Reckoning With the Past as the Knoxville Science Museum Proposal Moves Forward

Feb 26, 2020

Immediately east of downtown Knoxville, the Civic Coliseum went up in 1961. That was followed by the police headquarters and the James White Parkway in the following decades. And, in the next few years, a state-of-the-art science museum will be built there. City leaders have praised philanthropist Jim Clayton for funding the $150 million dollar project. But some residents are questioning why there wasn’t more public input or consultation with the surrounding neighborhood. This is an especially thorny question because of the legacy of urban renewal on that very land.

“We're sitting on the fossils of a Black community right now,” said David Hayes, standing at the corner of Howard Baker Avenue and Hill Avenue. Hayes is a community organizer and former city council candidate. He isn’t against a science museum, but says history should be at the fore when it comes to development in this area.

“This is a historically Black area, this was a thriving Black community until it was forcibly pushed out under urban removal,” Hayes said. “With all these things at play equity should be at the top of the mind.”

In the 1960s, the federal government gave cities money to redevelop neighborhoods it deemed “blighted.” In Knoxville, more than 1,800 families were displaced from their homes. Sixty-five percent of these were families of color, according to federal government data.

When it comes to current development, Hayes says there wasn't enough public input to ensure that the surrounding community will directly benefit from the museum. And there was less public input for the museum than there would have been for city-funded projects, said Knoxville Chief Operating Officer David Brace.

“Let’s say we were going to do a fully funded tax-supported public park, we would go out and do exactly what the park looks like,” Brace said. “This is a mix because it’s private dollars that want to happen within the city.”

The science museum was discussed at city council meetings, which are open to the public, and the project was covered in the local press. But only one public meeting was dedicated specifically to the museum proposal. It was held at 5:30 p.m. on a weeknight, the week before Thanksgiving. The sign-in sheet for the meeting shows 27 people came.

“After the last community engagement meeting about this issue, folks thought there was going to be more but there wasn’t,” Hayes said during a city council meeting in December. “The city of Knoxville has not put in the due diligence, has not put in the work and has not created a strong agreement to ensure communities are going to benefit from this.”

At that city council meeting, the council voted to sell the land to the Clayton Foundation.

One of the concept renderings of the science museum presented at the public meeting on November 21, 2019.
Credit City of Knoxville, by BarberMcMurry Architects

The primary funder of the project, James Clayton, points to his success in engineering as his inspiration for the museum. The son of a poor sharecropper, Clayton moved to Memphis and met a young engineer who spurred his interest in science and technology.

“We were spending every non-working hour that we weren’t sleeping in his hobby shop experimenting and discovering and working with science of all kinds,” Clayton said during a 2018 city council meeting about the project.

City officials proposed the land east of downtown in part because of the ample parking garages. It is in city councilwoman Gwen McKenzie’s district and she says she made a point to talk about the history of the land.

“In the initial meetings about the science museum I made it very clear to the Clayton team. I talked about what that land meant to the community," McKenzie said. "The unfortunate thing that happened through that entire era was that a lot of the business owners relocated. So that Black wealth that was there initially left the city of Knoxville."

And the zoning code Knoxville developed per state laws to use the federal urban renewal money more than half a century ago is still in effect, smoothing the path for the planned science museum.

“The original redevelopment area was that, the urban renewal plan,” said Brace. “That allowed the city to negotiate directly with Mr. Clayton on this real estate.”

What happened as a result of this zoning plan originally isn’t just in history. Renee Kessler is the director of the Beck Cultural Center. She works to preserve archives from the community that once was in downtown and East Knoxville.

“Do you know where the doggy park is, downtown right at the bottom of Summit Hill?” Kessler said. “That's where the Gem Theatre was. When African Americans could not go, for example, to the Tennessee Theatre or when they only could sit in the balcony of the Bijou Theatre, Gem Theatre would be another option for them. It was Black-owned and African Americans could go there.”

That site is just one place she hopes visitors and residents alike will stop at and learn about, using an app under development. It will feature buildings that were demolished and redeveloped during urban renewal. The app is one part of what city council members say is a developing cultural corridor in the area near the planned science museum.

“The vision here is that when you would walk down the street, you'd be able use your technology or your phone to use a QR code and be able to say, ‘Oh, so this is where the Gem Theatre was,’ or ‘Oh, this is where the beauty shop was,’ or the barbershop, or the grocery store, or the hotel the Dogan-Gaither Motel,” Kessler said.

Kessler says she hasn't been involved in any discussions about the science museum, but recognizing and respecting the history of the area is important to her.

“You can't appreciate sometimes the challenges and the struggles of a disadvantaged people until you understand the history of that struggle,” she said.

There has been some discussion in the city council to support projects like this one that commemorate the history of the land surrounding the science museum, but no firm plans or budget proposals have been made.

Community organizer David Hayes says these discussions are a step in the right direction, but he’d also like to see tangible benefits for the community that is still here.  

“Ultimately we need to make sure that the people whose ancestors were pushed out of this area need to benefit directly from this,” said David Hayes. “They need to be benefiting in the form of jobs, need to be benefiting in the form of jobs to build and maintain it, and benefiting from the things that are taught there.”

The plot sold to the Clayton Foundation for the science museum currently houses the Knoxville Police Department.
Credit Claire Heddles

The museum is estimated to create about one hundred jobs, but there are no provisions in the agreement about who will be hired for these jobs.

It will cost about $50 for a family of four to visit the museum. Clayton has committed to giving some local children free access, and said he will never financially benefit from the museum.

There are benefits to funding  projects through a private foundation, said attorney and expert in charity law Eric Amarante.

“It is a way to interact with the world in a quasi-business way without incurring taxes,” he said.

And in this quasi-business way, not as many public meetings are required because of the private funding source. But Amarante says public meetings aren’t just a formality; they can result in tangible commitments in the form of a community benefits agreement. That happened recently in Nashville when the city was discussing the new soccer stadium.

“The developers promised to engage a certain number of local folks in the planning process,” Amarante said. “The community that is being affected by this new development is getting some say in what the development will look like.”

David Hayes and others asked the city council for a community benefits agreement before the city sold the land to the Clayton Foundation. Amelia Parker, who had been elected to City Council but not yet sworn in, sent a letter to the council asking to postpone the sale until the new members began their terms. But the city approved the sale unanimously without a community benefits agreement.

Amarante said these agreements usually happen before the city approves a proposal. He says it may not be too late, but the ball is in the Clayton Foundation’s court, and the community has less leverage after the sale goes through.

David Hayes said he would like to see the foundation host public meetings he wishes the city had held before the sale went through.

“[Clayton] doesn't have to do this, but it would still be great for him to hold those spaces,” Hayes said. “Making sure that the space there is completely accessible to those in the community and is not just somewhere tourists can afford to come in.”