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Black History Month: Bob Booker Recalls Entertainment Venues in Segregated Knoxville 
To say that Robert J. “Bob” Booker is busy in February is an understatement. 

The author, historian, Knoxville College graduate, military veteran, former state legislator and co-founder of the Beck Cultural Center is a priceless resource for stories and details of Knoxville history, especially the history of the African-American residents who have shaped our city. It stands to reason that his calendar is booked solid during Black History Month with interviews, speaking engagements, and book signings—all on top of the deadlines for his regular columns published in the News Sentinel.

When Booker generously granted some of his time to talk with the City’s Communications staff, he answered our questions about a variety of city government-related figures, places and events. He shared memories of living in segregated Knoxville, when African-American residents were required by law and convention to use separate entrances to businesses—if they were permitted to patronize those businesses at all. 

Booker recalled that, when he was a child, his neighborhood included both black and white families, and he and his playmates didn’t much differentiate when it came to playing in the yards and streets. But a difference was notable when they went to see a movie downtown. 

When they arrived at the Bijou, Booker’s white friends went through the theater’s main entrance on Gay Street, while he entered through a door on Cumberland Avenue and climbed the steps up to the second balcony. When the credits rolled, they met back up on the street and walked home together, unfazed by the Jim Crow laws that measured them as unequal.  

Booker was more likely to spend his movie money at the Gem Theatre, which was open to black patrons and located near the corner of Summit Hill and S. Central Street. He recalls that the theater smelled strongly of creek water, because when Second Creek would rise, the water would come up through the floorboards. 

As a young man, Booker participated in many of the dances and concerts at the Jacob Building at Chilhowee Park. During segregation, audience members would be separated by race at the venue. However, when black artists like Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed, black concertgoers took to the floor, and white attendees were relegated to the upstairs balcony. 

In 1961, the City opened the General James White Memorial Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, a state-of-the-art facility to host a variety of shows, performers and sporting events previously unavailable to generations of East Tennesseans. Booker, long a fan of the many local dances held by bridge clubs and community organizations, was curious about the new civic center, especially its spacious ballroom. Would it be open to all Knoxville residents, or only whites, like the nearby Tennessee Theatre? He was happy to learn, when he called to inquire, that when the Civic opened, it would be open to all Knoxville residents. The privately owned Tennessee Theatre wouldn’t open to black patrons until 1963, after protests by Civil Rights activists, including Booker. 

The Civic Center was a remarkable achievement for Knoxville, however its place in local history is tarnished by its construction on a site that had previously been the homes, libraries, churches and businesses of hundreds of Knoxville’s African-American residents. Under the banner of “Urban Renewal,” a movement taking place in cities across the country, the City and the Knoxville Housing Authority (now KCDC) purchased hundreds of acres of land east of Gay Street, south of Willow Street, west of Morningside and north of the river between 1959 and 1974, with the proposed objective of remediating blight in some of the city’s poorer, and mostly black, neighborhoods. 

"In an effort to remove some areas of obvious blight, the plan got carried away and destroyed virtually everything in its path," Booker has said during his presentations. "As a result, 14 churches, scores of businesses and hundreds of homes fell under the weight of the wrecking ball." 

In this 2011 column, Booker recalls his experience at Heiskell Elementary School, one of the many buildings lost to urban renewal. 

Posted by ptravis On 18 February, 2019 at 1:39 PM