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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Knoxville College, engine of city’s Black history, prepares for comeback

Local Knoxville artist Greg Dorsey freshens up the iconic Knoxville College sign as part of Homecoming 2021 preparations.Courtesy of the official Facebook page of Knoxville College, @KnoxvilleCollege1875

When Leonard Adams came to Knoxville College from Detroit in 1988, the first things he noticed about the South were the hills, the heat and the bright red dirt under the historically Black campus in the Mechanicsville neighborhood.

Quickly, the campus became a home for Adams and his several hundred classmates. Faculty members mentored them like an aunt or uncle would and friends became like siblings. The college, founded in 1875, had already been a powerhouse of Black talent, civil rights activism and an engine of Knoxville’s Black middle class for more than a century.

“If you returned after your first semester, you were pretty much hooked on Knoxville College,” Adams said. “So much that we didn’t even go home for the first summer after our first year. We stayed and went to summer school because it was just a sense of freedom, it was growing up and exploring yourself.”

Now, nearly 30 years after graduating from Knoxville College, Adams, an Atlanta-based CEO and social entrepreneur, is the college’s interim president, with a detailed vision in hand for how the campus will make a triumphant comeback from the decades of setbacks that came after he graduated.

When the college lost its accreditation from The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1997, Adams was initially unsure how devastating the loss would be. Though he and his classmates detected “rumbles” of financial mishandling and questionable leadership as students, many were unaware of what losing accreditation would mean.

“I didn’t know how fast it would handicap the college,” Adams said.

Losing accreditation meant losing the critical oversight of a group that assesses and assures academic quality. But more vitally, it meant losing any chance of receiving government funding at both the federal and state level. This loss is especially severe at historically Black college and universities (HBCUs), where a higher percentage of students rely on financial aid and grants.

From 1997 on, Adams said Knoxville College began admitting an increased number of foreign students, who were more readily able to pay for a degree from the unaccredited college. In 2015, after years of dwindling student populations and leadership changes, Knoxville College closed down campus with an enrollment of only 11 students, leaving boarded-up buildings, but an alumni base ready to step in.

Today, 27 students are working towards their associates degrees online through Knoxville College. Their tuition has been waived through support from alumni. In fall of this year, the number of students is expected to rise to 62.

Adams, who stepped into the role of interim president on Dec. 31, 2020, has another reason to believe the fall will be the beginning of a new chapter for the college. In October, he and other administrators plan to submit an application to regain accreditation. 2022, he said, has been christened “The Year of the Student: Our Road to Accreditation.”

With the college’s finances in better order after his first year in office, a year dedicated to developing strategic partnerships and minimizing debt, Adams feels good about the chances of regaining accreditation in 2023. If Knoxville College does not become accredited again, however, he believes the city will continue to struggle to retain Black talent and leadership.

“If Knoxville College doesn’t return, there will be a total removal of the Black middle class,” Adams said.

In addition to the socioeconomic stakes of the college’s comeback, there are nearly 150 years of Black history contained in the college, years that have become precious to historians and alumni.

Michael Blum, project coordinator for a consulting firm in Greenville, South Carolina, became attached to Knoxville College while writing his dissertation on the civil rights movement in Knoxville for a doctorate in history at the University of Memphis.

Given the outsized role that Black college students played in the national civil rights movement, Blum said that much of Knoxville’s civil rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s was led by students from Knoxville College. These students would conduct sit-ins at the segregated Woolworth’s and Bijou Theatre on Gay Street, then members of the college’s administration would bail them out of jail.

“Knoxville College is a primary player in my research. If you go back and look, there are very few Black students at UT in the 1960s. By very few, I mean 20, 30, 40. So most of the direct action civil rights movement was led by Knoxville College students and Knoxville College staff were very supportive, up to the president,” Blum said.

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the 1960 commencement address to the graduates of Knoxville College. The Aurora, the college’s student newspaper, gave a platform to civil rights events that the Knox News Sentinel and the Knoxville Journal would not cover, such as a visit from Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael. In the 1970s, Knoxville College supplied the oxygen for Knoxville’s Black Power and Black liberation movements.

Blum, after years of using archives of The Aurora for his research, has become the newspaper’s most recent contributor as it makes its own comeback. While he worked on his dissertation, the college was in the process of closing down. But when Blum saw it was reopening and that the interim president was injecting new life into the school, he offered his help.

“I always felt really grateful for these people at Knoxville College, the students who had been so brave,” Blum said. “So I made a vow to myself that I would pay attention to Knoxville College and if they ever … opened back up, I would volunteer my services to help them.”

Blum said that the future of the college under Adams’s innovative leadership is looking “very, very promising.” Part of the interim president’s leadership style is an unwillingness to allow community partners to abandon Knoxville College without providing a satisfactory explanation.

“You can’t just not support Knoxville College and not tell Knoxville College why you’re not supporting her, because she means too much to this city and this region for you not to support her,” Adams said. “Now you got someone driving the ship that’s saying, you gotta tell me something. I’m not the guy that’s getting ready to go away and let you go another 20 years.”

The plan to restore Knoxville College and get students back onto a bustling campus is about more than providing affordable housing to students, expanding work programs, deepening the college’s partnership with UT or securing financial aid.

Adams’s ultimate goal is to reestablish a Black middle class in a city where the Black poverty rate is high, but the population of Black students at the flagship University of Tennessee is disproportionately low. Tied to this goal is the hope of forming the “cultural and economic engines” necessary to build a more vibrant Black community in Knoxville.

“To be around 147 years,” Adams said. “You can’t tell me it’s not worth giving it another shot, you know?”

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