New Urban League building in East Knoxville.

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN  —  “Thank you for coming back.” were the words voiced by Phyllis Y. Nichols, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League as she stood before the large crowd that covered the ballroom of the Knoxville Convention Center.

The occasion was the annual Equal Opportunity Awards Gala known as the city of Knoxville’s official “party with a purpose.” The gala held every year for over 30 years with the exception of the 2020 event which was suspended due to the pandemic; brings together local leaders, friends, and partners in  business and community to celebrate the history of the Urban League and honor community leaders and organizations who embody  the league’s strong commitment to equality for all people which it has stood for since 1968.

Four awards were presented during the evening: remarking it was the highlight of her professional career, the Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to Cynthia Finch for her work in the community to get  over 60,000 African Americans and the elderly vaccinated using “Cynthia’s List.” The  Minority Business of the Year went to Boston Government Services and the Corporate Leadership Award was presented to First Bank. 

Cynthia Finch, Founder of New Healthcare Solutions and the Faith Leaders Church Initiative, received the “Volunteer of the Year” award. Photo by Vivian Shipe

The most coveted and prestigious award, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to two of Knoxville’s strong civil rights advocates, James Sessions and Frances Ansley who, as they have since the 1960s,  encouraged those in attendance to recognize the old ways just won’t work, to learn from the lessons of the civil rights movement and strive to move forward toward transformation.

Harry Boston, who received the Minority Business Award, also spoke of the need to transform and change as he spoke of his companies commitment to build up the inner city and not just downtown commenting, “Opportunity MUST go east past Hall of Fame Drive.”

Award recipients had high praise for Nichols and her reputation of strength, honesty, and integrity. 

Nathan Hunter who received the award for First Bank, commented that for over three decades Nichols and her team had built one of the strongest Urban Leagues in the country. Indeed, during the 18 months of the pandemic, the programs of the Knoxville Area Urban League did not stop.

The League learned to pivot and not panic, holding virtual monthly meetings; ensuring there was no interruption of services. The League continued its entrepreneurship training, provided counseling sessions, housing assistance, financial education and home buyer education courses, foreclosure prevention, home buyer assistance, and provided capital to aid small businesses. The League even held coaching sessions and virtual workshops and training for employment applications.

The evening’s greatest moment came as the Honorable Rev. Dr  Harold Middlebrook came to the podium to announce the capital fund drive, which began just as COVID-19 raged  across the land, was a success; the new state of the art Urban League building, which President Nichols had committed to keeping in East Knoxville – was still in East Knoxville and officially  PAID IN FULL.