Local history: Tennessee Historical Commission marker trail documents African American history

Contributed Photo / The historical marker in honor of former slave Mary Walker, who learned to read at age 116, is located on Wilcox Boulevard.
Contributed Photo / The historical marker in honor of former slave Mary Walker, who learned to read at age 116, is located on Wilcox Boulevard.

As spring approaches, it's time to begin thinking about adventures that do not require climbing gear, stopwatches or strength conditioning. Instead, residents can follow the Tennessee Historical Commission marker trail and combine an outdoor trek with history education.

The markers are easily recognized by their distinctive three-star logo with black text lettering on a silver background. Since 1948, individuals, churches, civic groups, and city or county governments have submitted requests for markers, providing the funding for the markers upon approval. The commission staff and board adhere to a sound methodological approach grounded in the study of history and supported by documents proving the information on each marker application. During the last 25 years, the marker program has grown to include more narrative histories of AfricanAmericans, native peoples and women.

So, consider planning a historical outing for the next weekend when the sun is shining and you're feeling adventurous.

In Hamilton County, one might choose to visit the marker on Wilcox Boulevard commemorating the life of Mary Walker, a former slave, who lived from 1848 to 1969. Yes, those dates are correct. Mary Walker was declared the oldest student in the nation by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare after having learned to read at age 116. Next, the Walden Hospital marker on East 8th Street recognizes the groundbreaking work of Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler, a graduate of Meharry Medical College, who established and operated a 30-bed hospital and a school of nursing for the African American community for 37 years.

Intrigued by the entrepreneurial spirit? Visit the Randolph M. Miller marker on Martin Luther King Boulevard and be inspired by a former slave who came to Chattanooga with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's Union troops. After working for Adolph Ochs and the Daily Times, Miller opened his own weekly newspaper, the Blade, targeting Black readers. The marker provides interesting information about this community leader.

If you attended the recent Chattanooga Symphony event on Feb. 27 featuring Neshawn Bynum Calloway as the Empress of the Blues, then you need to visit the Bessie Smith marker in downtown Chattanooga. Considered one of the greatest singers of her era and a musical influence for other jazz and blues singers, Bessie Smith's 1923 recordings of "Downhearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" propelled her to national prominence.

Her marker will lead you through her rise to fame and untimely death. While humming a few notes and considering Chattanooga's music history, a visit to the nearby Martin Hotel marker on M.L. King Boulevard is appropriate. Established in 1924 and open for business until 1985, the Martin Hotel became the largest African American hotel in the South and was frequented by musical celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Nat King Cole. Willie Mays and Satchel Paige, known for making the baseball sing, were regular guests too as they traveled the circuit.

Head north to McMinn County, and you'll find a marker celebrating the first African American church organized to serve McMinn, Meigs and Polk counties, the Beth Salem Presbyterian Church. The sacred house of worship opened in August 1866 as a brush arbor meeting house (open-sided with brush roof) and stood until the congregation could construct a log cabin that served as both a church and school. The original building was destroyed by fire in the 1920s but was reconstructed by the community. Descendants of the original attendees still gather each August for homecoming.

Just up the road in Maryville, searchers will find two significant markers. The first recalls the life of William B. Scott Sr., a free Black who came to East Tennessee in 1847 and became renowned as a saddle and harness marker in Blount County's Quaker community known as Friendsville. After the Civil War, Scott, who had learned the printing process, moved to Nashville and began printing The Colored Tennessean, the first newspaper in Tennessee for African Americans. He returned to Maryville in 1867 and published the Maryville Democrat, opened the Freedman's Normal Institute and in 1879 was elected mayor of Maryville. The second marker, placed on the site of Blount County's Freedman's Institute, recognizes this early training center for African American teachers.

There's an added bonus for adventurous citizens and families. Take a photograph of yourself and your family/friends with the marker. Submit your photo to localhistorycounts@gmail.com with a short description of your visit. You might find yourself featured in the next Chattanooga Area Historical Journal.

Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, loves planning historical excursions and learning history on-site. Historical markers can be located via map searches. For more local history, go to chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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