The teenaged Gwen Wilson never perceived herself as a leader, or even as a political candidate. A shy, quiet Holston High School student who rarely opened her mouth, she would have been shocked if she could have fast forwarded to her adult self in the waning days of 2020.
“My brother, Woody, was the outgoing personality,” said Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen Wilson McKenzie. “I was just a skinny pencil with a bunch of hair on it. Probably weighed about 85 pounds.”
McKenzie, who is winding up her first term as the District 6 city council member, made headlines last week – at home and even nationally – when she persuaded her colleagues to sign on to a resolution apologizing to the city’s African American community for the upheaval and dislocation caused by urban renewal projects unleashed on predominantly Black East Knoxville communities and promising to make amends by finding $100 million to invest there in the next 10 years.
McKenzie’s resolution commits the city to put together an African American Equity Restoration Task Force and avoids using the R-word: reparations.
She has been applauded, celebrated and criticized. Some say the resolution is too vague about what it wants to do and where the money’s going to come from. Others say it was a nakedly political move meant to ward off opposition from progressive groups in an election year.
Some are just flat mad about it. Others say it’s about damn time.
“The more people made aware of what urban renewal actually did, the better,” says historian and civil rights pioneer Bob Booker.
“It was a giant land grab and we’ve had a couple of generations that really suffered. People had to give up their property and as a result had nothing to hand down to their children. We live with the results of that now in the form of generational poverty. Urban renewal was land speculation and the speculators were in cahoots with city officials over federal funds. This is why it’s so important now to bring some of that stuff out.
“In the past we moaned about it but we did nothing…”
Booker says Whites suffered, too.
“It was blockbusting. The real estate people said, ‘The Coloreds are coming and you better get out of there.’”
Despite the Rashomon-esque reactions to the resolution, McKenzie is determined to make it work for her community and wishes her parents, Dora Clinkscales Wilson and Woodrow Z. Wilson, could be here to see its progress. Dora was a longtime schoolteacher and one of the founders of the Crutcher Youth Enrichment Center. She came to Knoxville with her husband when Whitney Moore Young, national president of the Urban League, recruited him to open an Urban League chapter here, and to become its first director. Woodrow Wilson died in a car crash when he was 38. Dora Wilson died seven years ago. Their daughter thinks of them often and keeps moving forward.
“There’s been so much hurt over the years, so many losses,” she said. “The only Black-owned business that’s still here from those days is Jarnigan’s Mortuary. We have a couple of generations who have never seen anybody in their family buy a house, go to college, have a good job. So, the best way for us to start healing is to start with an apology, recognize the hurt and have actionable items to move on to.”
She said she plans to give her colleagues a break for the holidays and then start pushing again.
“I want us all to be invested in this taskforce.”
P.S. Gwen McKenzie’s Facebook page is replete with observations about her resemblance to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.