Reckoning with Knoxville’s “Forgotten” History of Racist Urban Planning

In 1958, after nearly three decades of discussions around a proposed civic auditorium, Knoxville architect Bruce McCarty presented city leaders with plans for a modern Civic Coliseum with “textured concrete walls,” an exterior facade later praised by one Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, who encouraged Atlanta’s city planners to take note.

The modern Civic Coliseum, of course, came with a hefty price tag, but residents of the Black neighborhood, displaced for the sake of “progress,” paid the greatest costs—the loss of intergenerational wealth, a decline in communal health, and the profound traumatic stress of “root shock,” that comes, according to Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, with the loss of the sense of place and community.

According to the Center for Disease Control, racist urban renewal practices contributed to an increase in stress levels, mental health conditions, increased risk of injuries due to environmental changes, higher infant mortality rates, increased rates of cancer, asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, which have contributed to shorter life expectancy rates.

The Mountain View Urban Renewal Project, according to University of Tennessee graduate student Steven Nickoloff, was one of several such development initiatives targeting Knoxville’s Black communities that occurred in the city after the passage of the 1949 Housing Act until 1974 in the name of “urban renewal” and which resulted in the dismantlement of Black residential neighborhoods, the displacement of Black residents often into segregated housing projects, and the dislocation of Black businesses, churches, and community spaces.

“The city saw a chance to do a large land grab, and rather than just deal with the blighted areas, the city decided to take 571 acres,” explained local historian and former Bottom resident Bob Booker in Knoxville’s Forgotten History, a website designed to expose the lingering effects of racist urban planning policies.

These racist city planning practices that occurred under the auspice of urban renewal involve just one chapter of a longer history of racist urban planning practices, poignantly detailed in the film Segregated by Design.

That longer history, Nickoloff and his advisor, University of Tennessee history professor Brandon Winford suggested, was enabled by earlier twentieth century Supreme Court decisions that supported the legality of exclusionary zoning laws and discriminatory practices of redlining by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration [as detailed through Mapping Inequality] that ensued after the National Housing Act of 1934, the New Deal legislation that introduced 30-year fixed mortgages.

These racist zoning laws and urban planning policies directly contributed to the development of slum-like conditions in Black neighborhoods and gave rise to racist urban renewal practices, amid the justification of “slum clearance.”

“The impetus surrounding urban renewal came with the promise of acquiring federal funding to address city/urban infrastructure and to ease ‘white flight’ and ‘industrial flight’ from cities with the rise of suburbanization,” explained Winford, who studied the effects of the urban renewal on Durham, North Carolina in his book “John Hervey Wheeler, Black Banking, and the Economic Struggle for Civil Rights”. “The Housing Act of 1949 and the Housing Act of 1954, for example, addressed problems like overcrowded living conditions and unleashed government resources to assist local authorities in redeveloping decayed slums in urban areas. These resources included financing for low-cost housing developments and cities around the nation submitted applications for federal dollars for those purposes. The Housing Act of 1954 provided the basis for federal spending toward urban blight, renewal, and revitalization—otherwise known as ‘Negro Removal.’”

Ultimately the most devastating aspects of urban renewal included running major interstate highways through the heart of black communities, many of them near downtown, Winford said.

Although these federal policies were meant to compensate displaced residents and to assist the displaced in relocation, Nickoloff explained, most property owners were inadequately compensated or aided in relocation. Displaced Black residents struggled to find homes in segregated Knoxville neighborhoods and due to existing racist redlining practices, they often failed to qualify for mortgage loans, and as a result, many Black families were placed into segregated and substandard public housing.

“These families were completely uprooted from their homes, at a time when homeownership was a key aspect of American identity, and displaced from the only community they had ever known,” Nickoloff lamented.

Though she witnessed firsthand the “white flight” to west Knoxville suburbs and the gentrification of north Knoxville neighborhoods that followed in the ensuing decades, Knoxville native Karen Richter remained unaware of Knoxville’s “forgotten” history of racist urban planning until she became involved in a journalism class project.

“The more that I read and saw, the deeper that I wanted to dive into the story,” she noted, recalling the first time that she was exposed to the archived footage and photography available through the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. “It was shocking to see the visuals. The Civic Coliseum, for example, that whole entire area once was a thriving Black community with hundreds of homes. It was as if Fourth and Gill had been bulldozed and replaced.”

As her site notes, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, as a result of urban renewal, 2,700 structures, 15 Black churches, 107 Black businesses and hundreds of homes were destroyed resulting in over 2,500 families being displaced – 70 percent of whom were Black or African American. Of the 107 Black-owned businesses forced to relocate due to urban renewal, only one remains today – Jarnigan & Son Mortuary on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

And, this phenomenon, as Winford shared occurred “in cities throughout the South, [where] local and state leaders took advantage of federal funding and planned redevelopment programs that left similar marks of devastation in black communities in the name of progress. In most instances, major interstates [or other local civic sites, such as Knoxville’s Civic Coliseum] replaced the once proud and thriving black urban centers with little, if any, revitalization.”

As Richter and Nickoloff both acknowledged, among many Knoxville residents a social amnesia exists around the history of racist urban planning practices, but it is necessary to acknowledge this ugly chapter of our nation’s past, to reckon with the collective trauma inflicted upon Knoxville’s Black community, and to organize community action to address the lingering effects of racist urban planning and to prevent future instances of displacement due to modern urban renewal efforts.

“You have to see it to remember it,” Nickoloff said.

“And you must talk about it to ensure that this never happens again,” Richter added.

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