As a man of the cloth, the Rev. Peter Kenny and his family are well-known in the Blount County community.
He’s the pastor at Williamson Chapel United Methodist Church in the Lanier community, and on Sunday, he’ll be the guest speaker at a community worship service in Alcoa that’s part of this weekend’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. He and his wife, Belinda, have five sons, four of whom have grown up in Blount County. The oldest, Marcus, was a football standout at William Blount High School, named the Blount County Player of the Year during his senior season and going on to play for Maryville College before his U.S. Marines reserve unit was sent to Iraq in 2004.
The Kenny name, he told The Daily Times this week, is a good one. The color of their skin, however, means that their accomplishments, their positions and the name itself isn’t enough to overcome the racial bias that still exists in this community and America at large.
“I’m African American and have five sons, and if they were stopped by the police on a simple traffic citation, would they be treated differently than a young White kid or a younger White man? Absolutely, they would,” Kenny said. “I’ve even been stopped by white officers, and at the time I had one of the old ‘clergy’ stickers on the back of my car — and they still wanted to search it. The officer said to me, ‘I don’t know if you’re clergy. You could be trying to sell drugs.’
“So yes, (racism) is very much alive. Anyone who says otherwise needs to open their eyes. They need to take off the comfortable shoes that they’re wearing and maybe try on a pair of shoes that other individuals have walked in — ones that the heels are run over, that have holes in the bottom, and then walk across those a little bit of terrain filled with rocks, where the front of that shoe sole is peeling loose.
“Let them trip over that a couple of times and see how uncomfortable it is,” he added.
He doesn’t tell that story to paint a picture of overwhelming prejudice against the Black community, his family or even himself. The dream of equality enunciated so passionately and eloquently by King during the civil rights movement has been manifested in many ways, he pointed out. But any discussion of a post-racial America in which racism doesn’t exist is held among those who refuse to see it, he added.
The problem, he continued, is that many people see racism as a binary term, meaning that the absence of overt racism — epithets, outright discrimination, Klan marches down Broadway and other obvious manifestations of it — is proof to those individuals of its absence. Such thinking glosses over systemic racism that results in disproportionate poverty in the Black community, he said.
“For those people who say there’s no more racism, that it’s a thing of the past, I could take them down there to Knoxville, or even to a couple of places here in Maryville, and show them some people living in some very difficult conditions,” he said. “Now, they make excuses that those people are in that position because they want to be, and while there might be a few, I don’t agree with that in all cases.
“The problem is that they really don’t know how to get out. We live in a capitalistic society, and capitalists believe in profit. Now, I don’t have an issue with anybody making a profit. Profit is a good word, and profit is good for the American way, but sometimes what happens when people can make a profit is that they’re making it on the backs of individuals who sometimes end up on the short end of the stick.”
And when those individuals fall victim to generational poverty, compounded by communities ravaged by disenfranchisement and a lack of opportunity for young people, it creates a misconception that those individuals are unwilling to pull themselves up. Such opinions, Kenny said, gloss over the fact that ways to do so are limited, or worse, seem unattainable to those trapped in those cycles.
“We’ve got to teach them,” he said. “Those that can see, and those that know how to communicate in a different way, it’s our job to be able to share in such a way to where a person can learn, and sometimes that just takes patience. It’s not that these people don’t desire to be in that position — it’s just the way it is.
“They’re trapped in a system that they don’t know how to get out of, and somebody needs to give them a hand out — and by that, I mean physically reaching down and helping pull them up. That’s what Christ did: When he came to this earth, God sent him here to pull humanity out of the pit of sin, because humanity couldn’t get out on its own. Humanity kept sliding down the walls of a wet, damp pit because there was nothing to grab hold of.”
His message on Sunday, he added, will capitalize on that example. He has no interest in fire and brimstone — the theological kind, or the doom-and-gloom style of community activism that focuses more on the problems than potential solutions. King, he pointed out, was capable of calling out and lifting up, and while he wouldn’t put himself on any kind of equal pedestal, he does feel that King’s message deserves signal amplification now more than ever.
“Dr. King had a dream, and he shared his dream, and we still need to dream today — but we’re not just trying to duplicate his dream,” Kenny said. “Duplicating his dream is not going to be a bad thing, but we need to build on it. Young men need to see gentlemen 12 or 15 years older than they are who are successful, who are raising families, who have never been to prison and never used drugs and never been the victims of social injustice.
“Those numbers are far and few, but they need to have hope — and they need to have hope that those who have had those experiences have overcome those battles. That will also give them hope, and hope is the vision we need to see. Dr. King was a great servant leader, and I think he took his cue from the greatest servant leader of all, which was Christ himself. His calling and his focus in ministry was in helping those that suffered from different types of social injustice and making sure that the playing field is leveled, and that’s something we’re still working on.”
Heritage High School teachers say walking into the science wing is like entering a brand new building, and Blount County Schools officials hope to spread that feeling across campus.
Thursday, Jan. 13, BCS welcomed county officials for two ribbon-cutting ceremonies: one for science labs completed in August 2020, and one for a new athletic field house.
HHS Principal Jed West thanked the Blount County Commission for providing funding and said before the ribbon cutting on the science classrooms, “This is the first of what we here hope will be many projects.”
BCS Director Rob Britt echoed that sentiment. “This is just the first part of a full high school renovation,” he said. “We want to make sure that all of our wings and classrooms look just like this.”
“At that point in time, then we will have done our job to make this truly a 21st century high school and prepared for the next 40 or 45, 50 years to serve young people,” Britt said.
During spring break BCS hopes to bring in new cafeteria furniture and possibly paint the commons areas at Heritage and William Blount high schools.
Designs for renovating the HHS career and technical education building are expected to be finalized by the end of this month, according to James Duke, BCS supervisor of facilities, maintenance and capital projects.
Work could begin on the top level of the CTE building during spring break and continue over the summer. Among the changes will be the addition of an elevator to make the building accessible for people with disabilities, a requirement that wasn’t in place when HHS was built in the late 1970s.
In February 2020 the Blount County Commission approved BCS spending $800,000 from its fund balance for new field houses at both HHS and William Blount High School. Delays and rising costs added $181,000 to the budget, with the WBHS facility now expected to be complete after spring break.
Standing in the completed HHS field house Thursday, Jan. 13, Athletic Director Robbie Bennett, also a member of the Blount County Commission, and Britt touted the collaborative effort on the project, including work from Blount County Maintenance Supervisor Denny Garner and the county Highway Department.
Bennett said students hadn’t used the field house yet because coach Tim Hammontree had been absent for a few days.
Senior Sean Galyon confessed to being a bit jealous of the players who would enjoy the new facility, recalling the former field house under the stadium with no air conditioning. He said it was nice to see an investment into the high school, which had not apparently seen much in the current students’ lifetimes.
Renovating the outdated and in many cases nonfunctional science classrooms cost more than $1.3 million, and another nearly $98,000 went for supplies and materials, from microscopes to goggles.
Today, West said, “This is first class and rivals many colleges and universities throughout the Southeast.”
Teacher David McNeil told visitors to his chemistry class, “I can do anything in this classroom that I was able to do at Pellissippi State,” Community College, where he previously was was an adjunct professor
William Blount science lab renovations recently were completed at a cost of more than $1.7 million for the classrooms and almost $82,000 for supplies. BCS plans a ribbon-cutting ceremony there Feb. 1.
Blount County averaged more than 130 new COVID-19 cases a day Jan. 2-8, and cases at Blount Memorial Hospital have nearly doubled in the past two weeks, to 39.
The Jan. 12 update from the Tennessee Department of Health, which is reporting data only weekly now, covered only through Saturday, Jan. 8.
This week East Tennessee Medical Group’s CareToday Clinic on Joule Street in Alcoa has tested 300 to 400 people multiple days — 447 on its busiest day — with about half of the results positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Harold Naramore, chief medical officer for Blount Memorial.
At Blount Memorial Hospital a smaller proportion of the patients are requiring critical care than in other recent surges.
“That helps confirm that what we have in our area is the Omicron variant, which is very, very contagious, but doesn’t cause nearly as severe of disease as the Delta variant,” Naramore wrote in emailed responses to The Daily Times.
About three-fourths of those currently hospitalized are unvaccinated. While BMH said 10 of 39 patients in the hospital Thursday, Jan. 13, were vaccinated, that doesn’t mean they had received a booster shot.
“While the first two shots provide protection, individuals who are boosted clearly have more protection,” Naramore noted.
“Given the degree of transmissibility of the Omicron variant, it is very likely that virtually everyone in the country will eventually be exposed,” he said. “Most people, particularly the vaccinated and even more so for the boosted population, tend to have mild symptoms from this variant.
“It is still very clear that fully vaccinated individuals, whether they develop COVID symptoms or not, largely don’t get severe illness or require hospitalization,” he continued “Given this data, if you’ve not been fully vaccinated and received a booster, I encourage you to complete the vaccination series.”
The COVID patients in the hospital are showing a variety of symptoms, according to Naramore, including dehydration from gastrointestinal issues and some with upper respiratory complications.
Few have had both COVID-19 and flu.
BMH did not provide data that The Daily Times requested on emergency room wait times.
Naramore did respond, “Our emergency room, like every in our region and most in our country right now, are overwhelmed with a large volume of patients.”
He is asking community members who are experiencing mild symptoms that may be COVID-related or who simply need to be tested to contact their primary care physician or visit a walk-in clinic or urgent care center.
“For these things, it’s very likely your health care needs can be fully addressed much more timely in one of these other health care settings,” he said.
While the state health department lists ETMG as a site for monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19, it is unavailable right now. Supplies are scarce not only in this area but across the country.
Blount Memorial, like hospitals across the country, also is short on staff.
“We’re all having to be creative in managing them,” Naramore said. “We will continue to keep things open and operational as long as we can, but if there comes a time that we have to adjust our resources to support the most-urgent needs of our community, we may have to do things differently.”
COVID-19 cases aren’t the only pressure on the hospital.
“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of heart attacks and strokes come through our doors, along with exacerbation of diabetes and diabetic-related complications,” Naramore said.
Regular health care visit decrease the risk of hospitalizations, he noted.
“During 2020 and some of 2021, I’ve predicted that the delayed care that we were seeing across our country would be something we saw in our future, and we’re seeing some of this now,” he said. “That’s why I can’t tell our community enough to not delay routine health care visits. They are so important, and the longer they are delayed or not addressed, regularly, the more damage we’re going to see.”
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, we are going to be living with this virus for a while, and we have got to find ways to manage this virus,” Naramore said.
“It’s going to challenge us in nearly everything we do in the course of a day, but we’re continuing to adjust so we can take care of everyone, no matter the health care need they have,” he said.
The hospital has openings in clinical and nonclinical areas, and many require only a high school diploma or equivalent. See openings under the Employment tab at blountmemorial.org.