Cook: This is what racial reconciliation can look like

Pictured is a rendering of the Ed Johnson Memorial by sculptor Jerome Meadows.
Pictured is a rendering of the Ed Johnson Memorial by sculptor Jerome Meadows.


Donations to Ed Johnson may be made at

More than a century after the lynching murder of Ed Johnson, the healing work continues.

Out of the brutality comes love.

Out of the racism comes reconciliation.

No, not everywhere.

But in many, many places.

"The good news is that there are people in Chattanooga who are willing to acknowledge the legacy of racial injustice and honor an innocent black man and his courageous attorneys," said Elizabeth Williams.

Williams is a core member of the Ed Johnson Committee: formed in 2016 - as part of the larger Ed Johnson Project - to reconstruct Johnson's lynching into a narrative of remembrance, reconciliation and unity.

photo LaFrederick Thirkill speaks to attendees atop the Walnut Street Bridge Sunday at 2p.m., Mar. 19, to mark the 111th anniversary of the lynching of Ed Johnson.

How does that happen?

Not through forgetfulness, avoidance or denial.

But through intentionality.

Through honesty.

Through courage.

Today, the project announces some beautiful news.

"We've reached our goal of $1 million dollars," said LaFrederick Thirkill.

Since August, the project's all-volunteer team - Thirkill is a founding member - has been fundraising mainly for the installation of memorial art sculptures on the Walnut Street Bridge.

Days ago, they hit the mark.

Roughly $350,000 of that came from individual donors and supporters: white, black and brown. (Nearly $460,000 from foundations, another $200,000 from local government.)

The million-dollar-news is a financial signal of spiritual work: the varied and widespread support of reconciling through Johnson's story.

photo Chattanooga Christian School students, followed by Lafrederick Thirkill, top center, and dozens more, march to the Walnut Street Bridge with dirt from various Hamilton County locations in remembrance of lynchings that occurred following the Civil War. Two men, Alfred Blount and Ed Johnson were lynched at the Walnut Street Bridge. CCS students from left are, Allie Gilliam, Jay Yates, Mia Kenton, Deion Lewis, and Riley Anand.

There's more good news.

The memorial art installation begins soon.

"The groundbreaking is scheduled to begin in the fall, with the completion in the spring of 2020," Thirkill said.

Just feet away from where Johnson was lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906, the memorial sculptures, designed by Jerome Meadows, will add a meaningful reckoning of our violent past to this iconic, postcard bridge.

No longer whitewashed and forgotten, the story of Johnson will be presented in a dignified, powerful way that ties the past to the present and future.

It will attract locals.

And tourists. (The Pew Charitable Trust has reported on the "surging interest" in black history and heritage tourism across the U.S.)

Much has been said about vaunted "Chattanooga Way," yet to me, the Ed Johnson project may be the best example of community formed with intention for moral goodness.

Johnson was lynched in 1906. Over generations, his story was told and retold within black households. As the Walnut Street Bridge was resurrected as a tourist attraction, many local African Americans refused to join in, vowing never to walk the bridge again.

The divide grew.

In white households, Johnson's story went untold and forgotten. Many of us had never heard it until Thirkill, some 20 years ago, began producing a play, along with funding college scholarships, while the late Leroy Phillips Jr., along with Mark Curriden, published "Contempt of Court."

Today, thanks to dozens of community meetings, tens of thousands of Chattanoogans know this story.

photo David Cook

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"I'm still in awe," Thirkill said. "I began sharing this story, with the help of Leroy Phillips, 20 years ago. I know both he and Ed Johnson are smiling on this project. I am so thankful for this journey."

The million-dollar campaign - which launched in August 2018 - will fund not only the sculpture but a self-sustaining vision that includes:

» The completion of Linda Duvoisin's documentary.

» Continued scholarship funding.

» Programming so that all Hamilton County students will have access to the story and memorial.

"The Ed Johnson story matters today, over 100 years later, because our city and nation remain deeply divided and racial injustice is ever present," Williams said. "Our vision is that the Ed Johnson Memorial and educational programming will ensure the story lives on for generations to come."

On Friday, July 12, there is one final social media fundraiser: the Ed Johnson Day of Giving. Visit for more information.

"We wish to thank all who supported our efforts," Thirkill said. "Over the next ten years, the nation will know about and remember Ed Johnson."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at

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