Sculpting a Legacy

Whether Knoxville deserves Haley Heritage Square or not, we may well get it anyway

In a sculptor's studio on 26th Street in downtown Manhattan is an enormous statue of a man seated holding a book, as if reading to unseen children. The statue is reputedly the largest one of a black man in America, perhaps even the largest in the world outside of Egypt. And after it's cast in bronze, it may or may not arrive in East Knoxville, the destination for which it was created. Some have threatened that the statue may soon no longer even exist.

With tens of millions of admirers around the world, the subject of that statue may be the most famous and influential person of any race who ever made a home in Knoxville. Yet he remained humbly Knoxvillian, a local philanthropist and community volunteer, available to one and all, often eager to help even on minor projects.

Now, almost five years after his death, when a small arts group attempts to establish a relatively modest park in his honor, the local response is tentative, discordant, murky.

The project in question is Haley Heritage Square, a proposed public park on the east side of downtown to honor former Knoxvillian Alex Haley and all the good things he represented: literacy, family, and maybe hope for a struggling community.

At this point it's much more than a mere proposal. The African-American Appalachian Arts group (better known as Quad-A) and its specific task force, Citizens for Haley Heritage Square, have raised--or at least have been promised--hundreds of thousands of dollars from public and private sources to fund the project. The city has made land available for it; and for a couple of years now, a famous sculptor has been working on the statue that will serve as its most conspicuous attraction.

With the city, CHHS identified a triangular slice of grassy slope at the head of Summit Hill Drive, between underused but attractive Morningside Park and overlooked but historic Dandridge Avenue. Local arts booster and sometime blues singer Evon Easley headed up the project, with an almost desperate ambition, to be "a permanent public reminder" of Haley's legacy, "visible and present in our community." In Easley's mind, it would be a step toward solving the urban community's biggest problems.

"In the '60s and '70s, we went through hard-hit urban renewal," she says. "After desegregation, we did not have the organizational skills to preserve our home. It brought a detachment from community and family, which led to drugs, family breakdown."

Haley Heritage Square, Easley believes, would help restore a sense of community to East Knoxville. "It would increase property value, increase attractiveness, bring hundreds, thousands of people into the area." She envisions performances in the proposed amphitheater on the site, storytelling festivals to perpetuate the Haley legacy. She sees it as the dawn of a day "when people from West Knoxville can come to East Knoxville and see it as a positive experience."

Whether Haley Square can be the transforming generator of inspiration and goodwill that Easley and others suggest, it would definitely bring attention to this oddly uncelebrated part of town. Barely three-quarters of a mile east of the Old City, the park's at the head of Dandridge Avenue, a tree-shaded lane of well-kept middle-class homes and churches. Adjacent to the Haley site is antebellum Mabry-Hazen House, once home of wealthy gunslinger Joseph Mabry. Renovated and open for tours, it's now one of Knoxville's most attractive and fascinating showplaces. This hill may be the loftiest spot in central Knoxville. From here you can see the mountains to the south and one of the best skyline views in town.

Still, Dandridge Avenue remains a blind spot in Knoxville's eye. Some downtowners and west-siders admit they don't even know where it is.

Organizers have almost transcendent hopes for the project. Easley says the Haley statue has already been cited by some as a national treasure and that it would be "a permanent public reminder, visible and present in the community" of an African-American culture and heritage based on strong family ties.

Quad-A executive director Nkechi Ajanaku remembers the first discussions, within days of the controversial Haley estate auction in 1992. "It was so depressing," she says, "his effects being sold in an auction-block scenario. We knew we needed to remember him in a better light." She emphasizes the potential of Haley Square as a positive influence on black youth. "Children need a strong influence, a strong African-American male model," says Ajanaku, who has four children of her own. "Especially in this city, we have to create more images and models for these children. They need to know they don't have to work for McDonald's--or TVA."

Easley, Ajanaku, and others are convinced the Haley statue and park could be a big step toward restoring the dignity and pride of Knoxville's black community.

Or, as the sculptor's studio has suggested to Easley, the statue may just be dismantled.

If Haley Heritage Square has already outgrown the proposal stage, it's far short of reality. Funds expected from the city early this year have not yet arrived, allegedly due to red tape and bureaucratic hoops--and what are apparently some colossal failures of communication.

The whole development--which will include buying and installing the statue, building an attractive amphitheater alongside it, and developing historical kiosks to recognize heroes of the African-American community--will run to a total of $3.9 million. (Most of that's for landscaping and construction; the original bill for the statue itself is just over $200,000.) Fundraising efforts in Knoxville have been respectable, almost encouraging, but hardly overwhelming. As mainstream whites watch quietly to see what happens next, some factions of the black community have been skeptical of a memorial honoring an outsider they once associated with the white community.

However, Ajanaku is convinced these grassroots are finally sprouting. "It's really growing on the African-American community," she says. "In three years, I've heard just so many things--but on the whole, I've seen more positive than negative support in the African-American community. As far as the European-American community, it's waiting on the African-American community to take the lead."

Sculptor Tina Allen has received praise in the national media for her work in heroically large bronze statues, mostly commemorating admirable black people. Her representation of Nelson Mandela is scheduled to be erected in South Africa. She's been working on Knoxville's Haley project for many months.

"We need to expand the idea of what greatness is--reading, writing, literacy skills, as opposed to sports," she says. "The Haley statue has that emphasis on literacy--but also on the strength and importance of the family structure, on knowing who you are."

For this family-friendly author, Allen created a family-friendly statue. Kids can climb it like a tree. "They can climb on the arms, they can sit on the book," she says. Allen and everyone else involved with the project talk a lot about children. One day, as she worked in her Manhattan studio with the windows open, two black teenagers came by. "They stopped in their tracks," Allen says. "They came in, had to see it close up. I could tell they were shy. We looked at it together. After a long pause, I said, 'I feel better.' One of the boys said, 'I feel better, too.'"

Moments like that, Allen says, make her feel her work can help to unburden "years of psychological pain--and feel you're part of what's right with America.

"These are sad children," she adds. As it does in the massive temples of Egypt, she says, "sculpture can restore your sense of dignity. "

In September, Allen was hospitalized for exhaustion and pneumonia, partly from breathing dust, an occupational hazard. "It was like being hit by a linebacker," she says. She's recovering, but has not yet been paid what she was promised. Allen herself professes to be understanding of this rare grassroots project undertaken by a group without as much administrative experience or resources as most entities that commission huge statues have.

"I'm very tender toward them. I understand there's a lot of inexperience, people who've never done this before. And there are too few communities doing anything. America's very different from Europe, where everywhere you look there's art. I just want you [Knoxville] to do the best you can."

However, the accountants in Allen's studio, charged with representing the sculptor and a team of bronze casters, are demanding payment now.

Most of the total cost of the project will come, as much of it has already, from federal, state, corporate, and private grants and donations. But since it's to be owned by the city of Knoxville, municipal funding once seemed the readiest source of start-up capital.

Easley and Ajanaku have experience directing several of Knoxville's phenomenally successful Kuumba festivals--a major logistical feat, to be sure--but they've never built a park or installed a statue or spearheaded such an expensive proposition as Haley Heritage Square. Though Easley had worked for several years in Knoxville College's administration, she was best known just a few years ago as an Old City jazz singer. She's familiar with public skepticism. "People say, 'You don't have the experience! How dare you think you can do a $4Êmillion development!'"

They're doing it, and they're doing a lot of things right, by the book. Easley's an excellent promoter, and can readily quote figures on the several complicated deals she has negotiated. Diplomatically taking a holistic approach to the whole neighborhood, Easley talks of its provocative diversity, which includes the Mabry-Hazen House--built to be the home of a slave-holding, Confederate family--the Beck Cultural Center, and Haley Heritage Square. The Mabry-Hazen folks strongly support the project.

However, some local historical groups, as well as curators of the Haley Project at UT, while expressing enthusiasm for what they've heard of the project, say they've heard few details and would like to be more involved than they are.

With the city of Knoxville, Easley's treading a thin line. She seems grateful for what support Haley Square has received from the Ashe administration, but she's also painfully aware that it's only a minor slice of what the city allots for some other projects: $8 million for the controversial riverfront project just down the hill; $12 million for an equally controversial new baseball stadium.

"We're asking for half a million," she says. She hasn't gotten it. The city promised only about two-thirds of that figure, $350,000, approved by City Council back in March for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

And even with that figure, there's a polar misunderstanding about what that money was intended to pay for. Finance director Randy Vineyard says the $350,000 was technically earmarked only for a noncommittal "Morningside Park Extension." The city set about to procure property from the Mabry-Hazen complex, plus one private home, and has gone to some lengths this month to relocate a retired couple living at the site.

The city has made friends of that couple, by the way. William Mapp has lived in the house since he was a toddler in 1933, but he and his wife are contentedly moving to another house a few miles away. "Nothing will ever be as comfortable as this old home," says his wife Eva. "But we're not the kind of people that would want to stop progress if we can help the youth of the city. I think Haley Square will improve the neighborhood. At least, I'm praying that it will." She says the city has treated them well.

That acquisition is indeed important to completing the Haley Heritage Square project. However, Vineyard insists that none of that money was ever intended to help pay for the statue itself. He implies the land acquisition may come in under $350,000, but says whatever savings there might be would merely revert back to the city's coffers. Citing municipal procedure, Vineyard says it would be impossible for the city to pay for the statue without additional action by city council. "We can't be a third party to these agreements" between CHHS and the sculptors, he says. "Certain things will have to be done, procedurally and legally."

On February 20, he sent a letter to CHHS, stating, "The city would...have an interest in obtaining the statue of Mr. Haley...We would need to review all contracts, documents, and agreements with the sculptor and donors, and it would then be up to the city to choose a site and install and maintain the statue." Vineyard says CHHS has not responded to the conditions stated in his letter. "It's not a control issue," he insists.

Meanwhile, Easley has just moved the project's offices into a small white house on the Mabry-Hazen property--the servant's quarters when the late Evelyn Hazen lived there. CHHS moved in almost a month ago after they were crowded out of their old office at Morningside Park Community Center. She's been hard at work on other aspects of the complicated project, including a planned big-city tour of the statue, pending its completion, prior to its projected installation in Knoxville in July. She just received a $26,000 development grant from the Federal Economic Development Association. She's also been working on a web site to publicize the project, as well as a personalized-brick sale promotion she had hoped would be rolling by now.

For the four months since the fiscal year began, and through several meetings with city officials--including two recent ones with Vineyard himself--Easley thought the city's commitment to paying for the statue was only tardy, not nonexistent.

Today, Vineyard's opinion of the allocations are an utter surprise to Easley and project manager George White, a retired TVA employee helping administer the project. Easley says CHHS has sent Vineyard copies of contracts and agreements, everything he has asked for. Easley said that she's been operating under the promise that $102,000 of that $350,000 allocation approved by City Council was earmarked expressly for completing the statue and that she was waiting for Vineyard and the city law director to approve the funds.

That figure, by the way, would have represented less than half the total bill for the statue, the rest of which CHHS has already obtained in grants from Knox County, KCDC, and private donations.

When expected city funds didn't arrive immediately, Easley's group obtained a loan of $34,600 from KCDC, against what she and KCDC believed was the city's commitment to completing the statue.

As for not responding to Vineyard's February 20 letter, Easley produces a copy of a three-page response, dated March 26, addressing the city's demands, asking only that CHHS be included in discussions concerning the placement of the statue and that the title to the statue would pass to the city only upon its safe arrival and installation. She says she's had several meetings with Vineyard and other city administrators, and the suggestion that city council would have to take further action has not come up.

Meanwhile, Knox County, which apparently has none of the procedural roadblocks Knoxville does, has already acted on CHHS's proposal and delivered $36,000 toward completion of the statue.

Easley's not the only one in the dark. Several city development administrators and assistants profess interest in the project, but ignorance of its status. "I've heard of it," one assistant in Community Development says helpfully.

Recreation czar Sam Anderson, who will administer the park once it's completed, is aware that there's been a delay but is under the impression that it's entirely due to legal delays associated with obtaining name-use permission from the Haley estate. (CHHS obtained that permission some weeks ago, and sent a copy to Vineyard.)

Meanwhile, the sculptor's studio has begun charging for storage space in Manhattan (perhaps the highest-rent neighborhood in America), plus late fees. Because of the delay in delivering final payments, the studio is now asking for more than $90,000 in late penalties and storage fees, $10,000 of which the funding-strapped CHHS has already paid. (The late penalties alone are nearly equal to Easley's impression of the city's commitment in the beginning.) The alternative, the sculptor and casters' agency insists, is ceasing work and dismantling the statue--apparently a real possibility--or possibly installing it in another city.

Neither Easley nor Ajanaku assign blame for their problems. They wanted to see it done as a grassroots-generated project and seem aware of the realistic side of that proposition. "We just want to get it finished as quickly and painlessly as possible," Ajanaku says. Easley's optimistic but often seems very much like a concerned mother who's just gotten bad news after a routine check-up with the pediatrician. At the moment, it appears that First Tennessee Bank, for which Haley himself once served on the Board of Directors, will come to the rescue, saving the statue from oblivion.

For the time being, overstaying his welcome in his Manhattan womb, the monumental Alex Haley is seated telling a story almost as a modern griot, the African storyteller and keeper of tribal history. He's gesturing as if he's trying to say something.

At the beginning, some of the difficulty had something to do with the subject. "Why Alex?," some Knoxville blacks asked. "What did he do for us?" Some Knoxville blacks remember Haley as a foreigner-- someone from another place, someone wealthy and successful who, though he declined a token membership in Cherokee Country Club, spent a lot of time hanging with upper-middle-class white people. Some were disappointed to learn that Haley left his papers to the University of Tennessee and not to Knoxville College. Today, many mainstream Knoxvillians, black and white, are surprised to learn that Haley ever lived in Knoxville proper.

What does Haley have to do with Knoxville? To Ajanaku, it's simple. "He did make a home here. He created a presence here. And Knoxville gained from his presence. The whole state of Tennessee has gained from his presence, especially in the area of marketing. And the University of Tennessee has his papers. That's here in Knoxville, you know what I'm saying? That's an asset." There's no question about that. The Haley papers may well be UTK's single most famous possession.

The controversy reflects a few of many contradictions in the life of Alex Haley. His genial face and open manner concealed more mysteries than any biographer has yet presumed to unravel. No serious biography of Haley has yet been published, though at least one is reportedly in the works. Less than half a decade after his death, any final assessment would be premature. Some have questioned whether Haley was a great prose stylist or a thorough researcher or a scrupulously original author.

No one has doubted Haley's generosity of spirit, his skill as a storyteller, his influence. He's perhaps the most positive influence on black America of the post-Civil Rights era.

What does Alex Haley have to do with Knoxville? He wasn't born here, didn't grow up here, didn't do his better-known work here, didn't die here, isn't buried here. Though he said he intended to, he never wrote that book about East Tennessee.

But he did choose to live here, for most of his last five years. After a visit to the Knoxville area during the 1982 World's Fair, Haley bought a farm in Norris. For the next four years, it was only one of his several homes around the world, from Los Angeles to Morocco. But in 1987, while maintaining his Norris retreat, he moved his principal residence to Knoxville proper, telling reporters that, at 65, he felt a need to move home to Tennessee. But this Tennessee bears little resemblance to the West Tennessee flatlands of Haley's youth.

A millionaire beloved the world over, he could have lived anywhere: a chateau on the French Riviera, a Manhattan penthouse, a lush plantation in Africa. He picked Knoxville.

Ajanaku, who knew Haley, speculates that "he was looking for a city--but someplace where he could get away and write." Once asked by this reporter why he chose to live here, he smiled and answered, "I like East Tennessee better," as if that answer should be perfectly clear to any idiot.

Haley did take an interest in this community, becoming a generous individual sponsor of the magnet school that flourishes near the Haley Square site. Some, though, expected him to do more; more, between the talks people were always asking him to make; more, between the books we all expected him to write. When he moved here he said he had five more books in him, and that they might be as momentous as his first two, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots. Instead, he wrote friendly little pieces for Parade: nostalgia, humor, practical advice.

Some in other cities allege that Haley does not deserve commemoration. Shortly after his death in 1992, the Village Voice led a charge that in his later works, Roots and Queen, Haley was a plagiarist and/or fabricator, suggesting his Pulitzer for Roots should be revoked. Haley was not a trained historian. When he wrote Roots, he wrote a book much more factual than most autobiographical novels--but less provable than most histories, which still angers some. Maybe it was a different kind of book, and maybe he should have identified it as such.

Still, Alex Haley is idolized by millions, praised as a maverick who brought the tragedy and triumph of the black experience to black and white audiences equally. "African-Americans don't know who we are," Ajanaku says. "There have been millions of people in this country that don't have a sense of who they are, without a sense of shame attached to it." She says Haley's work gave African-Americans a chance "to grow and progress, to know who we are."

How much Alex Haley's legacy will prevail in the grassy triangle optimistically called Haley Heritage Square remains unclear.

A handsome booklet published recently by the Metropolitan Planning Commission wasn't written to sound ironic. "The Heart of Knoxville Empowerment Zone Strategic Plan" attempts to sell Washington grant-givers on our inner city and bring needed federal funds into Knoxville. In Chapter 2, "Our Vision," under the heading "Examples of the Philosophy in Action," the text touts Haley Square as one of two dynamic examples of the sort of cooperation between a grassroots inspiration and municipal planning found here in Knoxville. "The residents who developed this plan feel empowered to make their own decisions," it goes, "but without a sufficient connection with responsive resources, Haley Square would probably not be built, and that would cause frustration."

On the other hand, the text goes on to add, "The resources without the grassroots vision would result in a poorly planned project without neighborhood support, a monument without spirit. The connection of grassroots empowerment with responsive resources will produce a project that will bring black and white together, will link diverse neighborhoods to downtown, and will create a beautiful, inviting place of pride."

That connection is, for the moment, a tenuous one.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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