January 21, 2018

Did Knoxville Library Move From African American Area Violate Civil Rights Act?

By Jennifer Pinkowski

Last October, when the Knox County Public Library System, TN, moved a Knoxville branch library into a renovated building less than 1000 feet down the street, it violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, says the Tennessee state agency charged with enforcing the act. Now the state is withholding $55,000 in federal money from the county’s library system while the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the federal agency that oversees federal funding for libraries, investigates whether the case should be passed on to the Department of Justice.
Was moving the East Knoxville/Burlington Branch Library 931 feet east, away from an African American residential area and a federally recognized revitalization zone, a discriminatory act? Such was the September 2005 complaint by a community organization filed with the Tennessee Title VI Compliance Commission.(Title VI prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs.) The Five Points Village Library Committee, the local group that made the complaint, charged that the decision to move the library had been made in early 2004 without any community input. By doing so, Knox County was providing “inequitable and inferior library services to the African American community,” according to the complaint.
The state commission apparently agreed, citing the dubious timing of public meetings held to debate the future of the branch. Meetings were held only after Knox County mayor Mike Ragsdale publicly announced that the library, which was considered too small, would be moved to its current location, tripling its size. The Five Points group had proposed a site two miles south, in the heart of the downtown area.“What got our attention was that the decision had already been made,” John Birdsong, director of the Tennessee Title VI Compliance Commission, told Knox News.
In its official response to the commission, Knox County defended its decision, saying the site the Five Points group had proposed had several drawbacks, including its proximity to three school libraries and the McGhee Branch Library, approximately 2.7 miles away. Citing the pending litigation, Knox County library communications director Mary Pom Claiborne would say little, but noted that the funding loss would have a limited impact. “It’s certainly money we can use to operate, but there won’t be cut-back hours or anything,” she told LJ. The library system’s total budget is $12.2 million.

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