The Lynching That Black Chattanooga Never Forgot Takes Center Stage DowntownBreaking News
tags: racism, Jim Crow, African American history, memorials, lynching, Tennessee, public history, Chattanooga
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — On a recent warm winter afternoon, hundreds of Chattanoogans flocked downtown to stroll along the Walnut Street Bridge, a picturesque walking path that towers over the Tennessee River.
Once a decrepit eyesore, today the refurbished bridge is a jewel of modern Chattanooga and a symbol of progress for a city that has undergone an urban renaissance. As part of a years-long effort to transform Chattanooga into an outdoor destination, the bridge is now a popular backdrop for marriage proposals, festivals and summer fireworks. Pictures of its bright blue beams appear on the city’s tourism websites and brochures. There’s a rock-climbing wall on one of the bridge’s pillars.
“It’s our Eiffel Tower,” said Mitch Patel, a businessman who owns a hotel at the southern entrance of the bridge.
But for many of Chattanooga’s Black residents, the city’s beloved pedestrian bridge isn’t an architectural beacon of the New South, but a painful reminder of the old: Before the Walnut Street Bridge became a tourist draw, it was a lynching ground. In 1893 and again in 1906, enraged White mobs hanged Black men from the bridge.
“A lot of those people don’t know what happened on that bridge. In the White community, it wasn’t spoke out in the open so much” said Eric Atkins, a local activist who has worked to raise awareness of the killings and memorialize the victims. “In the Black community, you never forget one of these atrocities. You never forget a lynching.”
Even as the bridge became a central gathering place of the city, some Black Chattanoogans who know its history have refused to cross it.
“I really don’t feel comfortable walking the bridge,” said Donivan Brown, the chairman of a group spearheading the memorial effort. “I felt as if by walking across the bridge that it was some sort of affirmation of silence or the fact that it’s a playground now.”
At a time when Americans are reconsidering what is worthy of public memorialization — and removing statues across the country that commemorate those who fought to uphold systems of oppression against Black people — Chattanooga is aiming to identify new heroes to venerate.
The memorial will mark the location where Ed Johnson, a Black man wrongfully accused of raping a White woman, was killed in 1906. Johnson had been convicted in a county court and sentenced to death. The lynching occurred after the Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution. Johnson’s tragic end led to the first and only criminal trial in the Supreme Court’s history and affirmed its power to intervene in state and local affairs. In 2000, a Hamilton County judge formally cleared Johnson of wrongdoing.
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