On May 13, WUOT aired the first of six stories by news contributor Heather Duncan about Knoxville’s largely African American downtown communities that were lost to urban renewal between 1959 and 1974. The series was made possible by a $5,000 grant from the East Tennessee Foundation Hope in Action Fund. The first segment, an eight-minute introduction and overview, can be heard on the WUOT website.
“I did almost 20 oral histories,” said Duncan. “What comes across in all of them is how close a community it was, how everyone knew each other, and the vibrancy of the community. Vine Street was the epicenter of the Black business community.”
On the May 3 edition of Dialogue, listeners were given a preview of the series and the history of the lost communities with Duncan and Renee Kesler, director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center on Dandridge Avenue. “The Beck Center was founded in 1975 as a community place and a space where African American history and culture are preserved, nurtured, taught, and continued,” said Kesler. “It came out of the question ‘How do we begin to rebuild our community?’ History is truth, and what we’re trying to do is get at the truth.”
Transcripts of Duncan’s oral histories will be donated to the Beck Center’s ongoing oral history project. The center has also hosted in-depth conversations about racial justice that have been shared on the Beck Center YouTube channel.
“This collaborative project exemplifies the kind of compelling storytelling that WUOT and public radio provide,” said WUOT Director Regina Dean. “Thanks to a generous grant from the East Tennessee Foundation, we were able to devote the time and energy to tell the story of urban renewal in Knoxville through the voices of those most impacted by it.”
Duncan started writing about lost Black neighborhoods in her dozen years as a reporter for the Macon, Georgia, daily Telegraph. “I just really enjoy doing oral histories and hearing older people’s stories,” said Duncan, who has a master’s degree in storytelling from East Tennessee State University and was a staff reporter for the Knoxville Mercury. “I also realized, during all the conversations about systemic racism going on last year, that other middle-aged and older well-educated white people I know were learning about components of it, like neighborhood redlining, for the first time.”
The ETF grant enabled WUOT to hire a freelance producer for the series: Tyson Jordan, an associate nuclear technician at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who has done audio production for churches and other organizations since working with his father’s gospel band 25 years ago.
This is the first radio documentary for Jordan, a Knoxville native and 1997 graduate of Austin-East High School. “I like everything about it,” he said. “It gives me a ticket to the past that I never would have learned about otherwise. I grew up in the area, but I never knew what it was before urban renewal.
“My dad’s parents lived in Morningside and my mom’s parents lived in Park City. My step-grandmother, Eunita Haskins, lived in the Bottom and knew Robert Booker [a prominent Knoxville civil rights leader, politician, and historian]. She worked in hotels, restaurants, and night clubs, and she has explained to me what it was like. When we lived on Dandridge Avenue, I walked to Vine Middle School by cutting through the Beck Cultural Center, straight up the driveway and onto the back street.
“This project has been fun because I get to hear things about people I’ve known. I was a part of this, and I lived on this land, but I never knew about it. Making those connections has been very helpful to understanding how big this community was. There was a rich culture and a history here that kind of got dissolved. This helps me connect with the flow of my family, why they moved where they did, and why they lived where they lived, and why they were in those areas.”
Brooks Clark (865-310-1277, firstname.lastname@example.org)