Black lynching memorial in Tennessee teaches a lesson about the past — and the present

·5 min read
How the Ed Johnson memorial on the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn., will look when it is complete. (The Ed Johnson Project - image credit)
How the Ed Johnson memorial on the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn., will look when it is complete. (The Ed Johnson Project - image credit)

The bridge itself is beautiful.

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

Now repurposed as a pedestrian walkway, the Walnut Street Bridge is often found crowded with young families, joggers and cyclists. Indeed, the bridge has become a picture-perfect icon of this southern U.S. city, and is depicted on posters, paintings and framed photos pretty much everywhere.

It's 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 at by a mob of white men until a bullet severed the noose around his neck and Johnson fell to the ground, where the mob stepped in closer — and kept shooting.

As the city's newspaper put it on March 20, 1906, he was "shot to death… like a dog."

To this day, many Black Chattanoogans who know Johnson's story will not cross the bridge. Donivan Brown is one of them.

"To me, it seems as if it's haunted," he said.

WATCH | The movement to recognize U.S. lynching victims:

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

The Ed Johnson Project is part of a quiet but determined U.S.-wide effort to remind everyone of the horror of the estimated 4,400 lynchings in this country in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

In addition to Chattanooga, there are sobering markers in Maryland, Arkansas, Missouri and beyond, while a national memorial opened in 2018 in Alabama, as America continues to come to terms with its racially charged past — and present.

"We [as a society] could have simply forgotten Ed Johnson," said Brown. "But… we are doing our best to listen to him, in a time where there's a reckoning happening both within the city of Chattanooga, within our county and within our country."

Educating the public

The memorial will be unveiled next month and is positioned at the foot of the bridge, just steps from where Johnson was murdered.

It will feature statues of Johnson and two Black lawyers who, against all odds, had caught the ear of the U.S. Supreme Court, which had agreed to hear Johnson's rape case that same year, only to have the legal process ended by that horrific killing. (Decades later, a Tennessee judge officially overturned Johnson's conviction, clearing his name for good.)

The Topeka Daily Herald
The Topeka Daily Herald

Plaques accompanying the statues will tell the men's stories to all who stop by. The aim is to educate, but also to bring healing in this city — one small project in a country littered with bloody but often forgotten sites of brutality and hate.

Another volunteer with The Ed Johnson Project is Eric Atkins, who underlined the urgent message it brings.

"Hopefully 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 advance the way that the country is supposed to advance."

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.

Seeking a form of justice

Roughly 30 per cent of Chattanooga's current population is Black, and the project on the Walnut Street Bridge comes at a fraught time in this country on the matter of racial injustice.

After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, demonstrators were often seen holding up placards reading "Stop Lynching Us!" That's because for so many Americans, Floyd's death signalled that in some ways, little has changed.

Paul Hunter/CBC
Paul Hunter/CBC

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

Greg Beck, a former county commissioner who has spent years working to help the region's Black community, took CBC News over to that bust to underline why he won't even go near the Walnut Street Bridge, let alone cross it.

He emphasized that the statue of Stewart and the scattered Confederate flags that fly not far from the city limits are reminders that hateful feelings persist.

Beck hopes The Ed Johnson Project can help change that as passersby learn the ugly truth about an otherwise beautiful bridge.

Paul Hunter/CBC
Paul Hunter/CBC

"I want people to understand when they walk by that there is a power somewhere that's trying to do some things as far as justice is concerned," Beck said. "And to have justice for Ed Johnson."

Fear of defacement

Even as work continued on the memorial, the statues themselves remained under wraps for fear of someone defacing them.

Organizers hope the sobering nature of Johnson's story will keep such stuff at bay once the statues are officially in place.

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

"The only way we can get to a place of healing is that we must 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 is running from its truth. We must commit to the truth."

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