'Stories From the Big 9' podcasts explore M.L. King Boulevard's evolution and influence on Chattanooga's history

'Stories From the Big 9' podcasts explore M.L. King Boulevard's evolution and influence on Chattanooga's history

February 17th, 2019 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Katie Raabe and Madison Morgan interviewed Frances McDonald of Mark Making about the impact art, and in particular murals, can have on a community.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Ever wonder why Blue Boy Barber Shop on M.L. King Boulevard is so named?

Or who painted the murals that can be found on some of the buildings along the city thoroughfare?

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students Jackson Ver Mulm, Madison Morgan and Katie Raabe, from left, introduce their podcast about murals on M.L. King Boulevard to a large crowd inside the Bessie Smith Cultural Center during a public introduction of their series "Stories From the Big 9."

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students Jackson Ver...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Or maybe you used to live in the neighborhoods surrounding what was originally Ninth Street and dubbed "The Big 9," or maybe you frequented the many restaurants, bars, car dealerships, clothing stores or beauty shops that once thrived there and you'd like to relive what living there was like.

The Big 9 was the heart and soul of the black community in Chattanooga for many years, and students from Will Davis' podcasting class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have created a series of podcasts called "Stories From the Big 9" that tell some of the many stories surrounding its history.

Throughout February, which is Black History Month, excerpts from the series are being featured on WUTC-FM 88.1 every Tuesday and Thursday on "Morning Edition," which airs from 6 to 10 a.m., and "All Things Considered," which airs from 4 to 7 p.m. The full podcasts, which are about five minutes long and often in a series of three per subject, can be found at WUTC.org as they are released.

The class was originally designed with a technical slant, focusing on things like editing, sound quality and storytelling, but it became more for the students.

Charles Alavena, right, and Spencer Denning introduce their podcast topic to the crowd at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center during a public introduction of "Stories From the Big 9." The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student-produced audio podcasts feature historic stories from M.L. King Boulevard.

Charles Alavena, right, and Spencer Denning introduce their...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

"I used to live on MLK," says senior Katie Raabe, "so I was interested in the background. I know it progressively changed over the years, so it was cool to learn the history."

Fellow senior Michael Boehm says he was surprised at how open and giving people were with their stories and their time.

"That surprised me, but it helped create a sense of the community being a living thing," he says.

And as such, it is ever changing, he adds. "There was a sense of loss and the way things change and keep changing."

For instance, as a child, Bessie Smith, who would become known around the world in the 1920s and '30s as the "Empress of the Blues," used to walk from her home near the Tennessee River at the end of Ninth Street, as it was known then, and sing on the street corners for change.

Senior Jackson Ver Mulm, who was teamed with Raabe and Madison Morgan, says he discovered through the experience that "the city is a collection of stories, a menagerie."

Blues legend Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga in 1894.

Blues legend Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

In addition to stories about Smith and Blue Boy Barber Shop, the students focused on old businesses, new businesses and the importance of churches along the street. They interviewed artist Kevin Bate about his murals honoring Smith, fellow blues artist Robert Johnson and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The segments with Bate are as much about his method and technique as the subjects of the murals.

"That was one of the things we talked about [as a class] was how do you talk about art as a podcast, so we went to the artist," says Raabe.

They also talked with Frances McDonald, executive director of Mark Making, a community arts outreach organization, about the impact public art and murals can have on a community.

The students worked in groups of two to four and were tasked to research a particular topic and then create three podcasts of about five minutes each. Boehm and his podcast partner, Tori Villa, focused on three businesses on MLK: Live & Let Live Barber Shop, Blue Boy Barber Shop and Uncle Larry's Restaurant.

The three represent varying degrees of longevity in the area. The first has been in business since the 1930s, while the second has been the site of a family business since the '60s. Current owner Cecil Drake says he chose the name because he and his brothers were members of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity while in college and the organization's colors are blue and white.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

East Ninth Street is shown in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga African-American Museum)

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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