"What we're trying to do is start a conversation," says Daryl Black, Executive Director of the Chattanooga History Center. "Look over here," he says leading me to a west-facing window in the nearly complete museum space that looks out over the Aquarium breezeway. "Where the Blue Cross building sits-that area used to be a thriving African-American community; one of the most cohesive and dynamic in the South. Now you stand here and look out, it's a predominately white downtown core and it's a serious problem." In fact, standing at that window, I did not have to look far for relics of Chattanooga's complicated past. Just below us was The Passage. The wide cement staircase cascading with water-a popular place for young children to splash about in summer months- pays homage to the Cherokee and marks the beginning of their forced exodus from the city, known as the Trail of Tears.
The History Center, slated to open this July, attempts to tell the mostly untold story of Chattanooga's history in a new and dynamic way. The 30,000-square-foot gallery space will feature two theaters, three sound installations and five short films, all of which were directed by New York-based documentarian and Grammy award nominee Damani Baker. Baker has spent the past three years compiling writings and recordings that include an introduction narrated by native-Chattanoogan Samuel L. Jackson, postbellum writings on race relations, interviews on Cherokee reservations and anecdotes from Chattanooga's key players in the fight for civil rights.
"I hope that people experience seeing themselves as part of the history we are presenting, and the fact that they have a role to play in the city's future," Baker says. "Are people going to be angry? Maybe. We're not asking people to become activists. Maybe just start with conversations at dinner."
SEE HOW THE STORY UNFOLDS
1838 Trail of Tears
"Legends do more than explain why something is the way it is," says Gayle Ross, Cherokee storyteller and great-great-great-granddaughter of celebrated Cherokee chief John Ross. "They provide the emotional connection that we have with our surroundings."
Cherokee culture is imbued with oral traditions. As a result of the thousand-mile march that began at Ross's Landing and ended in what is now Oklahoma, more than 4,000 lives were lost. But also, large parts of Cherokee culture were lost too due to forced assimilation as well as intentional repression.
"It was like being raped or mugged," says Troy Wayne Poteete, Justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, in regards to the Trail of Tears. "It was not something that you sat in front of the hearth in the wintertime and passed on."
It was not until the 1970s that the Cherokee people were permitted to revitalize their culture, elect their own chief executives and start their own schools. Damani calls his time spent on the Midwestern reservation "heart-warming and heart-breaking."
1860s The Civil War
In contrast to the Cherokee's resistance to retell their somber history, the Civil War's bloody history is almost celebrated. For instance, re-enactments occur often in the Tennessee Valley, depicting everything from life in camps to violent raids. More than 600,000 lives were lost. Ultimately the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln, but the actual impact of this doctrine was experienced differently. The History Center portrays this division through a series of passages pulled from journals and speeches that occurred immediately following the war.
"The Negroes are free and the poor creatures are acting like children out on a frolic. The main portion of the women do little else but walk the streets, dressed in all kinds of gaudy attire. But they have behaved much better than we had any right to expect."
-Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse at Newsome Hospital in Chattanooga until the summer of 1863.
We, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom near the close of the first century and the life of this republic have now and here unveiled, set apart and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze of Abraham Lincoln-the first martyr president of the United States. We comprehend fully the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth compels me to admit Abraham Lincoln was not in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought and in his prejudices, he was a white man."
- Abolitionist and author Frederick Douglas, at the unveiling of The Freedman's Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.
"You submitted your controversies with your fellow citizens to the arbitulant of the battlefield and you accepted the result of your sublime fortitude worthy of all praises, and your reward is that peace and order are restored. And the South which you loved so well and for which you fought so bravely now blossoms with abundant blessing."
-John M. Palmer, Union General who successfully led his troops
during the Battle of Chickamauga.
"I must say a word on the general treatment of my race both in the North and the South in this 20th century. I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood. For 200 years we had toiled for them. The war of 1861 came and was ended and we thought our race was forever freed from bondage and that the two races could live in unity with each other. They say one flag, one nation, one country, indivisible. Can we say this truthfully? When one race is allowed to burn, hang and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly on another? No. We cannot say 'My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.'"
-Susie King Taylor, born into slavery, went on to become a Union nurse and teacher based in Georgia.
Racial tension aside, by the 1930s Chattanooga was deemed "The Dynamo of Dixie." Between textile factories, coal mines and ceramic plants within a few decades, Chattanooga would become the second most industrially diverse city in the nation. Eventually, the city's gain would be matched by its environmental cost.
1950s Cameron Hill
"We're on the edge of what was once a thriving black residential and business community," Daryl Black says from his office on the corner of Market and Aquarium Way.
Johnny Holloway, Chattanooga-native and retired TVA associate engineer, now in his 70s, remembers the thriving black businesses-theaters, clubs, restaurants, even hospitals-that once ran along West 9th St., now renamed ML King Blvd. He grew up along the base of the predominately black community of Cameron Hill, where the Blue Cross building now sits.
"It was a beautiful and natural place," Holloway says of Cameron Hill. "We used to play up there as children. There were Civil War relics up there like cannons and cannon balls. It was good to be close to nature. We used to slide down the hill on cardboard boxes. I really liked that hill and I really hated to see it go."
According to Black, the "purposeful dislocation" that led to African-Americans being moved out of the west side and the divided communities that followed (and to a degree, still exist) is becoming better known across town. By the 1960s racial tensions were coming to a head across the nation.
Discrimination took on many forms, oftentimes with the
tacit approval of institutions.
1960s Urban Renewal
Urban Renewal. The Golden Gateway Project. "Colloquially, it was called "Negro removal,'" Black says of the massive interstate project that occurred in Chattanooga starting in the mid-60s. The idea was to take "blighted" neighborhoods with substandard housing and create better neighborhoods. "There is not a single city in the country where a better neighborhood resulted from urban renewal," says Black.
Chattanooga's urban renewal project covered 403 acres and razed more than 1,000 buildings, mostly black neighborhoods, churches and businesses, including those of West 9th Street. Cameron Hill was excavated in order to provide dirt for the building of freeways. The "better neighborhoods" were often too expensive for the families that had previously resided there. Many of the African-American families were pushed to the Southside along Chattanooga Creek which was one of the most polluted sections of town. "Scholars are beginning to recognize it as a phenomenon called 'environmental racism,'" says Black.
"I was 10 years old standing in front of a shoe store. A yellow school bus pulled up with white students from one of the schools and they yelled words at me that had never been yelled at me before. I was called the "N" word, I was spat on, objects were thrown off the bus. I was a young kid so I looked around at the other adults that were at the bus stop and nobody seemed to want to help me. I thought something was wrong with them. I thought they were extremely mean-spirited but it also frightened me because there were so many kids on that bus and they were so loud. It was almost like my back was against the wall and I had nowhere to go and no adults were helping me. That was a cold reality I learned very early." -Dr. Clark Eldridge White
1960 Separate but Equal
"Separate but equal. That is an oxymoron but that was the way it was."
- Johnny Holloway
"It is very easy to open up a history book and look at race relations," says Damani Baker. Protests and demonstrations were occurring across the country. In Chattanooga, Howard High School's class of 1960 organized sit-ins that paved the way for eventual desegregation.
The most chilling anecdotes of the History Center's installation on civil rights however come from Dr. Clark Eldridge White and long-time activist and former state representative Tommie Brown. Both recount their childhood experiences with racism.
"When I was young I went to town with my mother. I saw the water fountains and one said 'white' and one said 'colored' and I was excited. I said, 'I'm going to get some colored water! What color is it?!' So I ran to the colored water but it didn't have any color in it. I ran to the white water and I said, 'There's no difference! This is the same thing!'"
- Tommie Brown
Samuel L. Jackson grew up in Chattanooga with his mother and maternal grandparents. He graduated from the segregated Riverside High School in the North Shore, now the Chattanooga for the Creative Arts. Over the years, Jackson has been candid about the racism that pervaded his hometown. In 2005, he told Venice Magazine, "I was not going to spend my life in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so everything I did was geared towards escape." However, in the CHC's intro film, narrated by Jackson, he acknowledges the promise that now exists in Chattanooga.
Walter Cronkite declares Chattanooga the most polluted city in the country. As the city began to de-industrialize, jobs went overseas. Factories closed. Buildings were boarded up. "During that period of time the downtown changed dramatically. You could have thrown a bowling ball down Market Street or Broad Street and not hit anybody. During that time also, we became a place that people wanted to leave," says Mai Bell Hurley who is on the board of directors at the History Center.
1980s Chattanooga's Renaissance
"When we started talking about some things we wanted to do for Chattanooga, people started saying, 'We don't know exactly what we want. Let's let the people tell us.' So we set up Venture where we had community meetings all over the town and we asked the people, come in here and tell us what you'd like to see in Chattanooga," explains Dalton Roberts, local politician, musician and columnist.
Venture Vision 2000, organized in the 1980s, is largely credited for the reinvention of Chattanooga which Roberts calls, "nothing short of a renaissance." Within 15 years, the community project accomplished almost 80 percent of its goals including the development of the aquarium and the riverfront, saving the Tivoli Theater and the Walnut Street Bridge, creating the Bessie Smith Center, Warner Park, downtown housing and green space in the city's center.
"Chattanooga is unique in its modern future," Damani Baker says. "You see a lot of people that are really dedicated to integrating communities based on economic promise, the sharing green space and doing things that the city has to offer without race kind of being at the forefront."
"I would never say that Venture closed the chapter on what this community should accomplish. I would say that it gave us the confidence to believe that we could accomplish more," says Hurley.
"We have to continue investing in each other," says Baker.
"We have to talk to each other across cultures," adds Holloway.
"When a community quits changing, they're going backwards," says Roberts. And when a community forgets its history, it is doomed to repeat it.
"This, right here, is the crossroads of American history," says Black. "It's a hell of a story."