Courtney Elizabeth Knapp: Reckoning with Local Legacies of Racialized Violence

Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie by Courtney Elizabeth KnappToday we welcome a guest post from Courtney Elizabeth Knapp, author of Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie:  Race, Urban Planning, and Cosmopolitanism in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just published this month from UNC Press.

What can local histories of interracial conflict and collaboration teach us about the potential for urban equity and social justice in the future? Courtney Elizabeth Knapp chronicles the politics of gentrification and culture-based development in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by tracing the roots of racism, spatial segregation, and mainstream “cosmopolitanism” back to the earliest encounters between the Cherokee, African Americans, and white settlers. By weaving together archival, ethnographic, and participatory action research techniques, she reveals the political complexities of a city characterized by centuries of ordinary resistance to racial segregation and uneven geographic development.

Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Reckoning with Local Legacies of Racialized Violence: From Symbolic to Structural Transformation

On June 27 2015, Bree Newsome made international headlines after being arrested for climbing a 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state house and removing the Confederate flag that hung there.  Newsome’s action was a response to the tragedy that had occurred ten days earlier in Charleston, where Dylann Roof entered the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church and murdered nine black parishioners.

The white supremacist values that motivated Roof’s attack reinvigorated public outcry and debate about the persistence of white supremacy, and anti-blackness in particular, in contemporary U.S. society.  In April 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published the results of a major study that examined the history of Confederate memorialization from the end of the U.S. Civil War (1865) to today. They discovered most Confederate memorabilia was installed in the 20th century, during distinct periods of white backlash against social progress acheived by black Americans (especially 1900-1920s and the 1960s).  During these periods, empowered racist citizen groups and policymakers organized the installation of Confederate iconography into public spaces; these hostile placemaking gestures meant precisely to intimidate and provoke fear and alienation among Black residents and visitors to the city.

In late August 2017, the New York Times reported that more than 30 cities across the United States either had removed, or began a process of evaluating the removal of their Confederate monuments.   Unfortunately, these debates have not always been peaceful.  The deadly protests that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, for example, were rooted in a conflict about whether to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park.  Other demonstrations demand accountability for local histories of colonialism and genocide. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Native American protesters successfully organized a campaign to remove “Scaffold,” a sculpture placed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden which replicated a large-scale gallows and was designed to call attention the use of hanging as an execution device, including the hanging murder of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862.  In response to their protest, the City agreed to remove the sculpture and the artist Sam Durant publicly apologized.  Ultimately, the piece was disassembled and transported to Fort Snelling, where Dakota elders ceremoniously burned its remains.

What is most significant about the stories described above is that communities, led by activists of color, are collaboratively determining the appropriate fate of the symbols.  Reconciliation with the historical traumas symbolized by racist and colonial iconography, or at least initial steps toward some deeper healing, is articulated on their own terms. My new book Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie: Race, Urban Planning, and Cosmopolitanism in Chattanooga, Tennessee examines the racialized politics of placemaking and memorialization over three centuries of Black and Native American (primarily Cherokee) community building and development in Chattanooga. The project began when I learned about The Passage (2005), an interactive public space designed by Cherokee artists and meant to represent Cherokee strength and resilience despite having endured forced removal and the Trail of Tears (Chattanooga was a major internment and deportation center), which departed the Tennessee riverfront in what is now downtown Chattanooga).  In 2007, the Chattanooga city council issued a Declaration of Repentance to the Cherokee Nation, wherein they formally apologized for the Chattanooga area’s role during the period of forced removal, and promised to enter cooperative arrangements with interested Native American stakeholders to ensure the proper maintenance and preservation of historic sites, artifacts, and contemporary cultural traditions.

I wanted to understand whether local reconciliation efforts had extended into other areas of social or spatial life in Chattanooga, and though my research, quickly discovered two contradictions. First, though major public efforts had occurred to apologize for Cherokee removal, no comparable efforts occurred to apologize for the legacies of slavery, forced labor, racial violence, or Jim Crow that had disenfranchised and marginalized Black residents for more than two centuries.  Second, symbolic public gestures of repentance and reconciliation became ends in themselves, rather than being treated as first steps (e.g. acknowledgement and apology) in deeper processes of cultural and structural reparation.  Such gestures are metaphorically powerful, but the hardest work remains.  How do we translate symbolic gestures into transformative processes that reframe, reconfigure, and ultimately repair racialized opportunity structures?  There are no easy answers to this question, but Chattanooga’s history reveals long legacies of community building that defied, rejected, and offered alternatives to racial subjugation and violence.  For this reason, centering the experiences and supporting the people directly and disproportionately hurt by racism and colonialism is arguably, the most responsible place to start.


Courtney Elizabeth Knapp is assistant professor of urban and regional planning at California State Polytechnic University.  You can follow her on Twitter, or visit her website.