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Losing Home: The Lasting Pain

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When people talk about growing up in the neighborhoods of Mountain View, Morningside and the Bottom, they all seem to start with the phrase, “Everybody knew everybody.”

“We knew everybody on every street, from the child to the grandparent,” recalled Lavonia Moore. 

Linda Freeman said, “It was a nice neighborhood because it was a tribe. It was a family. It wasn’t just neighbors. Everybody knew each other.”

Elizabeth Johnson said much the same, adding, “And it was such a community that it was nothing but love. We all looked after each other.”

The downtown Black neighborhoods where they lived now include part of the Old City, James White Parkway, the Civic Coliseum and up-market apartments. Between 1959 and 1974, Knoxville used federal funding to tear down homes and businesses there, uprooting thousands of families. The pain of that taking remains sharp.

“All I remember is, I was so sad, because I was going to miss all the people I grew up with,” says Brenda Green, remembering the day her family moved out of the house they rented on Clinch Avenue when urban renewal rolled over the neighborhood.

Her mother, who was a maid, was given a choice between Austin Homes and public housing projects in more distant neighborhoods. Her mother told her, “We’re going on to Austin Homes. That’s the option they gave us.” 

“I said, ‘I don’t even know nothing about no Austin Homes,’” Green recalls. “I was raised in a house. I’m like, ‘Why we got to go there, Momma?’”

Like most parents, Green’s mother tried to protect her children from the details of the financial stress urban renewal was creating for the family. She just said, “Well, that’s where we’re going.”

Lavonia Moore grew up in Park City, in a home her grandmother had owned for decades. There were no public meetings or announcements about urban renewal; Moore said her family and others found out it was coming to them when a letter arrived offering a payment for the house. 

“When you don’t have anybody on city council or county government, you don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “That’s the situation, most times, that Black people were in. They (weren’t) in on the planning. It was planned, implemented, and you’re told about it. So you got to go.”

In a practice called red-lining, banks would only give loans for Black buyers in certain neighborhoods where Whites were moving out.

“Those homes were like 40-50 years old,” Moore said. “Oh, they looked good on the outside, but they’re old enough where the plumbing’s getting ready to go. The wiring is old. And they didn’t give them enough to pay money for the home they had to move into, just enough for them to put a down payment, and it put them in debt.”

Then, white people would complain that the neighborhood went downhill when Black people moved in, Moore says. The reality was that Black families had been forced to give up their own generational wealth to go into debt for a house that needed extensive repairs. 

No one had expected those new mortgage payments, so they had to use money that had been saved for other things -- like college for Moore’s younger brother and sister. Her brother had to drop out after two years because he couldn’t afford to go longer. 

Enkeshi El-Amin is a sociologist and folklorist whose doctoral research focused on how urban renewal destabilized Knoxville’s Black community.

“You look at all the different ways the government created opportunities for white Americans to build wealth,” she said. “But not only were Black people excluded, but their stuff was taken and destroyed. And I think that -- it just hits harder.”

Elizabeth Johnson’s grandmother was one of the last holdouts when urban renewal took her part of Vine Street.

“They didn’t offer her enough money to get her another house, so she refused to sell,” Johnson said. “My grandmother was a strong, determined woman, and she wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. The people across the street took the first offer. The city took advantage of them by offering them less than fair market value. And my grandmother was left the only one there.”

Eventually the city increased its offer enough that she could afford another house. 

Johnson lived in Austin Homes, but felt the impact of urban renewal as all the little markets nearby were bulldozed. Her family was forced to shop at more expensive, white-owned stores downtown. As a result, meat became a luxury at dinner.

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Mt. Zion Vacation Bible School students and teachers in 1936. This photo was also published in the Mount Zion Baptist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee 1860-1975. Many children who lived in the neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal attended kindergarten at Mt. Zion and Bible School at many different churches throughout the summer. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

Anne McGinnis’s family was one of the last to move out near the Coliseum project because of herstubborn grandmother. McGinnis said it was especially hard watching bulldozers knock down the nearby Cansler YMCA for Black residents. But the most painful loss might have been her church, Mt. Zion Baptist. She loved the old building, which had been on Patton Street for almost a century, with its giant pipe organ and beautiful paintings behind the Baptismal. 

“I think I’m in the eighth grade, and I’m really distraught because I love where I went to church. And so I actually wrote a letter to President Johnson and asked him to help us fund moving,” McGinnis said. “Because I just thought it was wrong: If they were going to make us move, they should have given us enough.”

Johnson wrote back with a polite no.

“It feels like what you are accustomed to and what means a lot to you, doesn’t mean anything to somebody else,” McGinnis said. “That’s how I felt about my church. That was why I wrote the president: Because it seemed like they’re just dismissing us.”

Robert Minter Jr., who grew up in the Bottom, came back from Vietnam to find the black business district gone. An airport shuttle had dropped on Gay Street, and he started walking toward the Black business district on Vine. First, he came to the fire hall on the corner, and saw the Ku Klux Klan was marching. 

“There was one klansman there by the fire hall -- He (saw) me in uniform, and he took off his hood and ran down State Street. I guess he thought I was going to do something to him. I’ll never forget that,” Minter said. Minter kept heading to Vine and Central to get something to eat at Harper’s Restaurant. 

“But Vine was torn up. The streets was nothing but mud at that time,” he said. “It really broke my heart when I came back, to see that.”

Roberta Martin remembers having nightmares about her house being torn down. She grew up with seven siblings on Jasper Street, where Morningside Park is now. After her parents died, she and her brother raised the younger ones there before urban renewal forced her to move. 

But the house was one of the last demolished in that area, and Martin would look for it as sherode past on the bus. Each time she’d think, “Oh, I’m so happy my house is still there.” 

But she remembers one day when she got on the bus and the driver said, “Roberta, I hate to tell you this, but they tore down your house today.” 

She said, “I really started crying real hard. But when we got there, the house had not been torn down. Everybody on the bus got upset with him. He said, ‘Oh, I was just joking with Roberta. I’m sorry, if I’d known she was going to take it that hard, I never would have done it.’”

Sandra Yette Hicks says she remembers the move as a hectic time as everyone scrambled for somewhere to live. The children were mortified as they lost track of friends. She doesn’t remember the demolition of her home, the Grey Hotel, which had housed not only her immediate family but many cousins. The family avoided driving by the area after they moved.

“We may have gone back once or twice,” she said. “But it was…gut wrenching.”

Margaret Coleman says the scattering of the neighborhood destroyed a sense of safety that had supported young people. “That community atmosphere is very important in Black areas, especially, because you have young people now who need that,” she said. “They need that feeling of stability and security that I had growing up. It was sort of like a security blanket for me to be in a community such as where I lived before they began to change everything.”

The Beck Cultural Exchange Center was once the headquarters for urban renewal in Knoxville and now preserves the history of the Black neighborhoods that were destroyed. It’s named for James and Ethel Beck, a Black couple who moved there after their own house was leveled. Former Beck Center Director Bob Booker said Mr. Beck never got over it.

“He went into dementia wanting to go home,” Booker said. Ethel Beck would call Booker and ask for help because her husband was so frantic. Booker would drive over and check on him. James Beck would say, “I want to go home! I want to go home!” Booker would put him in the car and drive around the block, then return. “He’d say, ‘Oh thank you, there’s my pretty wife,’” Booker recalled. “He and others had that same kind of problem. They’d been in those houses 50 or years longer and had to move, and it just really affected them mentally.”

Umoja Abdul-Ahad lived some of his youth on Patton Street. When his mother had to be treated at a sanatorium for tuberculosis, his grandmother and neighbors he calls “social aunts and uncles” stepped in to look after him at their houses nearby. Abdul-Ahad says one of the worst aspects of urban renewal was how the city convinced people that breaking up the neighborhood was good for them. He remembers adults discussing it on his grandmother’s porch, saying “I’ll be glad to get out of these slums.”

“And so my grandmama, who had a fourth grade education, who was talking to people that had master’s degrees, she said, ‘When did we start living in a slum?’ We never thought of ourselves as living in the ghetto,” Abdul-Ahad said. “The language came in to make people think they were living in a certain kind of way.”

Some former residents say they liked what the city did with the new Coliseum, and enjoyed the tree-shaded streets of their new neighborhoods to the east. But many, like Johnson, felt cheated.

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Arkless R. Wheeler’s home. Photo first published in The East Tennessee News, a prominent news publication for Black people in Knoxville. Wheeler established and led the largest mortuary for Black residents in Knoxville up until the time of urban renewal. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

“Okay, they’re going to fix these old houses up and make it better,” she said. “But they didn’t. They took everything we had and gave us zero in return.”

A group of people who were neighbors in Mountain View ended up moving to the same area of Linden Street. Others scattered, but tried to keep in touch.

“The people that was in my neighborhood, a lot of us are still together,” Freeman said, pointing from her porch to where different people moved from the old neighborhood. “They might have took the houses, but they didn’t take the love that we still have for each other.”

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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