Tragic history drives task force

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Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie recounts the origin of the task force. Photo by Moira Charnot.

A dozen men and women took up the responsibility Wednesday of figuring out the best ways to use $100 million to undo the harmful economic effects of generations of racial discrimination in Knoxville.

By doing so, the twelve members of the African American Equity Restoration Task Force crossed into “uncharted territory” when they held their first meeting at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in East Knoxville, one official said.

Created to help mitigate generations of discriminatory practices that have left Knoxville with one of the most impoverished Black populations in the United States, the task force will decide how to invest the promised $100 million over the next decade. 

“We’re going to be the catalyst to help move Black Knoxville forward, we’re going to be the catalyst for generational wealth building and close those wealth gaps in our communities, and we’re going to be the catalyst to right some of the wrongs that have happened historically,” said Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie.

The task force is largely the brainchild of McKenzie, who was able to convince City Council to invest the funds to address problems caused by the large-scale displacement of Black residents during urban renewal projects that took place from the 1950s to the 1970s.

“With this task force, I think that we have an opportunity to truly make a difference for future generations, and undo some of the systemic racism and discrimination that we have experienced in our community,” Mayor Indya Kincannon said.

McKenzie pointed out the significance of holding the first meeting at the Beck Center, the only facility of its type in the area dedicated to preserving Black history.

 After brief welcoming speeches from the mayor and vice mayor, Beck Center President Renee Kesler gave a presentation explaining the historical background that necessitated the creation of the task force.

“Knowing the history, to keep it in perspective, is a very important part of restoring the community,” Kesler said.

The urban renewal projects are now remembered derisively as “Urban Removal” because of the damage they wrought to Black neighborhoods in Knoxville’s urban core. 

Established under Title 1 of the Housing Act of 1949, the projects were supposed to use government-granted assistance to remove slums, blight, and substandard homes. The projects, however, wound up destroying the thriving businesses, churches, and stately homes that formed the hearts of the Black communities who resided in the doomed neighborhoods. 

For example, 72 homes, nine businesses, and two churches were destroyed in 1961 alone to allow the City of Knoxville to build the Civic Coliseum.

Before the urban renewal projects began, the affected neighborhoods had boasted over 107 Black-owned businesses as well as 15 churches and were cultural hubs for active Black communities. The projects ultimately resulted in over 2,500 household being displaced, the majority of them Black families. 

Despite the cessation of the programs in 1974, the devastation caused by them continues to bleed into Knoxville’s current issues regarding poverty in Black neighborhoods. 

“When we talk about urban renewal and the job that’s before you, I need you to understand, that it took from the people, and when it took from the people it left wounds that we’re still healing from,” Kesler told the task force members.

“Knoxville always liked to say that it had good racial relations, that it didn’t have a race issue,” she continued. “And yet here we are, about to commemorate 102 years since the race riots in Knoxville.”

Renee Kesler discusses the history behind urban renewal to the African American Equity Restoration Task Force. Photo by Moira Charnot.

Kesler was referring to the 1919 race riot that led to an unknown number of deaths when a white lynch mob stormed the city jail before launching an attack on the Black community in the neighborhood now known as the Old City.

The members of the task force serve three-year terms and include business, community, financial, education, faith, healthcare, youth and city leaders. The members are: Gwen McKenzie, Matthew Best, Deborah Porter, Stanley Taylor, Enkeshi El-Amin, Brandon Hardin, Tanisha Fitzgerald Baker, William Lyons, Dave Miller, Anderson Olds, George Underwood, and Regina Olum.

The task force members “will study, review, and identify strategic solutions to improve areas of disparity and disenfranchisement in the Black community, work with existing agencies in the community, and develop policy, programs and recommendations that will establish opportunities for generational wealth building in the Black community,” according to the City’s website.

They are also charged with overseeing the $100 million, which is expected to come primarily from grants. 

The group’s responsibilities were described as “uncharted territory” by Charles F. Lomax Jr., director of the City’s Office of Community Empowerment, who facilitated Wednesday’s meeting.

Lomax made it clear that, as the task force moves forward, various subcommittees will likely be formed to focus on specific areas of equity restoration such as housing and business ownership.

The task force members have agreed to meet at least once a month, though the next meeting’s date has yet to be officially decided. 

Office of Community Empowerment Director Charles F. Lomax Jr. facilitates Wednesday’s meeting. Photo by Moira Charnot.

Moira Charnot can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on August 26, 2021.