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Group plans to turn vacant jail into black community pillar

By WYATT MASSEY, Chattanooga Times Free Press undefined

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Half a century ago, the five-acre lot in Chattanooga's Bushtown neighborhood was a thriving black Catholic school. Two decades ago, the property was a work release center, a symbol of the mass incarceration that had torn apart the surrounding community.

Today, Kevin Muhammad has a vision to restore the abandoned lot to a pillar of the black community. The local leader of the Nation of Islam said his plan for the Community Haven in Bushtown is about redeeming the property and elevating the neighborhood.

"Local talent doesn't have a venue or an avenue to be able to become known," he said. "There's a lot of Usher Raymonds who haven't been uncovered yet. There's a lot of Samuel L. Jacksons. There's a lot of Reggie Whites here in this city who haven't been exposed."

Muhammad presented his plan for the property on North Hickory Street to a standing-room-only crowd during Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration week. The Community Haven will feature athletic courts, an outdoor amphitheater, media studio, urban garden and a trade school, he said.

Previously, the lot was the home of the St. Francis School, a Catholic primary school from 1950 to 1971. Former students said the school played an important role in educating the community during the time of segregation. In 1977, the state converted the buildings to a work release center for incarcerated people. The center was eventually closed and the property was vacant for more than a decade before Muhammad bought it.

The first thing Muhammad's team did when it bought the land in March 2019 was take down the barbed wire, he said. They also had to clear trees and brush that had grown over the property, covering the sidewalks and masking entire buildings near the back of the lot.

The Community Haven began about four years ago in Alton Park with the renovation of a home into the nonprofit's headquarters. In 2016, Muhammad launched the local chapter of 10,000 Fearless, an unarmed community patrol. The group now has four patrol cars and a public service truck, he said.

Muhammad plans to move the Community Haven's headquarters to the former clergy house in Bushtown, he said. That renovation project was entirely self-funded to prove the group is committed to the project before asking for outside money, he said.

The Rev. Charlotte Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church, said the center will be an institution to build self-sufficiency and honor the legacy of Bushtown, which was an all-black municipality during legal segregation.

"We want it to be something that the people that have come before us can be proud of, that the people that are with us now can be proud of and that the people that will come after us will be proud of," Williams said. "We can have a place that we can call our own that will provide us with the tools that we will need, because for so long we have been in survival mode."

The nonprofit is hoping to have the sports court on the property renovated by spring so local children will have a place to play as the days get longer and schools are out, Muhammad said. That project alone will cost at least $50,000.

In total, Muhammad said, the property requires millions of dollars in investment.

"Chattanooga has some of the most charitable foundations in all of America, and this is a program they should buy into because it's going to benefit the entire community," he said.

The project will require significant city and Hamilton County support, requiring the government to buy-in to people living and working in the black community, Muhammad said. Some of the ideas for the Community Haven, such as converting the old school building to a trade school, emerged when the city did not respond to Muhammad's 2016 "State of the People" address requesting increased support for formerly incarcerated people, he said.

"Since our city didn't want to do it, we have to do it," Muhammad said.

Muhammad admitted building momentum for the project beyond the surrounding community will be difficult. The nonprofit is faith-based, not designed to promote Islam. If he were a white, Baptist preacher, his vision would already be funded, he said.

"This is not a Muslim thing. It's not a religious thing. This is a community thing. This is not a race thing. This is a humanity thing," Muhammad said. "This is for everyone."

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