Magnolia Avenue’s Comeback: Knoxville’s Oldest Black-Owned Restaurant Takes the Lead

Magnolia Avenue's Comeback Knoxville's Oldest Black-Owned Restaurant Takes the Lead

The Black-owned restaurant Magnolia Cafe created a hole when it shuttered during the pandemic. After a long day at work, Wednesday nights were no longer spent with live music, dancing, or wings. The Black community in Knoxville suffered a special loss when the historic home at 2405 E. Magnolia Ave. fell into disrepair.

The owners of Shanklin & Sons Flooring, which is located right down the street, and Representative Sam McKenzie, who was just elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2021, approached the cafe’s owners with a proposition to purchase and reopen it. They cherished the East Knoxville symbol and wished to keep it.

Currently, it’s said that Knoxville’s oldest Black-owned business still in operation is Magnolia Cafe, which was founded in 1999 by Anthony Kimbro and Bobby Flemmings.

Shanklin stated, “I used to come here a lot before I got involved in it.” It served as the hub for activity. This was the place to come in and have fun; you could leave all your problems outside. I don’t think people understood the void when it closed because of COVID.”

Try these Black-owned eateries in Knoxville for Black History Month and beyond: from soul food to West African cuisine.

Now the void is significantly filled. Twice a week, chicken wings are back on the menu along with burgers, favorite sides, and sandwiches with pork chops and fish. When the cafe opens, regulars wait outside and hang around late into the night. Black history is still being made and witnessed in this house.

The legacy of urban removal harms Black-owned restaurants.

Magnolia Avenue's Comeback Knoxville's Oldest Black-Owned Restaurant Takes the Lead (1)
The oldest restaurant in Knoxville is difficult to locate because they frequently change names, locations, and owners. Locating the oldest Black-owned restaurant in the city is more harder.

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When Knoxville officials demolished primarily Black homes and businesses to make way for public projects between 1959 and 1974, very few Black-owned companies survived the urban clearance process. As Magnolia Avenue gradually lost its reputation as a business district similar to Kingston Pike or Chapman Highway, those that survived were forced eastward and faced overwhelming difficulties.

The epidemic killed off a lot of restaurants in the city, despite the fact that a lot of Black-owned companies have opened in the last ten years.

Magnolia Cafe was destined for the same end. According to the new owners, Magnolia Avenue is poised for a revitalization as a new baseball stadium encourages development. The tale of the area is one of resiliency, community, and joy.

McKenzie and Shanklin have witnessed both new and returning patrons enjoying parties at the cafe since it reopened in November 2021 following months of remodeling.

“The crowd is lively and joyous,” Shanklin remarked. “They just leave the outside world behind when they enter and put their problems on hold, regardless of what’s happening in the outside world.” Here, we always preach about life, love, and laughter.”

Rich in Black history, the house was originally held by Knoxville pioneer Robert Kirk, the first Black professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Kirk used it as a picture studio and later as a restaurant. With a full bar and live music, the cafe attracts a lively crowd on Wednesday and Friday nights from 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday jazz brunches might soon begin.

A Black community’s more than just a restaurant

After much effort, Kimbro and Flemmings were persuaded to hand over their life’s work to new proprietors of the cafe, despite McKenzie and Shanklin’s best efforts. They continue to be involved, having taught McKenzie and Shanklin about the complexities and difficulties of the restaurant industry.

According to McKenzie, a native of Knoxville who serves as a state representative for UT, downtown, and East Knoxville, the café develops devoted employees and frequent customers since it’s more than just a diner.

Magnolia Cafe serves as a venue for birthday celebrations, anniversaries, and funeral dinners on days when it is closed.

Pennants from historically Black institutions and universities line the cafe’s bar wall in abundance. Both McKenzie, a Nashville alumnus of Fisk University, and Shanklin, a Knoxville College alum, began their education in Tennessee. Clients requested to have their alma maters displayed, and thus a custom was established.

Every time an HBCU arrived, Magnolia Cafe staged flag-raising ceremonies during their dinner service and announced over the microphone that another HBCU had made the wall. Customers requested pennants from their alma mater, such as Florida A&M University or Howard University.

This sense of community is, in McKenzie’s opinion, the reason Magnolia Cafe needed to reopen. McKenzie dined there before taking over as manager and took senior pictures at Austin-East High School in the house while it was a photo studio.

“Having that sense of belonging has been really fulfilling for me,” said McKenzie. “It’s just an opportunity for us to be a small part in bringing this community back.”

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