Panel says yes to stadium

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Makers and chroniclers of local history made the case on Friday for a new baseball stadium as the flagship project to steer an “urban renewal” do-over. 

The proposed flagship would be anchored in a once-thriving Black community that never recovered from the first such attempt 50 years ago.

Two former Knoxville mayors, two local historians, and a retired schoolteacher were the panelists in Friday’s Racial Justice Town Hall Meeting, one of a series organized by the Beck Cultural Center. Beck Director Rev. Renee Kesler moderated the discussion, which was conducted virtually through the center’s website.

Renee Kesler

The purpose of Friday’s Town Hall was to consider the possibilities for a long overdue reconciliation that a proposed baseball stadium might deliver to a community torn asunder by largely misguided urban renewal projects that targeted Knoxville’s inner city in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Tennessee Smokies baseball team owner Randy Boyd is proposing to move his team from Sevier County to Knoxville if the city and county governments commit up to $65 million to build a stadium on land bought up by Boyd on Willow Street.

The area was once known as The Bottom and was ground zero for a federally funded urban renewal project that became better known to its displaced residents as “Negro removal.”

If the stadium is built, Boyd is committing $142 million to surround it with restaurants, retail, and residential development. He estimates the development will create 3,000 jobs and produce $1.1 billion in economic impact over 30 years. 

Most of Friday’s panelists would be cited in any comprehensive account of modern Knoxville history.  Indeed, two of them — Bob Booker and Jack Neely — have each published several books on various aspects of the Knoxville narrative.

In addition to writing on local African American history, civil rights icon Bob Booker has also made a bit of history himself.  After leading the sit-ins to desegregate downtown Knoxville businesses during the Civil Rights Era, he was elected as the first Black state representative from a Knoxville district.

The Beck panel also included Randy Tyree, who was 34 years old in 1974 when he became the youngest candidate ever elected to the office of mayor and now, at age 81, is the most senior living former mayor. Also present was Dan Brown, Knoxville’s first Black mayor.

Bob Booker, seen here at a recent City Council meeting.

Retired schoolteacher Geraldine Taylor rounded out the panel to recount her experience of urban renewal that turned into nothing more than forced removal.

The story of how her family was forced to move from their single-family house to the Austin Homes public housing project mirrors many stories from a generation of displaced East Knoxville residents.

“There were definitely blighted properties that required attention, such as shacks with no plumbing and blocks near First Creek that were prone to flooding,” Taylor recalled of the areas that were targeted. “Yet the area also had solid housing stock such as my family’s home.”

She also described clusters of thriving businesses and churches that the program indiscriminately razed, along with the interdependent relationships that built and strengthened the community that Taylor grew up in.

“Everyone still knew each other in the projects but the sense of community as we knew it — having the means to look out for each other — was gone,” said Taylor.

Brown grew up in his grandmother’s house, which he said was in fine condition when she received notice in 1966 that it was targeted for demolition along with all the neighbors’ houses within a several block radius. 

Dan Brown

Afterwards the area stood vacant until the city acquired the land and developed Dr. Walter Hardy Park in the 1990s.

To this day, Brown says he can’t make sense of the erasure of his grandmother’s entire community. 

“People were not consulted, and decisions were made without really finding out what did people want to do, which is a great tragedy that we’re still paying for today,” he said.

Bob Booker lived in The Bottom, one of the worst flood zones targeted by the program. He summed up the impact by saying, “We needed urban renewal but we didn’t need what we got.”

Noting that the proposed baseball stadium will be sited on Willow Street in the heart of The Bottom, Rev Kesler channeled the discussion into how the racial history of Knoxville baseball can be an inspiration for reconciliation and restoration. 

For Neely, the Knoxville Giants set the stage for the possibilities a century ago.

He noted that Knoxville’s Negro League team had an integrated fan base during the era of not only segregated baseball but of a segregated South.

“When you go back and read the newspaper reports from 1920, the stories are as much about so many white fans at these Negro League games as they are about who won the game,” said Neely. “But it’s no wonder, considering the Giants’ best hitter was a one-armed outfielder nicknamed ‘Wing’ who led them to a pennant win at least once.”

Both mayors agreed that committing up to $65 million in taxpayer money to build the stadium will realize worthy returns. 

Tyree characterized the project as the city’s most important development since the World’s Fair in 1982. 

“You got too many good things and good people coming together on this project for it to not be great,” said Tyree. “It ain’t no different than 1982.”

Brown concurred and added that finally turning The Bottom into a destination for “good clean fun” may be the most important outcome of the project.

Asked to give a straightforward answer to the question of whether the stadium project was a good thing or a bad thing for Knoxville’s African American community, every panelist gave a thumbs-up. 

Bob Booker perhaps had the most emphatic thumb, saying: “This stadium means jobs, jobs, jobs!”

Brown added: “Yes, jobs. Even if they may be seasonal and they may be part time, bring them on.”

Jack Neely, pictured here at a recent City Council meeting.

Rick Held may be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on June 1, 2021