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Staff file photo / The Rev. W.C. Hunter stands on the second floor balcony of the historic Walden Hospital on Eighth Street in 2002.

Fenesa Brewer has dedicated the better part of two years to making sure a pillar of the Chattanooga community is never forgotten.

She is raising money to create a public mural in remembrance of the impact Bishop Willie Charles Hunter and Claudine "Peggy" Hunter had on the city. The couple brought people to the Christian faith, supported countless people financially and encouraged those around them to pursue their most ambitious dreams.

The mural would memorialize a tiny fraction of the impact the Hunters had, from local parks to international aid, Brewer said. She came to know the Hunters through her involvement in the World's Church of the Living God, which W.C. Hunter led for more than 50 years before his death in 2016.

"I've been under his tutelage since I was born," she said. "So I know a lot of history about the Hunters. But I'll be honest, I did not know a lot of the things that he had done and Mrs. Hunter had done until I started doing my research."

Along with leading the Chattanooga church, Hunter oversaw churches in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis and Summerville as bishop. He created Lay-Row-Catch-A-Mellow barbecue sauce, a local bottling company and Hunter Mortgage, the first black-owned company in the industry in Chattanooga. His long list of awards included the NAACP's Ambassador of Peace and the city's Ambassador of Good Will, among many others. In 2014, Hamilton County and Chattanooga declared Dec. 21 to be "W.C. Hunter Day."

In the 1980s, the Orange Grove Center, a school for adults and children with disabilities, was struggling financially and on the verge of shutting down its music and art enrichment programs when W.C. Hunter approached the center about hosting a barbecue fundraiser. The event was held at Miller Park and W.C. Hunter brought all the supplies, said Hal Baker, the center's former assistant director.

"They were unbelievable fundraisers and he gave 100% of the proceeds to Orange Grove," he said. "He didn't ask for a nickel or a dime to reimburse for the supplies or anything."

Those fundraisers brought in thousands of dollars for the center and helped keep the enrichment programs going — programs that still exist today, Baker said.

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More Information

For more information on the Hunter Memorial Mural or to donate to the fund, visit https://thehuntermemorialmural.org/.

 

W.C. Hunter created the $1.5 million Delaney Park amusement park, which featured a skating rink, rides and go-carts. The free park closed in September 1981, about a year after its opening.

In June 2002, he purchased the Walden Hospital on Eighth Street for renovation. The building previously served as a nursing school and clinic for black residents in the community. It was refurbished to be used as apartments.

In a 1981 newspaper advertisement, he described his deep love for Chattanooga and his conviction to right the social wrongs he saw.

"I honestly love Chattanooga, and I will do my part, whether in word or deed," W.C. Hunter wrote. "I am not perfect myself. I have contributed some good and some bad to society. That's why I don't condemn this, my hometown. We have a great city in spite of the problems."

In the late 1990s, Marlena Russell owned the Payment Center, which had two locations in Chattanooga for people to come and pay their bills or purchase money orders. Since the business operated before the internet, there were often lines of people waiting to pay bills, Russell said. It was not uncommon for W.C. Hunter to show up and pay the bills of dozens of people.

"We had people that would stand in line and break down and cry," she said. "They would give their testimonies, they would say to him, 'I didn't know how I was going to pay my bills.' He was always doing things like that."

Russell also ran a dance group for nearly two decades that performed around the area. The group consisted of members of the Hunters' church, as well as other children in the community. W.C. Hunter regularly bought uniforms for the whole group since he knew some parents would be unable to afford them, Russell said. He had a way of knowing when people were in need, she said.

"He would always say, 'The way I forget my problems is that I find somebody to give to. When I do that, it just makes my day.' He was always somebody who would try to bury himself in someone else's issue and try to take care of their issue, and he said it always made him forget about whatever he was dealing with," Russell said.

Peggy Hunter was just as much of a giver to the community as her husband was, community members said. She supported dozens of local young people in college with care packages and money, Brewer said.

Rita Hubbard, a local historian who has written several books including a book on the history of African Americans in Chattanooga, said the Hunters deserve to be remembered for their impact on the community.

"They deserve a permanent place among 'firsts' in African American contributions, even though they came a hundred years later than some of the people I researched," Hubbard said. "They still deserve to be among those firsts because that level of giving and that level of caring, that's the first time I've seen that."

Not all of W.C. Hunter's giving was financial. He also supported people's dreams, Hubbard said. When he purchased the Walden Hospital in 2002, he asked her to do some research on the building's history. That encouragement to pursue her love of researching and writing bloomed into her first book, she said. That book won several awards and Hubbard still gets messages from people around the country thanking her for the work, she said.

"I am a living example of someone he encouraged," Hubbard said. "And it was a gift that kept on giving because I am still receiving from his encouragement."

Dr. Joy Russell, who leads Paramount Podiatry, was encouraged to go into medicine because of the lessons she learned from the Hunters, she said. They were true philanthropists who cared deeply about the community and gave more than just money, she said. They walked the walk.

"[Medicine] was definitely one of those careers that I'd be able to be of service to other people," she said. "That's really important to me and I learned that from him because it was always something he always talked about and definitely displayed. He definitely reached more than the four walls of the church building. He reached the immediate community [and] the Chattanooga area."

In July 2016, W.C. Hunter led the funeral services for his wife, who had died the week before at age 83. He died about six months later on Dec. 11 at age 80.

Brewer said it was a conversation with her teenage son after W.C. Hunter's funeral that led to the mural idea. She and her family were driving along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard when her son saw the murals there and asked if they could do one for W.C. Hunter. Brewer thought her son would drop the idea after a few days but he did not, she said.

Brewer then created a nonprofit and began getting letters of support for the project from city leaders.

On Oct. 22, Brewer and her son presented their idea to the Chattanooga City Council.

The mural is going to represent everything he has done to help others, Brewer said. A mock-up of what the piece could look like would be more than 1,100 square feet and features a church, Delaney Park, children in the community and a portrait of the Hunters.

Through the nonprofit she created, Brewer is raising $75,000 for the project, which includes the cost of the artists, materials and upkeep for several years. She wants to host community painting parties so people can participate in creating parts of the mural, she said. At the moment, Brewer is finalizing a location for the mural.

Hubbard said the artwork can be an inspiration to live more kindly. The Hunters set an example that Chattanooga can continue to follow and remember there is still kindness in the world, she said.

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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