” said Bob Booker, a local historian who long led the Beck Center. 

“But urban renewal just went too far,” he said. “I think there were some land speculators and some others who decided, ‘Well, since we’re on a roll, since the federal money is available, let’s take it and let’s get what we can out of it’ -- and in the process took mansions and shacks alike,” Booker said. “They were indiscriminate: just bulldozed the land.”

A 1965 map in the News Sentinel showed the Bottom before and after the bulldozers, and touted that now “these properties pay the city twice the tax income it received from the area before Urban Renewal did its job.” 

Still, except for the Coliseum and the new police and fire center, much of the 670 or so acres that were cleared remained empty for decades. Some areas of Mountain View that were once crowded with houses are still unevenly covered with scrubby woods. 

Nationally, the slow pace of reconstruction became controversial.In 1968, the National Commission on Urban Problems found that less than half the land cleared under urban renewal had been redeveloped, or even had plans for redevelopment. 

“With each of these cycles, it is a continuation of violence against black folks,” El-Amin said. “I use violence because it’s destruction, it is uprootedness, it is sharp cuts and jabs. How do you watch your place be destroyed, and then 50 years of emptiness, of grasslands? You destroy neighborhoods to put nothing. Nothing, right? Nothing!”

The program didn’t reimburse renters for moving, and homeowners could do little to dispute the low prices offered for their houses. Even the Knoxville Housing Authority acknowledged the payment was rarely enough to cover the cost of an equivalent house elsewhere. Later, federal rules required residents to be paid at least part of that difference. That never happened for the highway-building programs happening at the same time, like the ones that displaced Black residents to build Interstate 40 and the James White Parkway.

“People were not paid nearly the amount that their homes were worth,” El-Amin said. “Whatever condition your home was in, you owned it. So you weren’t paying somebody every month.” 

On top of that, many people rented out rooms from their home for extra money, because few hotels served Black travelers. “So that was a way that people earned income from their homes,” she said. “That’s a hustle. That’s a way to take care of your family. And so that’s something that is lost when you no longer own a home.”

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Credit Beck Cultural Exchange Center
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Photo of an East Knoxville home in the area that was later destroyed by urban renewal.

A community reels

Businesses and churches were also paid little and left competing to find new space. Fifteen Black churches were torn down. Among them was Greater Warner Tabernacle, established by enslaved people 20 years before emancipation.

With more than 1,000 members, Mt. Olive Baptist Church was identified in the News Sentinel as the largest church affected by urban renewal. Pastor W.T. Crutcher said the church would need about $400,000 to rebuild in a good location, but was being offered only $63,000.

There was a sense that unseen people were making decisions that would upend your life with no warning, said Renee Kesler, president of the Beck Center. For example, starting in 1949 when federal law created the urban renewal program, grades started disappearing from Heiskell Elementary in the Bottom one at a time -- long before the urban renewal project there officially began.

“This is what’s important about urban renewal: If you think about slavery, the thing most slave owners wanted to do was break the spirit of a people. Because if I can break your spirit and make you believe you’re not a person but your chattel, you’re an animal, you’re property -- if I can break your mind, your psyche, your spirit and your soul -- breaking your back is easy,” Kesler said. “The same thing in urban renewal: If I can break your spirit, tearing your house down is easy.”

All this was happening at the same time as desegregation, which was the focus of attention for many Black leaders. Booker was a college student participating in sit-ins in white-owned businesses downtown. He now wonders how he could have been so unaware of what was happening to Black-owned businesses at the same time. 

“We at Knoxville College were interested in integrating the lunch counters and the movie theaters, yet urban renewal was destroying those same things in the Black community, which we didn’t even pay any attention to,” he says.

 

Ministers were also leading the desegregation effort, but many of them found themselves distracted by scrambling to find new homes for their churches and possibly themselves. That didn’t leave a lot of energy for fighting urban renewal as a policy. 

It was also dangerous, Fraser said: “Of course people wanted to stand up for their homes and communities and the places they lived. Those messages that we internalize about what’s possible limits our ability to fight against injustices,” he said “I think back then -- you’re talking about getting shot.”

There was a Knoxville group called Citizens Opposed to Urban Renewal, although there’s little record or memory of it. The News Sentinel reported 500 residents came to a 1969 Knoxville Housing Authority meeting to protest the Morningside Project (even more than showed up to successfully oppose an urban renewal project in the mostly-white Fort Sanders neighborhood). Eventually, growing opposition to the demolition of Morningside caused the project to wind down before the whole neighborhood was obliterated.

Old housing, few options

Black families who were forced to move had little choice about where they went. Banks were still only providing home loans for Blacks to move into lower-value neighborhoods further east, using a practice called red-lining. And new highway projects effectively severed the Black population from downtown. 

“If we think of urban renewal as a process, not as a thing, then we can start untangling all the different mechanisms that it enlivened,” Fraser said. He named red-lining as a prime example. “What we see is this set of processes... that reproduce racial inequality, that sustain white supremacy. And we see this as it plays out on land, and ownership of land, and who has rights to different spaces of the city.”

The Urban League’s Southern Regional Office published its study of the social and economic obstacles faced by Knoxville’s Black population in 1967. Major factors included urban renewal’s uprooting of families who were then forced into old houses formerly occupied by white residents, as well as overcrowding and housing distcrimination.

A significant Black middle class had emerged, including professionals, technical workers, and public employees. Yet fewer than 100 new homes had been built in neighborhoods where Blacks could buy property during the period from 1957 to 1967, the report indicated. (In contrast, 56 new subdivisions for white residents were built just outside Knoxville’s city limits between 1943 and 1956.) 

Even though urban renewal had vastly improved living conditions, “the pattern of relocation and new concentration of Negroes will have the effect of creating other ghettos,” the Urban League report warned. 

The Housing Authority’s low purchase prices rarely allowed people to meet the stated goal of moving into better housing, and often left them newly in debt. Families that had owned property or a business could no longer hand down a legacy to their children. 

A long-term effect of urban renewal nationwide was the destruction of low-income housing, 90 percent of which was never replaced, according to research by sociologist George Lipsitz. The country is now facing a vast affordable housing shortage, and Knoxville is no exception. Around 60 percent of its poorest workers pay more than half their income for housing. 

Many families had to move more than once as urban renewal expanded. 

“In the aftermath of urban renewal people were moved so many times, people are still not able to stand on their own,” said El-Amin. “Their grandkids are still struggling to maintain a home.”

Margaret Coleman’s family rented on Clinch Street, then Condon Street; when both houses were torn down, her family ended up in the Austin Homes housing project. This was common. A third of people who had lived in the Bottom -- about 70 families -- moved to public housing. 

But the Knoxville Housing Authority reported that almost as many moved into “substandard housing” elsewhere.

A 1959 News Sentinel article tut-tutted: “Even if some people are cleaner and warmer, they complain, resenting the Governmental machine that shoved them from the squalor they were reared in and think they love.” However, it adds, “The majority rejoice in their new surroundings.” 

Geraldine Taylor grew up in Austin Homes until her father’s barbering business became so successful that he was able to buy a house. The family moved to a neighborhood called Sugar Hill, which was then east of the footprint of urban renewal. Taylor spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ house and in the baseball park in nearby Park City.

“That’s where all the socializing was going on,” she remembers. “They had the businesses there, the beauty shops. Old people sold butter and eggs out of their house because they had chickens and cows and things -- in other words, they didn’t depend on too many people for their livelihood… They took that away too. They just swept it away.”

That part of Park City was demolished to build the Walter P. Taylor housing project. Ironically, that was needed to house people who had been pushed out by earlier waves of urban renewal. The bulldozers eventually reached Sugar Hill too.

Umoja Abdul-Ahad grew up on Patton Street and Payne Street in houses knocked down by urban renewal after he had moved away. He said he returned to Knoxville in 1970, and the Black community has been talking about urban renewal ever since.

“It wasn’t until here lately some minds got changed, and people started seeing what we were saying was correct. Because now, we can go forward and make some changes,” said Abdul-Ahad. 

Specifically, the city must stop perpetuating the psychosis created by dehumanizing and uprooting the Black population to make a buck, he said. “If we don’t, there will be another 50 years of discussing the detriment of urban renewal, the devastation of urban renewal -- and nothing will change.”

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Archival photos and supportive historical content provided for these stories were courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the only state-designated repository for Black history and culture in East Tennessee. Beck is proud to collaborate with WUOT to educate the public on stories of Urban Renewal's impact on Knoxville's Black community. 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 their 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.

All episodes in the Losing Home series on urban renewal can be found here.