A New Chattanooga Story

A New Chattanooga Story

November 1st, 2011 by Kathy Gilbert in Local Regional News

A hard hat sits on a shelf in Chattanooga History Center Executive Director Daryl Black's office, next to a stack of exhibit plans and David Magee's book "Moon Pie." Black has many jobs - fundraiser, construction guide, scriptwriter, historian. When he looks out his office window, he sees tourists stroll across the Tennessee Aquarium Plaza. Future History Center visitors? Perhaps. Then he recalls why he became a harried task-juggler: "This is a great place to tell stories."

In 2006, the Chattanooga Regional History Museum moved from a cramped mid-downtown building to temporary storage. Now, a 9,000-square-foot space on the second floor of the former Convention and Visitors' Bureau at Market and West Second streets has been purchased and is being remodeled.

A grand opening is set for fall 2012. At the History Makers Award and fundraising luncheon this month, Board President Maury Nicely says he will announce that the $10 million capital campaign has reached the three-quarter mark. With its historic setting, tourist-friendly site and contemporary design, Nicely calls the re-titled Chattanooga History Center "the next big downtown project in Chattanooga."

The Center sits at the epicenter of city history, Nicely explains. The riverfront can be seen from the galleries' windows. Ross's Landing is one block away. "It's a place that is accessible to everybody," agrees project manager Rick Sobel. "We call it a Main Street Model and, in Chattanooga, it's literally on the main street."

New, interactive exhibits will surround about 200 key artifacts with videos, audio recordings, pictures and touchable displays. "We'll be presenting the information in some new and dynamic ways," says Board Secretary Clark White. "It won't be a traditional museum."

Visitors can record their StoryCorps-style memories, download guides and historical information to their iPhones, write suggestions to community leaders and attend films and discussions in the Center's new meeting rooms. Based on the Venture 2000 concept, visitors will become better prepared to enter community life, says Black. "The phrase we use is 'how can we make better citizens?'"

Artist renderings of the planned Chattanooga History Center by Ralph Appelbaum & Associates


Most small cities claim one historic moment - Gettysburg a three-day battle, Kitty Hawk a three-year quest for flight. Chattanooga has had thousands of such moments, from its own bloody Civil War battles to a soaring downtown renaissance. "Our story is nationally important," says Marlene Payne, deputy director of the Chattanooga History Center. "It's not all about Moon Pies."

The last complete history of Chattanooga was "The Chattanooga County, 1540- 1962: From tomahawks to TVA" by Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood. Over the past two years, the Center tapped the entire community to draft its new narrative. From Cherokee leaders, Civil War historians and nationally known scholars to local journalists, activists, academics and students. "We've written a brand new history of Chattanooga," says Black.

As lead writer, Black was challenged to blend thousands of stories over 250 years into a single, clear stream, says his wife, Andrea Becksvoort, a Yale-trained Ph.D. historian and lecturer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Historians are trained to be experts in narrow things," she says. "Daryl's had to become an expert in cultural, economic, labor and environmental history - and then he has had to figure out how to weave all these stories together."

When the Center opens next fall, a new cast of characters - Cherokee elders, freed slaves, post-Civil War black and Appalachian immigrants, ironworkers, textile workers and housewives - will mix it up with the traditional Coca-Cola bottling entrepreneurs and Confederate generals.

Such familiar tales as the Civil War and the Trail of Tears have been retooled to include a discussion of the Cherokee removal debate and stories of how the Civil War affected Chattanooga residents - a long-neglected angle, says Lee White, park guide at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

Daryl Black

Daryl Black

Photo by Mark Gilliland

New discoveries include histories of the founders of the Franklin Funeral Home, who conducted Booker T. Washington's service, of John "Captain Jack" Higgins' invention of the famous and lucrative Eureka Straightening Comb and of suffragist Abby Crawford Milton's successful month-long Nashville battle to secure women's voting rights for the nation.

For the first time, contributions of such ethnic groups as the Lebanese community, the Jewish community and a band of German metallurgists from Bavaria (think "Erlanger Hospital") will be noted. Even cultural activities and environmental events, such as desegregation, air pollution and Chattanooga Venture and Vision 2000 will play starring roles. "We looked at American history from the bottom up," concludes Board Secretary White. "It's a new paradigm in the interpretation of Southern history."


Swags of electrical cord dangle between metal-caged lights. Steel pipes snake between reinforced floor joists. A sawdust smell lingers in the air. "There's a real presence in the plaza now," says Black, escorting a visitor through the construction zone. "And that's good, as any retailer will tell you."

A colorful modern facade, grand staircase and industrial-sized elevator are not ready to lure a visitor's eyes and transport their bodies to the Center's second-floor main entrance. Airy offices filled with light have been completed.

History Makers

The Chattanooga History Center's 6th annual History Makers Award and fundraising luncheon honors Chattanooga Venture, launched in 1983, and Vision 2000, begun in 1984, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The community-wide visioning processes dramatically changed the city's direction. They continue to impact the city today and serve as a model for revitalization projects around the globe.

Venture's first chairperson, Mai Bell Hurley, and its first executive director, Mayor Ron Littlefield, will accept the award, created by sculptor Cessna Decosimo.

Tickets: (423) 265-3742, ext. 17 or 10.

Information: chattanoogahistory.org

Space-saving storage racks - turn a handle and an aisle opens between tracked shelves - as well. The new Center will be LEED silvercertified. Solar panels have been installed on the roof. An efficient heat and air system, water-based paints and recycling bins for work crews are among other green moves. Black compliments the "mind-blowingly gorgeous" plans of the Center's designers-Ralph Appelbaum & Associates, the New York-based creators of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and many other award winners.

Black also praises the sleek two-story-high atrium flanked by intimate little galleries being built by the local firm Morgan Construction Company. And, he is absolutely enthused over the plans to surround about 200 of the Center's most "phenomenal" historic objects with videos, listening sticks, audio pods and touch-pad screens.

Remodeling is scheduled to end in February, says Payne. Heat and air systems will be turned on. Then they wait. "Every particle of dust has to settle before the exhibit people can come in," says Payne.

This month, a film crew hired by Appelbaum's designers will record interviews in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Okla. Their words will be replayed in the Center, in one of three listening stations dropped from the two-story-high atrium.

Although it will be a year before the Center opens, board members and staff already dream of its bright future. In the past, museums displayed precious objects. You looked. You thought. You left. The Chattanooga History Center will invite visitors to use their minds to imagine both the community's past, and its future.

A key artifact in one of the exhibits, for example, will come from local blues culture, says White. Because it displays that object, he adds, the Center will invite scholars to speak on the blues, teach children about the blues in their schools, listen to musicians perform the blues. "So we're preserving, presenting and perpetuating the history of the blues in Chattanooga."

To the new historians creating the Chattanooga History Center, a farmer's coat from 1818 is more than a cool jacket from an ancestor's attic. "Objects allow us to see the human mind at work in remote times. We can use our imagination to envision these places and think about what that might mean," says Black. "The past is nothing but our imagination."


In its research, the Chattanooga History Center uncovered hundreds of new and fascinating stories and facts. Here are a few it plans to tell when the Center opens in 2012:

  • Because of its extensive railroad network, President Abraham Lincoln said taking Chattanooga was as important as taking Richmond-the capital city of the Confederacy.
  • At the end of the Civil War, the majority of Chattanooga's population was black. Freed and runaway slaves created one of the great examples of post-Civil War community building.
  • In the early 1900s, John "Captain Jack" Higgins, the owner of the OK Shaving Parlor at 911 Market Street, patented and manufactured the nationally famous (and profitable) Eureka Straightening Comb.
  • In the 1920s, Chattanooga suffragist Abby Crawford Milton spent a month in a Nashville hotel lobbying the legislature, successfully, to give women the vote.