Tennessee black lynching memorial teaches lesson about past and present



The bridge itself is beautiful.

Supported by bright blue iron beams put in place over a century ago, the structure spans the meandering Tennessee River lazily in Chattanooga.

Now converted into a pedestrian walkway, the Walnut Street Bridge is often crowded with young families, joggers and cyclists. Indeed, the bridge has become a perfect icon of this city in the southern United States and is depicted in posters, paintings and framed photos all over the place.

It is also the place where, one night in 1906, a black man named Ed Johnson was brutally lynched.

Wrongly convicted of raping a white woman, Johnson was hanged from one of those bright blue beams, then shot by a crowd of white men until a bullet cut his noose and Johnson falls to the ground, where the crowd has gathered. – and continued to shoot.

As the city newspaper reported on March 20, 1906, he was “shot and killed … like a dog.”

To this day, many black Chattanoogans who know Johnson’s story will not cross the bridge. Dorivan Brown is one of them.

“To me, it sounds like it’s haunted,” he said.

WATCH | The movement to recognize the victims of the American lynching:

Why recognizing lynching victims matters to the United States right now

DISCLAIMER: This video contains disturbing language and images. A memorial erected in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recalls the violent lynching of Ed Johnson, but it is a tribute to the other victims at a time when the United States is trying to come to terms with its racist and ugly past. 5:02

Brown is part of a small team in the final stages of building what they see as a long-awaited memorial to Ed Johnson.

The Ed Johnson Project is part of a calm but determined United States-wide effort to remind everyone of the horror of the 4,400 or so lynchings in that country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition to Chattanooga, there are thought-provoking markers in Maryland, Arkansas, Missouri and beyond, while a national memorial opened in 2018 in Alabama, as America continues. to deal with his racially charged past and present.

“We [as a society] I could have just forgotten about Ed Johnson, “said Brown.” But… we are doing our best to listen to him, at a time when there is a calculation both in the town of Chattanooga, in our county and in our county. our country.”

Educate the public

The memorial will be unveiled next month and is located at the foot of the bridge, a short walk from where Johnson was murdered.

It will feature statues of Johnson and two black lawyers who unexpectedly caught the attention of the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear Johnson’s rape case that same year, for the legal process to end with this horrific murder. (Decades later, a Tennessee judge officially overturned Johnson’s conviction, clearing his name for good.)

An article on the lynching death of Ed Johnson in March 1906. (The Topeka Daily Herald)

Plates accompanying the statues will tell the story of men to all who stop there. The aim is to educate, but also to bring healing to this city – a small project in a country littered with bloody but often forgotten sites of brutality and hatred.

Eric Atkins is another Ed Johnson Project volunteer, who underscored the urgent message he brings.

“I hope that with this memorial… we can have a changed heart,” said Atkins. “An open heart, where we are all free and we all have rights and we can all move forward the way the country is supposed to move forward.”

While the memorial is dedicated to Johnson, researchers have since found details of another lynching on the bridge: Alfred Blount in 1893, after he was accused of assaulting a woman.

In search of a form of justice

About 30 percent of Chattanooga’s current population is black, and the Walnut Street Bridge Project comes at a difficult time in this country on the issue of racial injustice.

After the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, protesters were often seen holding up signs that read “Stop lynching us!” That’s because for so many Americans, Floyd’s death signaled that in some ways not much has changed.

These signs protesting the treatment of George Floyd were seen in Baltimore, Maryland earlier this year. (Paul Hunter / CBC)

Indeed, consider that not far from this bridge of Chattanooga, mounted prominently on the lawn of the courthouse of the city, is a bronze bust of Alexander P. Stewart, a general of the Confederate army.

Greg Beck, a former county commissioner who spent years working to help the area’s black community, took CBC News to this bust to highlight why he wouldn’t even approach the Walnut Street Bridge, let alone to cross it.

He pointed out that the statue of Stewart and the scattered Confederate flags that float not far from the city limits are reminders that hate feelings persist.

Beck is hopeful that the Ed Johnson Project can help change that as passers-by learn the sad truth about an otherwise beautiful bridge.

This bust of Alexander P. Stewart, a Confederate Army general, stands in front of the Chattanooga courthouse. (Paul Hunter / CBC)

“I want people to understand when they walk by that there is a power out there that is trying to do certain things when it comes to justice,” Beck said. “And to have justice for Ed Johnson.”

Fear of degradation

Even as work continued on the memorial, the statues themselves have been kept under wraps for fear someone will damage them.

Organizers hope the dark nature of Johnson’s story will keep such things at bay once the statues are officially in place.

The real dream, however, is that Johnson’s story will lead in a small measure to a stronger push for better racial justice here and beyond.

“The only way to come to a place of healing is for us to first learn the truth about what happened,” said Donivan Brown.

“My hope is that we can be a beacon, an icon, an emblem for the country that shuns its truth. We must stand up for the truth.”


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