On a recent morning, Avon Rollins unlocks a door at the back end of the new addition to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, and steps into a climate-controlled room full of metal shelving and cardboard boxes.
These are the archives of the Beck Center, thousands and thousands of photographs, books, news clippings, journals, and other ephemera documenting the life and culture of black Knoxville over the past two centuries. Rollins, the center's executive director, randomly opens a box and extracts a black-and-white print of a distinguished-looking family in fine Victorian-era clothing. A caption identifies the stern, handsome patriarch as William F. Yardley, who was born in 1844 and was the first black attorney to argue a case before the Tennessee Supreme Court. He was also the state's first black gubernatorial candidate, in 1876, and founded the Examiner, Knoxville's first black newspaper. In later years, he was defense counsel for Maurice Mays, accused and convicted (despite a paucity of evidence) of murdering a white woman. Mays' arrest sparked the Knoxville race riot of 1919.
Yardley's story is just one of many you can find in the Beck's holdings, alongside copies of his newspaper and many others published by and for the local black community over the years: the Spectrum, the Bulletin, the Voice. At the back of the room is the center's art collection, shelves of frames holding paintings and drawings by black East Tennessee artists. Rollins pulls out one that turns out to be a 1929 sketch of a woman's face by Joseph Delaney, the painter who along with his brother Beauford is one of the best-known artists of any race ever to come from Knoxville.
Many of the paintings are still wrapped in protective paper from their move last year into the new space. Likewise many of the boxes have yet to be unpacked, following a few years of storage while the center's Dandridge Avenue home underwent a $1.8 million renovation and expansion. It reopened in April 2010. One of Rollins' two full-time staff members is an archivist, who is working through the extensive collections, cataloging and digitizing. Eventually, the Beck would like to have all of its records in a searchable online database.
At least, that was the plan until a few weeks ago, when Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett released his proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year. Burchett has recommended a 92 percent cut in county funding for the Beck Center, from $150,000 to $12,000. The center has a total annual budget of about $300,000, Rollins says, and the loss of so much county money would effectively shut it down.
"We would lose the staff we have," he says. "I would still come and open up when I can. But if I drop dead, what's going to happen?"
Rollins and Jim Ware, the president of the Beck's board of directors, say Burchett's proposal came out of the blue. They say nobody from the mayor's office ever talked to them about what the center does or what effect a reduction would have.
"This was a total, absolute surprise," Rollins says.
Burchett says it shouldn't have been—the county terminated a legal Memorandum of Understanding with the Beck Center last year, just before former Mayor Mike Ragsdale left office. Under that agreement, the Beck was going to become part of the county's library system. That never happened. So Burchett says it makes sense in a tight budget year to fund Beck only at the level of other historic sites around town, like Blount Mansion and the Mabry-Hazen House.
But to many of Knoxville's black community leaders, the proposal feels like a slap in the face, an abandonment of an implicit agreement for the county to support Beck while it builds an endowment that can sustain its expanded operations.
"The racial component does not enter into it at all," Burchett says of his budget proposal. "At all. It's just, do we have enough money to keep funding these organizations. No, we don't. Unless we want to raise taxes."
But the "racial component" was hard to miss at the County Commission budget hearing on Monday, which drew about 30 Beck supporters, most of them black and many of them prominent community figures. County Commissioner Sam McKenzie, who represents East Knoxville and is the only black commissioner, noted that it was the first Commission meeting he'd been to "where I've been the majority."
And during the public comment part of the hearing, one speaker after another invoked the civil rights movement, the destructive legacy of urban renewal on Knoxville's black neighborhoods, and the need for an institution that connects Knoxvillians with their own history. Sheryl Rollins, who is Avon Rollins' wife and the head of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, told commissioners, "There is a disconnect here when we treat Beck as if it is just another antique house or restored home."
In a tour of the center, Avon Rollins shows off its exhibit rooms, which include a display case devoted to the poet Nikki Giovanni, a Knoxville native, and photographs of the neighborhoods torn down to make way for the Civic Coliseum and Safety Building. (There is also a photo of Rollins himself, from the early 1960s, in the New York apartment of Lorraine Hansberry. He was there for a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he is standing next to Nina Simone and Theo Bikel.)
The center's library holds a few thousand volumes on African-American culture and history, and a small bank of computers that Rollins says draw hundreds of children from the surrounding neighborhoods every week. And not just after school—students who have been suspended are allowed to spend their days at the center, which Rollins says is a safer place for them to be than alone at home or on the streets.
Upstairs is the William H. Hastie Room, devoted to the Knoxville native who in 1937 became the first black federal judge. One of his robes is on display, along with reminders of African-American history: a "Whites Only" drinking fountain from a Knoxville store, and several sets of slave shackles, including one sized for a child. And in the rear of the building is the new addition, which besides the archives holds a sizable meeting room and a banquet room that is rented out by various community groups. Rollins says the center now gets 60,000 to 70,000 visits a year.
The Beck Center was founded in 1975 to celebrate and preserve Knoxville's African-American heritage. It is named for James and Ethel Beck, prominent black Knoxvillians who owned the house until Ethel Beck's death. It was for many years a small, largely volunteer operation. Rollins says when he got involved with the center in the late '90s, after retiring from TVA, it was averaging only five or six visits a day. But he, Ware, and other board members thought it could be something more. That opportunity came in Ragsdale's administration, with the help of Ragsdale's community services director, Cynthia Finch. In 2004, the county entered into its Memorandum of Understanding with Beck, which would have eventually made the center a county operation.
But Rollins and Ware say the arrangement was never really satisfactory for anyone. There was an initial move to house the Beck at the Gateway Center on the riverfront, left empty when the Visitor Center moved to its current location on Gay Street. But that was going to cost too much, Rollins says, so instead the plan turned to renovating and adding onto the existing Beck home. In the meantime, the county stashed the archives in a vacant space in East Knoxville, in the process jumbling much of the collection, Rollins says. That jumble is part of what the center's archivist is still sorting out.
The county did put more than $1 million into the project, alongside some state and federal money. But even as the work neared completion, shifts within Ragsdale's administration strained the relationship. Finch resigned in 2008, under investigation for misusing a county credit card. (She was convicted in January of two counts of forgery.) Her departure, Rollins says, left the Beck without a close ally in Ragsdale's increasingly beleaguered cabinet.
Furthermore, Ragsdale's library director, Larry Frank, had reportedly never been happy with the forced marriage between his department and the Beck Center. In 2009, Ragsdale wrote Abe Brown, then the Beck's acting president, and terminated the Memorandum of Understanding on the grounds that the Beck had never transferred control of its property to the county. Rollins says, in fact, a lease agreement had been sent to the county, but the county refused it.
In any case, Ragsdale's letter said, "Knox County is dedicated to the continued support of the Beck," and added, "I am committed to work with Beck and our County Commission to continue support of the outstanding Beck operations and programs."
County funding for the Beck dropped from nearly $400,000 in 2008 to $225,000 in 2009 and 2010, and then to $150,000 this year. But Rollins says even at the current level, the expenses of the new center that the county helped build are barely being met. Utilities alone for the 15,000-square-foot space cost thousands of dollars a month. On the Beck's behalf, McKenzie had requested an increase next year to $200,000. Instead, they got Burchett's proposal for $12,000.
Burchett professes little concern that the center might have to actually close. "I would think this would be a catalyst for fund-raising in the community," he says, "instead of relying on the government to pay the bills."
Ware notes that nearly half the Beck's annual budget already comes from memberships and private donations, and says the board has long planned to launch a new fund drive this year. The aim is to build an endowment that can fund the center in perpetuity. "It should be made very plain that our goal is to become financially independent," Ware says.
But in the short term, Beck officials say they simply don't have the resources to make up the shortfall that Burchett's budget would produce. And given the size of the cut, they feel singled out. Burchett, for his part, says he means no disrespect. He notes the county has invested more than $3 million in the Beck since 2004. "I would feel very respected if I'd received $3 million," he says.
But speaking to county commissioners on Monday, Sheryl Rollins said that historically, Knoxville's black neighborhoods have hardly been net beneficiaries of county funds. "We're only talking about the past four or five years," she said. "Look at what Knox County did for this community for the past 50 years. So we haven't been given anything. If anything, we've been shortchanged."
At Monday's meeting, Commission Chairman Mike Hammond promised to visit the Beck Center this week to talk with its staff and board members. He invited other commissioners to join him. And McKenzie urged his colleagues to reconsider Burchett's cut. He noted that East Knoxville neighborhoods no longer have an easily accessible library—the Burlington branch is out on Asheville Highway, almost to Holston Hills.
"But we have Beck," McKenzie said. "We have this entity that you can't quite put your finger on, but it works. It works well."