Popular tour reveals Chattanooga's history of racism, resistance and activism

Michael Gilliland gives a "People's History Tour" that details the seldom-told history of race in Chattanooga to a group from the Chattanooga Fellows Program.
Michael Gilliland gives a "People's History Tour" that details the seldom-told history of race in Chattanooga to a group from the Chattanooga Fellows Program.

Interest in Chattanooga's lost histories is growing, and one local nonprofit organization is responding to the demand with a slew of tours and presentations that shed new light on the past.

Since 2016, Chattanooga Organized for Action has been offering free walking tours, called "The People's History Tour," aimed at educating people about the city's history of white supremacy and anti-racist resistance.

The nonprofit's leaders have long taken issue with Chattanooga's popular renaissance narrative, a topic explored in-depth in the Times Free Press' recent series "The Lost Way."

In recent months, desire for the tours has surged, said Michael Gilliland, the volunteer head of COA, who works full time as a restaurant manager in the Bluff View Art District.

photo Jefferson Hodge, left, and Michael Gilliland give a "People's History Tour" that details the seldom-told history of race in Chattanooga.

The grassroots group, which has over the years raised questions about discriminatory banking practices and local affordable housing policy, has received a number of requests for information about the city's history from groups that traveled to Chattanooga but felt dissatisfied by the shorthand, booster-backed version of recent history. And an increased spotlight on local problems related to poverty, crime, housing and education has helped revive interest in the local history of marginalized groups.

Recently, the city of Chattanooga added "The People's History Tour" to a list of activities approved for city interns, and Gilliland said COA has already offered two tours for city interns.

"It is very important," said James McKissic, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs for the city of Chattanooga. "Many times in government, you will encounter people who don't know about the systemic methods of oppression that have happened in our society. When you understand what has taken place, then you can work to be more equitable and better in the work you do day to day."

Hamilton County teachers also have begun taking advantage of the tours, hoping to glean new knowledge they can take back to their students.

"It was really powerful," said Rachel Turner, Hamilton County's lead social science teacher, who helped organize a tour for a group of history teachers. "I don't think I'll be able to go to those areas [of the city] again without thinking about some of the things that [Gilliland] taught us.

Since then, Turner said more than 40 teachers have written her with interest in attending the tour.

"It's almost like a part of Chattanooga's history has been swept under the rug and they are helping expose it," she added. "We need to let our children know. It's sad that there is so much great local history that you just never hear about."

There has been so much interest, in fact, that Gilliland said COA members are developing a new tour for 2018 with the help of some interns from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga history department. That tour will focus solely on the city's labor history.

By the 1930s, Chattanooga had one of the most militant and active labor movements in the South, and in the 1950s more than one-third of city workers were unionized, said Gilliland, who is helping develop the new tour.

"In a city that now has a 3.4 percent unionization rate and some of the lowest pay and benefits of any city in the country, it's worth us going back to a time when workers could successfully negotiate a better standard of living for working people," he said.

If you go

› What: Chattanooga Organized for Action is hosting a talk by local American Indian expert tom kunesh› When: Today, 7-9 p.m.› Where: Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, 3224 Navajo Drive› More info: The event is free and open to the public. For more information on Chattanooga Organized for Action, visit www.chattaction.org.

And today, as part of its effort to educate local residents, Chattanoga Organized for Action is hosting a talk on the history of local indigenous peoples.

Thursday's talk will feature tom p. kunesh, who once sat on the state's now-defunct Commission of Indian Affairs and has long advocated for the preservation of Moccasin Bend as a sacred site. He will speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga on the history of two local tribes - the Muskogee and Yuchi or Euchee - which predated the Cherokee and are often written out of local history.

"Everyone thought that the whole area was Cherokee," he said. "But there were tribes that were here when Hernando de Soto came through in 1540. It's been forgotten."

The name Chattanooga is actually the combination of two Muskogee words that together can be interpreted as "rock, place," kunesh said.

He said he will also talk about how corn was first introduced to the area by migrants from what is now Guatemala and Mexico more than 2,000 years ago. The development of corn, which moved American Indians away from a hunting and gathering culture, changed local society and eventually played an enormous role in shaping history and economies.

"Our diversity as a city, our racial diversity depends on recognizing the past and acknowledging it, honoring it," he added.

He said he also hopes his talk will stir more interest in local preservation efforts.

Right now, the city of Chattanooga has a plan to create a major thoroughfare that would run through Lincoln Park, a historically black neighborhood, and the former Citico site. However, kunesh and others have opposed the plan, arguing that development along that roadway will destroy the last vestiges of historic American Indian space along the riverfront and lead to the gentrification of the Lincoln Park area.

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.

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