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Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie proposes $100 million to make amends for urban removal



Tyler WhetstoneKnoxville News Sentinel


Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie has proposed a City Council resolution that asks the city to apologize and make amends for decades of urban removal policies that displaced and marginalized residents, mostly Black, in the 1950s-70s, Knox News has learned. McKenzie's proposal seeks $100 million over seven years for solutions brought forth by a proposed African American Equity Restoration Task Force, according to a copy of the resolution obtained by Knox News and confirmed by a city official who asked to remain unnamed because they were not authorized to speak about it. "City Council recognizes that in order to begin healing and restoration in our African American community, we must acknowledge the hurt in our history inflicted on African Americans; therefore, City Council acknowledges the history of racial injustice and disenfranchisement toward African Americans in our City," the resolution says. The money sought would be from local, state and national grants, though the city would likely pay into the program as well. Roughly 17% of Knoxville's population is Black, a lower percentage than other metros in the state. 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 the Black community for projects like the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum and construction of new routes like James White Parkway and Interstate 40, among others. Tear downs like those in Knoxville occurred in cities across America as initiatives described as urban renewal, but the efforts rarely replaced the old buildings and neighborhoods with new ones and left many metro cores blighted for decades. In Knoxville, the effort displaced more than 2,500 families, more than 70% of whom were Black, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which calls the effort urban removal. Construction of the Coliseum required the removal of 72 homes, nine businesses and two churches, according to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Similarly, James White Parkway wraps around the eastern edge of downtown and winds its way across the Tennessee River into South Knoxville. To build it, the city tore through Willow Street, which was the African American residential and commercial community downtown known as The Bottom. OPINION:Urban renewal destroyed the old neighborhood The task force would comprise business, community, financial, education, faith, health care, youth and city leaders, according to the resolution. Your stories live here. Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it. Create Account Further details about how the task force would function were not immediately clear, and neither McKenzie nor mayoral spokeswoman Kristin Farley were available for comment late Wednesday night.


McKenzie's proposal suggests the city's new Community Empowerment Department, led by Dr. Charles Lomax Jr. will play a large role. The department oversees the Police Advisory and Review Committee and Empower Knox, the program that was formerly the Save Our Sons initiative started by Mayor Madeline Rogero.


The resolution would require a majority of council support. It was not clear whether Mayor Indya Kincannon supports the resolution. In a 2019 interview with Knox News before she was elected, Kincannon addressed the city's Black poverty rate, saying it's "unacceptably high." "It’s one of the highest in the Southeast, which is shocking and not something we want to continue," she said.


"City Council recognizes that in order to begin healing and restoration in our African American community, we must acknowledge the hurt in our history inflicted on African Americans; therefore, City Council acknowledges the history of racial injustice and disenfranchisement toward African Americans in our City," the resolution says.

The money sought would be from local, state and national grants, though the city would likely pay into the program as well.


Roughly 17% of Knoxville's population is Black, a lower percentage than other metros in the state. 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 the Black community for projects like the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum and construction of new routes like James White Parkway and Interstate 40, among others.


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