The Decline of Knoxville College

Throughout the country Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) are undergoing efforts by state legislatures to de-fund, downsize, and/or merge them with other state institutions. North Carolina is a prime example of such efforts to disenfranchise HBCUs. During my brief weekend stint in Knoxville, Tennessee I was given a tour of Knoxville College, a local HBCU. The tour was brief, so I returned Sunday afternoon to survey the defunct campus.

Knoxville College was founded in 1875 by United Presbyterian Church of North America as a liberal arts college for Black men and women. Much like other such universities and colleges, it was a limited opportunity for advancement. Its most notable alumni include the professor and author, Michael Eric Dyson, Johnny Ford, Mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, and the stage and television actor, Palmer Williams, Jr. Throughout the years, Knoxville College has experienced a series of drastic setbacks that has led to a steady decline in its student body, its financing, and its leadership. Its fiscal trouble began in the 1970s and by 1997, the college had its accreditation revoked by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Despite the efforts of alumni, supporters, and multiple Presidents to bolster the colleges efficiency, its reputation and infrastructure have all but collapsed inward. In 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency seized the science building to exact an emergency clean up of toxic chemicals left inside. The cost of the clean up, plus looming loan debt and declining enrollment (the current Wikipedia input states that it has 11 students) caused the university to close its doors in the Fall of 2015. However, by the looks of the buildings on campus, just about of which are abandoned, broken into and suffering from water and mold damage – I can hardly imagine classes taking place there in the near future.

Remnants of brighter days remain. Most notably, the monuments to the various Black Greek fraternities and sororities that once occupied the campus. On the campus is also an old cemetery, the final resting place of free Black men and women. Walking into the Freedmen’s Mission Historic Cemetery, I took note of the headstones of various sizes, most of which had some type of moss growing on them. Reading headstones with birthdates that read “1860” or “1864,” I could not help but instantly think that this man or that woman had been born into slavery or at least a time in which the enslavement of a Black man, woman, and child was perfectly legal within the state of Tennessee and the South, writ large. I was sure to pour libation for these ancestors, those buried with gravestones and those whose remains were likely laid unmarked.

I anticipated that this journey into the south with my bike would be mostly one of entertainment and exercise, an opportunity to trek different environments. My ride to Knoxville College offeredthat and more – a peak into Knoxville's Black history in the present.