Urban Renewal Scars Black History in Knoxville

Alison Morrow, WBIR-TV (Knoxville), January 18, 2010

Though many spent Monday remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some remembered a part of civil rights era history in Knoxville–history that no longer exists.

“Private homes, churches and businesses were wiped out in the name of so-called progress,” said Knoxville City Councilman Dan Brown.

“Because they had the ‘urban renewal’. There were shanty-type houses,” said former Knoxville City Councilman Raleigh Wynn, Sr.

Neither man can point to the home they grew up in, as both houses were bull-dozed.

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In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Knoxville houses and businesses in what is now the greater downtown area were demolished for what city leaders called necessary revitalization.

“You didn’t have any African Americans very much in the local government. There were none on city council,” Brown said. “That makes a difference. There was no voice.”

Urban renewal was further mobilized by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Knoxville in the early 1960’s, during which he called the soon-to-be demolished neighborhood one of the poorest he had ever seen.

The Civic Coliseum, hotels, the UT Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, even the police department, were built on top of black history.

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“You had some minority-owned businesses that never bounced back once they were forced to move or relocate,” Brown said.

Knoxville’s urban renewal and the work to stop it were symptoms of a larger movement taking place nationwide.

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“A lot of times, governments, they may think they’re doing something good for communities, but as years go by, it may not turn out to be so good,” Brown said.

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