Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Urban League of Greater Chattanooga President Candy Johnson poses outside of the Urban League offices on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Candy Johnson grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she thought she would always live and one day become mayor.

By age 25, Johnson was elected to the Clarksville City Council in 2008 as the youngest council member ever elected in the city after working as a City Hall intern while at Austin Peay State University and defending her hometown neighborhood from attempts to take over what the city deemed a "blighted neighborhood" by eminent domain.

"I learned a lot about advocacy, activism and the fight to preserve neighborhoods that were gentrified and how you could grow together," she said.

Those traits remain with Candy Johnson in her new role as president of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

Johnson, who came to Chattanooga nearly four years ago with her husband, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, succeeded the late Warren E. Logan Jr. as head of the Chattanooga Urban League chapter shortly before Logan's death last month. Although her address and career path have changed from her childhood expectations, Candy Johnson remains committed to working on economic empowerment and equity.

"I feel like my whole life has helped prepare me for this job," Johnson said of her new post at the local Urban League.

Johnson ended her elected political career after five years on Clarksville City Council to serve as executive director for the Clarksville-Montgomery County Education Foundation where she helped boost both fundraising support and the programs offered by the foundation. After relocating to Nashville, Johnson worked as policy director for education for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and in Chattanooga she previously worked as an advisor for Mayor Andy Berke.

Racial disparities in black and white

* In metropolitan Chattanooga, 61.6% of white households are homeowners, compared with only 37.1% of black households and 30.3% for Hispanic households.

* In 2017, the median income of white households in Hamilton County, $56,000, was nearly 37 percent greater than the $41,000 median income for Hispanic households and was twice the $28,000 median income for black households.

Sources: Construction Coverage analysis of U.S. Bureau of Census data for 2019. Velocity 2040 analysis of 2017 census data.

Her government and nonprofit leadership roles are helping Johnson in her new job to assess Urban League operations and prepare a new plan of action, according to Urban League chapter chairman Albert Waterhouse.

"She is already working hard every day to strengthen the foundation so carefully laid by Warren during his 25-year tenure at Urban League," Waterhouse said. "I know she will take our organization to the next level as we enter a new chapter."

The Chattanooga Urban League already works with more than 15,000 persons a year on a variety of education, workforce development, economic empowerment and inclusion and diversity programs. The Urban League provides a variety of training and job placement programs for everyone from students to executives, including its Inclusion by Design program launched four years ago to help diversify the city's leadership ranks. The local Urban League chapter also oversees the region's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and TVA's Building Futures Contractor training program for Urban Leagues across Tennessee.

Johnson said she hopes to continue those efforts and expand the role of the Urban League over time to impact even more persons.

"Right now, we're assessing our human capital capacity to be able to position the organization for the Urban League of the future," Johnson said. "Our mission remains the same, but we continue to look to improve the ways we can be responsible and help the community to work on equity and inclusion to build more economic power for people of color and disadvantaged people and communities."


COVID widens racial gap

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the income and racial gaps that already existed in Chattanooga as white-collar and better-paying jobs have been largely avoided most of the economic pains suffered by lower-paying workers in the harder hit restaurant, hospitality, entertainment and service industries.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Urban League of Greater Chattanooga President Candy Johnson poses outside of the Urban League offices on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Even before the disruptions caused by the business shutdowns during the pandemic, the average income of white households in Chattanooga was nearly double that for black households and white families were 65% more likely to own their home than the typical black family in Hamilton County.

Concerns over such racial disparities were highlighted and provoked widespread protests last year following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. In response, a growing number of business and community leaders have pledged to boost their efforts toward equity and inclusion in their staffing and work policies.

"There is greater recognition of both the problem and the need to develop solutions as we try to recover from this pandemic going forward," Johnson said. "We're looking at the landscape of where we at the Urban League have historically played around the social and equity space and trying to expand upon those things that have worked well."

Since 1982, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga has been an affiliate of the National Urban League, the nation's largest community-based organization movement devoted to empowering African American and other underserved individuals to enter the economic and social mainstream. The local nonprofit group is governed by its own board and fundraising, which Johnson hopes to expand over time to help enlarge the Urban League's programs.

One of the first new initiatives Johnson hopes to implement is the Urban League's plan for a Center for Equity and Economic Inclusion to expand the education, training and business development efforts of the Urban League as outlined in its most recent strategic plan developed in 2019.

"We want to complement, not duplicate, the efforts of others in our community and identify and continue those programs that can do the most to advance everyone in Chattanooga because we all do better when everyone is economically empowered," Johnson said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.