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Losing Home: The Loss of Black-Owned Businesses

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When the urban renewal redevelopment program demolished the neighborhood called the Bottom, it swept away Knoxville’s Black business district. The area was sometimes called “Little Harlem.” The junction of Central Street and Vine Avenue, where most Black-owned businesses were clustered, was called “the million-dollar corner.” About 107 Black-owned businesses were demolished.

But between about 1954 and 1974, the federally-funded urban renewal also wiped out countless home-based businesses in Black neighborhoods. Families lost a source of income for generations, and children lost a model of entrepreneurship. 

Anne McGinnis grew up in one of the adjacent Black neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal. “Pretty much everything we needed was right there in the area,” she remembers, listing everything from ice cream shops to doctors. “In fact, the Old City was pretty much owned and ran by African Americans.”

For example, with only an eighth-grade education, Geraldine Taylor’s father opened his own barber shop on Vine, next to the Gem movie theater. 

“On Saturday, my friend Adele and I would take lunch to him, and people would just be packed in there waiting to get their hair cut,” she said. “That took off for him. He was able to send all of us to college by being a barber.” 

In fact, he eventually became the first Black businessman to own a building on Central Street after moving his shop there, Taylor said.

Local historian Bob Booker recalls having his first milkshake at Carter Roberts Drug Store. When he was older, he’d stop by Bud’s Lounge for the coldest beer in town, shoot the breeze at Crook’s Pool Room, and listen to jazz at the Ebony Lounge. Black-owned taxi companies could give you a ride home.

Forty-six of the 107 storefront businesses forced to move by urban renewal had been operating for at least ten years. Most of their customers lived within walking distance.

That all changed with urban renewal, which didn’t offer businesses help finding a new place, Booker said.

“Even if they paid them adequately, where were they to relocate? They had been in business 10 years, 20 years or 30 years, in an area where other businesses were operating that I call the cluster effect -- that if one decided to go to Gem Theater to see a movie, he could drop off his dry cleaning, he could take a pair of shoes to be repaired, he could stop at a nearby cafe, the drug store, and all of those things were within two or three blocks of each other where one could walk,” he said. “But urban renewal destroyed that neighborhood atmosphere. And that’s why businesses failed.” 

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Jarnigan & Son Mortuary in 2006. Opened in 1886 by Clem Jarnigan at the corner of Commerce Avenue and State Street, downtown Knoxville. Relocated in 1909 to Nelson Street and then in 1969 to McCalla Avenue, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. Photo from Knoxville News Sentinel Archives.

In fact, none of them survived except Jarnigan & Son Mortuary, a family business founded in 1886 and now operating at its third location.

In 1974, a University of Tennessee graduate student named Comer Taylor interviewed 61 businessmen forced to move because of urban renewal or highway projects. Some were paid some moving costs or compensated for loss of income during the move, but many weren’t. 

A slight majority of those who owned restaurants, bars, and grocery or retail stores decided to close. More than half said they couldn’t afford to start over. Having so many small businesses looking at once caused rent to shoot through the roof. The challenge was even greater for businesses that served alcohol, because their location choices were more limited. Others couldn’t find another locationthat would serve the same customers. 

An example was Goodman’s corner market near where Knoxville’s civic coliseum is now. Former resident Brenda Peel lived next to it. When her family and the Goodmans were forced to move, they ended up next door in the new neighborhood, too. But Mr. Goodman, who was aging, didn’t try to reopen the store.

Many minority business owners told Comer they were frustrated that they had never been consulted during the urban renewal process. “None of the businessmen seemed to have been against urban renewal but more or less the way it was carried out,” Comer reported. “One auto body repairman said he thought that urban renewal was the only way to get rid of the poor and blighted conditions in East Knoxville. In fact, he commended the Housing Authority for the job that was done, but he degraded the way they went about doing it.” 

Eddie Wells, who owns a car repair and sales business in East Knoxville, says desegregation doubled the pressure on Black businesses. “We were taking our money to the white businesses. We wanted to make a statement, but it killed the Black businesses,” said Wells, who grew up in the Bottom until urban renewal. “We forgot to come back to our neighborhood.”

Storefront businesses weren’t the only ones urban renewal killed. In the residential neighborhoods of Mountain View and Morningside, people often had a side hustle. A little extra money made a big difference, especially since many higher-paying jobs weren’t open to Black workers. 

Robert Minter Jr. and others remember getting their hair cut at the Delaney barber shop, where men gathered to talk and play checkers. It was operated out of the Delaney family’s house by the brother of famous Black artist Beauford Delaney. 

Umoja Abdul-Ahad grew up shifting between houses in the Bottom and Mountain View. While his mom was hospitalized with tuberculosis, he lived with his grandmother or neighbors like “Mother Gray.” He started earning money at home-based businesses early.

“Ms. Helen had a store in her house, which was right next door to us, and when I got to be maybe 7 or 8, something like that, I actually worked in her store. So I got to understand entrepreneurial endeavors at an early age,” he said. His other home-store job was on Mother Gray’s screened-in porch, where they sold watermelon and cantaloupe slices, fried pies, lemon meringue and sweet potato pies, sodas and candy. 

But Mother Gray and Ms. Helen lost those homes during urban renewal. Families might have been paid fair market value for the house, but they weren’t compensated for losing their home business.

“What you didn’t take into account is that my business is in that house, and it’s retro-fitted to accommodate that,” said Renee Kesler, director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center for Black history in Knoxville. “For example, a beauty salon is at the back of the house, the grocery store is in the bottom and the house at the top. And these sorts of concepts are all throughout urban renewal, because basically you took what you had, and you created from that.”

People were earning money even while having fun. Lavonia Moore remembers everyone going to baseball games in Park City with their families -- but churning ice cream or frying fish to sell while they were there. 

Kesler noted that Black Knoxvillians still come up with these creative side businesses, like homeowners near Chilhowee Park who sell parking spaces in their yards during big events.

“Black people have always been geniuses at taking little and making much,” Kesler said. “Literally, they have always taken whatever crumbs, scraps, and made delicacies out of them. That’s part of the Black experience.”

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The Cal Johnson Building. Photo provided by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

But like people who live near Chilhowee Park, those in neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal also relied on local opportunities. In their case, it was a built-in customer base scattered by urban renewal.

Abdul-Ahad said that losing the model of pervasive entrepreneurship hasn’t helped Knoxville’s Black youth. At least a third of Knoxville’s Black residents live below the poverty line. The next generation also lacked the head start that a successful family business can provide, Booker said. 

“One thing that really hurt with Urban Renewal, there was really nothing left to pass down to the heirs and to the children,” he said. “There were these businesses that had been in business many, many years, but after they were taken by urban renewal the children and grandchildren had nothing to inherit.”

This spring, many Black leaders have identified a relationship between Black poverty and violence among Black youth. Five students of Austin-East High School have died in shootings this year, including Anthony Thompson, Jr., killed by a police officer inside the school.

Abdul-Ahad has seen how his early sales experiences in the old neighborhood shaped his life for the better. Today he sells incense door-to-door and through grocery stores. 

“I was wondering: Why I’m so happy? You know, I love this,” he said. “And then I remembered Mother Gray! You had the store on the back porch. Yeah, Miss Helen! You worked in Miss Helen’s store.”

Abdul-Ahad was surrounded by neighbors renting out rooms, selling meals or teaching music lessons. 

“You had people teaching crocheting, people teaching quilting, you had all kinds of things going on that capital and money was being exchanged for!” he said. “You just saw commerce going on all the time.”

The Comer study in 1974 concluded that Knoxville should commit to recruiting minority businesses downtown, to compensate for pushing out so many. That didn’t happen. 

Some members of the Black community have tried to build change on their own. Enkeshi El-Amin, a sociologist who graduated from the University of Tennessee, founded a non-profit named after The Bottom to help Black creatives build entrepreneurial skills. It’s also a multi-use community space that sells books and houses a community podcast studio. (El-Amin is also a co-host and producer of the nationally-acclaimed podcast Black in Appalachia.)

Sew It Sell It is a program of The Bottom that teaches girls sewing skills, helps them develop and brand a product, and then trains them to market and distribute it. Sew It Sell It has also provided intensive sewing training and equipment to refugee women in Knoxville. 

But like Black endeavors since urban renewal, the non-profit is struggling to carve out a more permanent space for itself in what is now the Old City. The Bottom is currently trying to raise funds to buy a house in the neighborhood.

Almost 50 years after urban renewal, the city of Knoxville is exploring ways to provide job training and enhance opportunities in the Black community. Knoxville City Council approved creating an African American Equity Restoration Task Force last year, specifically to correct the continuing damage of urban renewal. The city has committed to investing $100 million on the effort over seven years. But that will be through seeking grants rather than spending tax dollars.

East Knoxville resident Elizabeth Johnson said the city should use some of the money for low-interest loans to help business owners fix up their buildings in East Knoxville or open new businesses there. Her daughter has a beauty salon on Western Avenue, but would love to open one in East Knoxville, she said.

“But there’s no decent, affordable place,” she said. “Help the small business owners do this! We’re still having to operate out of shacks, run-down buildings.”

Booker and Abdul-Ahad say they see potential in developing a business district in the eastside’s Burlington area.

“I think Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie made a grand move in getting City Council to pass the resolution to come up with the kind of money to help rebuild the Black business community -- because it was the city of Knoxville, it was federal money that destroyed that black business community in the first place,” Booker said. 

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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.