• AndyClyde

Knoxville City Council unanimously passes urban removal resolution

By the time Tuesday night's Knoxville City Council meeting was over, Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie had guided her milestone resolution to a unanimous vote approving an apology and making amends for decades of urban removal that deeply harmed the city's Black communities.

There were prayers. Joy. Hope. More prayers. A vote. And then tears, lots of tears.

By the time Tuesday night's Knoxville City Council meeting was over, Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie had guided her milestone resolution to a unanimous vote approving an apology and making amends for decades of urban removal that deeply harmed the city's Black communities.

To make meaningful amends, the city committed to a funding plan of $100 million, paid largely through grants that must be secured, for those whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted.

Soon after the vote, McKenzie, through tears and with a quaking voice, thanked her colleagues for realizing the time for such a movement was now.

More:The reality of Knoxville's urban removal: Historians, community members answer questions

“This is collaborative effort, and I’m just so grateful for all the people who contributed to this effort and who worked on this for all these years,” she told Knox News.

There are still plenty of questions for the council and city to hammer out, but the vote makes it a city priority and sets other wheels in motion. Moving forward, the most pressing item will be configuring the newly formed African American Equity Restoration Task Force with members and setting goals.

Roughly 17% of Knoxville's population is Black and yet, according to 2019 Census figures, the city’s Black poverty rate is 31.4%, one of the highest figures in the region.

The city, largely through eminent domain, systematically tore down entire blocks of homes, churches and businesses in Black neighborhoods in the 1950s-1970s for projects like the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum and construction of new routes like James White Parkway and Interstate 40, among others.

In Knoxville, the effort displaced more than 2,500 families, more than 70% of whom were Black, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

McKenzie spent the past few months working with groups of people — Black business, political and social justice leaders, among others — to get to this point.

The impetus, she told Knox News last week, was the nation’s collective response to George Floyd’s death in May at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis and the protests and riots that erupted after that.

One of those residents whose family home was displaced for the auditorium was Knoxville Civil Rights icon Theotis Robinson Jr., a former councilman who was one of the first three Black students to be admitted to the University of Tennessee.

He was one of 17 people who spoke before the council Tuesday night. All supported advancing or approving the initiative. Robinson, like others, said the city should put millions into the project, too, since it initiated the federally driven urban renewal program.

Soon after, former Knoxville Mayor Daniel Brown (who served two terms in McKenzie’s district as councilman), the only Black mayor in the city’s history, said he supported the project and called it a historic night for the city.

“Race is a subject we prefer not to discuss, however in order to be fair and equitable to all our citizens we must discuss this problem forthrightly ... it is long overdue.”

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Pushing for 'real investment'

Mayor Indya Kincannon opened the discussion about the resolution by saying she supported it, leaps and bounds beyond where she was last week when she was noncommittal after being asked by Knox News about the initiative, saying she looked forward to learning more about the resolution.

There are plenty of concerns about how it will function, what level of financial support the city will put towards it, among many others. Many of these questions came up Tuesday night. Most notably, Councilwoman Amelia Parker, the other lone Black member of council, said the city shouldn’t think creating this program removes all past harms.

Parker also said that the city shouldn’t look at the program as a “Black fund,” where any city project that helps the Black community is used as a check mark for urban removal work. Instead, she said, the program and its dollars should be directed at specific issues and urban removal remedies.

But McKenzie was resolute, saying much of the remaining issues were semantics. The details would be figured out in the coming days and weeks, she said.

“Whenever we start talking about – in anything – real investment in people and helping to better their living conditions and the opportunity for access for generations this is where the conversation gets very intense.

“And I applaud the questions and I know we all want to be financially responsible, but I also want to say that if we have a city where we have a population of people who we are not looking at strategically ... we will not have a city that thrives,” she said.

Rev. Renee Kesler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, was one of those who spoke.

Part of what she said was on behalf of Nikki Giovanni, a famous poet from Knoxville who lived in the area during the urban renewal project.

“Renee, tell them Mulvaney street is my home. Cal Johnson Park is where Joan Miller and I played tennis, or watched Marvin and Matthew battle each other,” the quote started.

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Knoxville, TN 37917