The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lynching that Black Chattanooga never forgot takes center stage downtown

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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.”

Now, more than a century later, Chattanooga is taking a major step to acknowledge its dark racial history. This spring, it will unveil a monument at the southern entrance of the bridge to honor Black victims of white supremacy and recognize those who risked their lives to defend them.

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, designed by artist Jerome Meadows, 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 U.S. 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.

The memorial features life-size statues of Johnson and two attorneys, Styles Hutchins and Noah Parden, Black men who appealed his case to the Supreme Court after White lawyers refused. Three other Hamilton County lynching victims, Charles Brown, Alfred Blount and Charles Williams, also will be memorialized. When completed, the memorial will be a part of a new plaza that city planners hope will become a space for public gatherings.

The memorial’s completion comes after years of effort from an interracial committee of volunteers called the Ed Johnson Project. Advocates for the memorial said they see it as an opportunity for people to not only consider the past but also pause to think about race relations in the United States today.

Lynching was a common practice in the American South in the decades after the Civil War. From 1877 to 1950, more than 4,000 Black people were lynched, according to a historical count by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Those who carried out the lynchings were almost never convicted of a crime. Congress did not pass a law designating lynching as a federal hate crime until 2020.

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Although lynching claimed the lives of thousands of Black people, memorials remembering the victims of its terror are rare. One of the most prominent markers is in Duluth, Minn., where a mob of 10,000 people killed three Black entertainers who were accused of rape in 1920. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., houses more than 800 markers to symbolize thousands of lynching victims. The markers are individualized and mobile, with the hope that local communities with histories of lynching will erect them where lynchings took place.

The memory of Johnson’s case faded over the years, particularly among White residents, until the 1999 publication of the book “Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism,” by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips Jr. The book told of the night of Jan. 23, 1906, when a 21-year-old White woman named Nevada Taylor was returning home from work and a man attacked and raped her in the dark.

Based on a dubious tip, Johnson was arrested and accused of raping Taylor, a crime punishable by death.

Judge Samuel Davis McReynolds oversaw a rushed trial that legal historians say was riddled with problems. Johnson maintained his innocence, noting that at the time of the attack he was at work in a saloon. More than a dozen witnesses, White and Black, confirmed his alibi. When asked to identify her attacker, Taylor testified that she could not swear it was Johnson.

Despite the lack of evidence, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death. He would have been left to die, had it not been for Parden and Hutchins, who took up his cause after most of his White lawyers abandoned him.

On March 17, Parden appealed Johnson’s case before the Supreme Court. Justice John Marshall Harlan agreed to delay Johnson’s execution. The decision outraged White residents back in Chattanooga.

The night Johnson was lynched, Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp ordered all but one guard at the county jail to take the night off. When a mob gathered outside demanding Johnson, Shipp made no effort to stop them as they rammed through the doors of the jail and hauled Johnson outside.

The mob dragged Johnson six blocks north to the Walnut Street Bridge and demanded he confess.

“I am ready to die. But I never done it,” Johnson said, before uttering his final words. “God bless you all. I am a innocent man.”

They tied a noose around his neck and hoisted him up from the bridge’s second rung. While Johnson struggled in the air, people in the crowd shot him, but the rope broke before he died. While his body lay on the ground, a man shot him five times in the head. A sheriff’s deputy cut off Johnson’s fingers with a knife as a souvenir.

Before the crowd dispersed, someone pinned a note on his chest: “To Justice Harlan: Come get your n----- now.”

No local arrests were made.

The murder sent shock waves through Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt called for retribution. The Supreme Court charged Shipp with contempt of court and hauled him and those who could be identified from the lynch mob to Washington to undergo the first and only criminal trial in the history of the court. They were found guilty, but served only a few months in prison. Upon returning to Chattanooga, they were celebrated as heroes. Parden and Hutchins, meanwhile, fled the city.

As time passed, Johnson’s story faded from memory.

As a Black child growing up in Chattanooga, LaFrederick Thirkill, now a teacher and historian, had heard that men were lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge, but he didn’t know the details. His parents refused to visit the bridge.

Learning Johnson’s story inspired Thirkill to write a play about him. He and others worked to persuade local leaders to acknowledge Johnson’s murder. In 2016, after Atkins led a successful effort to have Johnson recognized by the Tennessee state legislature, the Ed Johnson Project committee formed to raise money and support for a memorial at the bridge.

Persuading local power brokers to back a memorial to one of the city’s most shameful moments wasn’t easy. Opponents argued that putting the memorial in such a central place could risk tearing open old wounds.

“Several of the stakeholders in the riverfront district were initially resistant,” said Steve Derthick, a member of the Ed Johnson Project board. “They would say, ‘Why would we want to draw attention to a lynching in the heart of our tourist district? This would be a depressing thing.’ ”

The committee found advocates in prominent families in Chattanooga to build support among the influential groups tasked with rebuilding the riverfront. They eventually recruited Patel, an immigrant from India whose hotel overlooks the bridge, who helped push for the memorial within the business community.

The Ed Johnson Project board also faced resistance over public funding. When the Hamilton County Commission held a vote, two members opposed paying for it, even though the commission had recently approved funding for a similar memorial commemorating military service members killed in a 2015 terrorist attack. They were outvoted by other members, and the county offered $100,000 for construction. The city approved another $100,000. In the end, the memorial’s backers raised more than $1 million.

Chattanooga, a relatively liberal urban enclave that borders deep red northwest Georgia, has long considered itself more progressive and somewhat set apart from the rest of the South. But racial inequalities remain in the city, and the gap between Black and White residence has grown in recent years.

Over the past 20 years, Black families who have lived in the city for generations have steadily been replaced overwhelmingly by new, White residents. According to data compiled by Ken Chilton, an associate professor at Tennessee State University, more than 2,500 Black Chattanoogans left the city and a net 5,000 Whites moved in between 2000 and 2017.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga has embarked on a concerted push to revitalize the city over the past few decades, investing in public art, walkways, parks and cultural institutions. In 2010, Chattanooga became the first city in the nation to offer a full gigabyte of Internet speed, a costly digital infrastructure investment meant to lure tech companies to the new “Gig City” of the South.

Not everyone has benefited from the city’s facelift. Black poverty has increased, while comparative wealth among Whites has soared.

“We have been left out of the prosperity of Chattanooga,” said the Rev. Charlotte Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church. “The state of Black Chattanoogans is grievous. Just look across the board, whether it’s education, whether it’s health care, whether it’s positions or wealth, we are at the bottom rung.”

Although the new memorial can’t undo decades of inequality, supporters hope it will serve as a step toward healing and an overdue acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

“It is a long time coming,” said the Rev. Ternae Jordan, senior pastor of Chattanooga’s Mount Canaan Baptist Church. “We want to say, ‘Let’s forget, let’s move on.’ But you cannot move on unless there’s been atonement.”