Losing Home: Memories
Linda Freeman sweeps her arm in an arc as she rides down Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. toward downtown before turning right onto Summit Hill. “All this was Vine Street,” she said.
We pass a large park with no ballfields or playgrounds, just paths winding through open woods. “That’s where my family’s house was,” she said. The second house, that is, that was destroyed by urban renewal. “Every time I turned around, we were moving,” she said.
The street where her family’s first house was, near the Coliseum, is a parking lot now. But we aren’t really looking at today’s streets. We’re looking through them.
This is a tour of the past, pointing out ghost landmarks of the three Black neighborhoods systematically wiped out by urban renewal in the 1950s and ‘60s. First to go was called the Bottom -- now the Old City, industrial areas and highways. Mountain View was the high hill where the Coliseum, Marriott and law enforcement center are now. The part of Morningside closest to town was also taken.
To justify this federally-funded demolition, the city labeled the neighborhoods as slums. Former residents say only a portion of the houses were substandard. In particular, some houses in the Bottom lacked indoor plumbing and were flooded repeatedly by First Creek.
Geraldine Taylor remembers her brothers catching crawdads in the creek. Some people called it the Glassy Bottom because you’d get glass in the bottom of your feet if you waded in it, she said.
Eddie Wells and his cousins grew up living with his grandparents in the Bottom during the week while his parents worked.
“We’d be out there in the creek playing, call ourselves swimming or whatever -- dead rats and stuff float right on by. Hey, we didn’t even pay no attention,” he remembers. “I don’t know why we didn’t get typhoid.” The creek ran past Lay’s Packing House, where Wells’ father cut off the tips of his fingers.His dad needed the job, so although he received no compensation, he never missed a day of work -- just pulled on gloves and continued.
Elizabeth Johnson moved from Depot Avenue to Austin Homes as a child. It was a treat for her brothers to go watch the pigs being driven across the road to be slaughtered at Lay’s Packing, she said. Margaret Coleman remembers cattle getting loose on the way to slaughter and running into nearby houses.
Yet even the Bottom was a mix of shotgun shacks and larger homes like the one where Wells’ grandparents hosted two daughters and many grandchildren. It was common for three generations to live in a house. Some of the fine houses in Mountain View and Morningside were comparable to those in Old North and Fourth and Gill.
Perhaps more typical was Hildreth Gillespie’s home in Morningside near Green School, where seven people lived in a three-room house. It had a long porch and a big yard where her father raised chickens and hunting dogs. Joe Jones delivered coal to her family to heat their home.
“We had a hot water heater where you had to make a fire in the stove to get hot water,” remembers Brenda Green, who lived on Clinch Street. “And we took a bath in a tin tub.” Like many families, they had a wringer washing machine on the back porch.
Brenda Peel lived in the Grey Terrace Hotel, which was demolished to make way for the Coliseum. Unlike most hotels, her family -- the Yettes -- didn’t actually rent rooms to passing strangers. The family lived in the 12 downstairs rooms, and relatives boarded in the 12 upstairs rooms.
“My dad... was the male Harriet Tubman. He brought everybody back from Georgia,” Peel said. “That’s where he was from. He brought all his relatives here and they stayed in that house until they could get on their feet.” He helped some of them start their own businesses, too.
The hotel had been a true hotel in the past. A 1928 advertisement for the Gray Terrace Hotel, then owned by Monroe D. Young, boasted “all modern conveniences… modern Dining Hall serving good home cooking at reasonable prices.”
While Peel’s family lived there, it was a gathering place for adults and kids alike. Freeman lived next door. Her house was so close she could pass notes to kids in the Grey Terrace through an upstairs window. The neighborhood kids all liked to play in the big field and the pond behind Freeman’s house, which was a former hospital.
“When I was a kid I couldn’t understand why we had little bells in the room,” Freeman laughs. Her mother’s big bedroom downstairs had been the operating room. Freeman’s mother rented out the upstairs rooms for extra money, which was common in the neighborhood because there were few hotels where Black people could stay when they traveled.
A notable exception was the modern Dogan-Gaither Motel. “My girlfriend’s family built a motel on Vine for Black people,” Peel remembers. “They had two suites. One was named after Dorothy, and one was named after her sister -- the Dorothy Suite and the Sandra Suite. And they would let us have slumber parties down there, and we would have a good time.”
Role models and schools
Residents of these neighborhoods mostly walked to school, stores and church, and took the bus to work. Most moms worked, many as domestic servants in Bearden or in school cafeterias. Men were generally janitors, laborers, or cooks; many also commuted to work at the Alcoa Aluminum plant in Blount County.
But others owned businesses, like Freeman’s father, who had a swanky club called The Ritz and a Central Street restaurant named after her sister Diane. Doctors, teachers, and lawyers lived there too.
Anne McGinnis’s grandfather was attorney Edward C. Freeman. “He was one of about 14 lawyers that actually got to go to the Soviet Union and study law,” she said. But he also played another important role in Knoxville: For more than 16 years, he was the director of all the city’s black playgrounds. McGinnis said: “At one point he was the only colored employee on payroll with the recreation department.”
He taught many young men who later became influential coaches and educators, such as Raleigh Wynn, an Austin-East assistant principal and football coach known across the Southeast. Juanita Cannon remembers both Wynn and his wife Edna as neighborhood role models.
Cannon,a retired P.E. teacher and principal, said Edna Wynn taught P.E. at Austin. “Everybody in class of ‘50 can dance to this day, because she was a good dancer,” she said. “I don’t mean hip-hop, I mean ballroom dancing. We had to ballroom dance at prom: waltz, tango, cha-cha. And so I went into physical ed because of her.”
Lavonia Moore recalls how deeply children admired their teachers, who managed to incorporate Black history into a worn-out curriculum delivered in worn-out textbooks. Their teachers were their neighbors and advocates.
McGinnis said many of her teachers attended her church, Mount Zion Baptist. “They weren’t just teachers,” she said. “They were almost family because I saw them every day of the week.”
Small segregated elementary schools like Eastport and Heiskell closed around the time urban renewal started, and some were demolished. Robert Minter Jr. attended Heiskell, which was in the Bottom. He and other kids had to cross a wooden bridge across First Creek to reach it. If it rained very hard, water would cover the bridge, and they couldn’t get to school.
Minter remembers many services being provided to students besides education. “They had a nurse that would come out, a dentist that would come out, you’d get your teeth cleaned free and pulled by Dr. Alexander,” he said. “And if you had perfect teeth, you got a gold star. To get that gold star, that was one of the most happy days of a young student’s life.” Students also brought a penny every day for a cod liver oil pill, he said.
Bob Booker attended Heiskell too. Although Black students couldn’t participate in the county spelling bee, he remembers his teachers holding spell-downs. “We had teachers…who understood our circumstances and who tried to bring us along,” said Booker, who grew up in a house on Georgia Street that had no electricity and a toilet on the back porch. “They wanted to make sure that we didn’t suffer from the segregated lifestyle we had to lead, and they tried to broaden our horizons as much as they could.”
For Booker, that happened partly through writing, encouraged by sixth-grade teacher Ozana Hunter. Some of Booker’s poems were published in the newspaper while he was an elementary school student -- boosting his confidence long before his college days as a student activist participating in sit-ins at Gay Street lunch counters.
Moore said that when she first started school at Eastport Elementary, she only came for half the day. That’s because the school was so crowded the classes had to be split, with half the students attending in the morning and half in the afternoon. Eastport finally couldn’t cram in sixth grade, so Moore had to switch to Green Elementary for one year.
Many students remember their excitement when the new Green school opened. Freeman says she was the first child to enter it when the classes paraded over from the old school. Her grade was headed to the top floor, and they lined up in order of height. She was shortest, so she was at the front of the line.
May Day celebrations were often a highlight of the school year. Sandra Yette Hicks loved it when the girls at Green wrapped a May pole with colorful ribbons. Parents came to watch their children compete in sack races and spoon relays. The boy and girl who raised the most money for the school were chosen as May king and queen; one year her sister Paula won the crown.
“Church was our social outlet,” Geraldine Taylor said. “Just about everything we did revolved around church.”
Everyone walked to church and returned throughout the week for activities like Scouts. Hildreth Gillespie remembers going to Red Circle (girls’ Bible study) meetings and Sunshine Band practice at Mt. Calvary Baptist in the Bottom.
Church Street was named primarily for all the Black churches there, says McGinnis (who was born in her Church Street house because of a snowstorm). Urban renewal forced 14 Black churches to relocate or close, including Greater Warner Tabernacle, a congregation that has been around since before the Civil War. Some moved into empty former white churches in East Knoxville. Others spent years raising money to rebuild.
Cannon attended Mt. Olive Baptist Church, which had just moved from Patterson Street to a new building on East Main before urban removal forced the large congregation out again. For a while it held services at the Tennessee School for the Deaf and the Austin-East High School Auditorium as it waited for a new building to be finished on Dandridge Avenue, Cannon said. The loan took a long time to pay off.
“We burned the mortgage in April 1989,” just months before the death of pastor and activist W.T. Crutcher, who had led the church for 54 years. “And in the Heritage Room of the church is a huge urn with the ashes in it,” Cannon said.
No matter where they went to church in the old neighborhoods, everyone remembers quick trips after Sunday School for ice cream or candy.
“After Sunday School, we had a little break,” Wells explained. “So we’d all run down to Carter Roberts Drug Store on Vine.” They’d spend the nickels and dimes they were supposed to put in the offering plate on candy, or ice cream at Kay’s.
Wells attended Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which also housed one of the few preschools for Black children.
Elizabeth Johnson remembers: “I don’t care where you lived -- everybody went to Mt. Zion kindergarten…I still got the picture of my kindergarten graduation, and gosh, I know there had to be at least 50 of us in that class.”
Umoja Abdul-Ahad said his Mt. Zion kindergarten teacher Mrs. Hill, the pastor’s wife, would stop class when someone said the word “can’t.” “She’d say, ‘With God’s help, you can do anything,’” he recalled.
Free time and community
Men got together at corner stores, bars and pool halls, as well as barber shops. Minter used to get his hair cut at Delaney’s Barber Shop, which was in the family home of two brothers who became famous Black artists. “He used to do it with hand clippers,” Minter recalled. “All the barber shops would have somebody hanging out and playing checkers.”
Moms chatted over the fence before work, waiting for the bus, and at the beauty shop. Everyone visited with neighbors and passersby from porches as kids played games in the yard or on the sidewalk.
“We played jacks with little rocks -- didn’t have a ball,” Taylor remembers. They would go to a nearby creek to find rocks that were about the same size. “And then we’d put a little oil on them and shine ‘em up, you know, so that they’d be easy to slide… And these rocks were just your keepsakes -- you kept them in a little bag.”
Green remembers the kids making their own skateboards by hammering together boards and attaching their roller skates. In winter, they’d sled down a big hill near today’s Greene Magnet School on cardboard or five-gallon drum lids.
Many neighborhood kids spent their summer days at the Cal Johnson Recreation Center playground, tennis courts, and board game room inside. In the evenings, they looked forward to the frosty treats they ate at tea tables in a neighbor’s yard.
Those were sold by a lady named Ms. Ruth, who lived on the corner of Mulvaney Avenue and Payne Street, Green recalls. She worked at a drug store in Mechanicsville, but when she got off she’d take the bus home and open up her snowball business for an hour each night. “And the kids, we’d all be down there waiting on her. And they’d say, ‘Oh here comes Miss Ruth!’” Green said. Ms. Ruth would tell the children to come back at six, but they’d stay to play in the yard and line up early anyway.
“And then at six on the dot, we’d get in line and stand there and she’d open up this little round window and right there was where her kitchen was at. And she’ll say, ‘All right, tell me what you want.’”
Green remembers the snowballs costing a nickel, which kids earned by carrying groceries home for adults.
But Freeman got hers a different way. She thinks the snowballs were a quarter, because she remembers scamming the money from her little brother: “What I would do is, when my brother couldn't find his shoes sometimes to go to school, I would hide ‘em -- I mean accidentally move them -- and I would ask him, well if you give me a quarter I’ll help you find ‘em,” she said. “That’s why I think it was a quarter, ‘cause that’s what I bought my snowballs with.”
When those kids became teenagers, many spent their free time at recreation centers, neighborhood baseball games, and the Gem or Grant movie theaters.
“We had two black-owned and black-operated movie theaters,” Minter said. “A lot of people don’t realize the Gem was the only movie theater that was built backwards in the world. When you walked in there, you’d see the audience. The screen was at your back, the reason being because part of that Gem Theater was set on stilts at First Creek. When First Creek was at its peak and rushing, you could hear the water hitting against the rocks down there.” The Gem sat where the downtown dog park is now.
McGinnis had close connections to the Gem. Her mother worked there for a while as a ticket taker, and her godmother, Bernice Humphrey, sold the tickets. “And the best ice cream in the world was at the Gem Theater!” she recalls. “They had this soft serve ice cream that was better than any soft serve ice cream you’ve ever had.”
Some went to the Cansler YMCA or Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Mountain View. McGinnis was a member of the YMCA, even though she was a girl, “because my grandfather wanted me to learn I could go anywhere.” She loved to play pool there.
Those buildings were flattened by urban renewal. So was the heart of the Black business district on Vine Avenue, where people could walk to the doctor or the grocery store. Only a fragment of the street itself remains -- most of its length has been turned into Summit Hill Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
“Black people are not even allowed to have geographic knowledge,” said Enkeshi El-Amin, a sociologist who founded a nonprofit named after the Bottom. The initiative creates a space for Black people to engage in creative activities while raising awareness about continued injustice and exclusion. El-Amin wrote her University of Tennessee dissertation about how urban renewal affected the sense of place and identity in Knoxville’s Black community.
She explains the psychological effect of erasing even the basic landmarks of the old neighborhoods, like the creek: “Are you a part of this city if there’s no way to show it? Were you even here? Are you even a person?” said El-Amin, who also co-hosts and produces the Black in Appalachia podcast. “There’s no public space for this reckoning to take place, for this memory to be dealt with, for this trauma to even be processed by people.”
Taylor says it seems like the city tried to erase not only the neighborhood but the memory of it. When her brother visited town, they’d ride around trying to find where their old home had stood.
“We could just about have an idea, but they don’t have any kind of signs or indications of what was there,” she said. “It’s just like it’s a dead neighborhood to us. All of our memories seem like they’ve been suppressed.”
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.