Hamilton County Commission approves $100,000 for Ed Johnson Memorial Project

Models of the three central figures in the Ed Johnson Memorial by sculptor Jerome Meadows are depicted.

Hamilton County commissioners approved $100,000 toward the Ed Johnson Memorial project in a 6-2 vote Wednesday.

Commissioners were previously split on whether to foot the bill using taxpayer dollars or revenue from the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau occupancy tax, and in a last-ditch effort District 8 commissioner Tim Boyd introduced an amendment that would increase the funding to $200,00o, with half of that coming from the bureau.

"I believe art is a very powerful force in the world and, as my daughter, says, "Art at its best changes us, challenges how we see the world and changes our view of the world. That's exactly what the Ed Johnson project is intended to do, at least from my perspective," he said.

The amendment failed with no discussion, though, and the original resolution introduced at the commission's Feb. 27 meeting prevailed.

The Johnson project honors Ed Johnson, a black man who was lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906. The project has been underway since 2017, with a local committee leading the efforts to fund a permanent memorial, as well as the creation of a documentary and community presentations.

"We are super excited and we truly appreciate the support of the County Commission and truly believe that this memorial is intended to reflect a community's approach to addressing racial reconciliation and healing to promote unity, and we couldn't do it without them," said LaFrederick Thirkill, co-chairman of the committee.

The project, initially estimated to cost about $500,000, is about 90 percent funded, and the county's commitment ensures it will reach its goal, Thirkill said.

He said the committee's hope was always that the project would not be funded by only one entity.

"Our goal was not to expect one entity to fully fund it, but to make it a community effort. We want citizens, individuals, organizations, government involved," Thirkill said.

"This memorial is a great example of how a community can promote unity through projects like these, where everybody jumps on board to say, 'Yes, we believe our city or our county will be a better place if people love each other more or if we take time to understand or recognize injustices together.'"

Previously, commissioners debated over whether they should set precedent by funding statues or memorials, which Boyd and District 3 commissioner Greg Martin are against, though the commission approved $250,000 for the Fallen Five memorial in 2018.

District 6 commissioner David Sharpe noted at the commission's Feb. 27 meeting that they were "addressing this today because of the [past] actions of the government of Hamilton County.

"The blood of Ed Johnson is on the hands of Hamilton County, and we should do what's right," he said.

Sharpe voted in favor of Boyd's amendment, as well as in favor of the final resolution. Boyd and Martin both voted against funding the project.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.