An online petition launched last week aims to change the name of the Walnut Street Bridge to honor a man lynched at the site more than 100 years ago.
The proposed new name would be the Ed Johnson Memorial Bridge, named for the black man who was lynched on the bridge on March 19, 1906, after he was accused of raping a white woman.
Joseph Malley, who recently uncovered the first photo of Johnson to be seen in 112 years, initiated the petition and sent the email to Chattanooga City Council members. He argues that maintaining the same name for the bridge is "an injustice to [Johnson]."
"Many people today avoid the bridge due to its history, some are even scared to walk across the bridge," he wrote in the email to council members. "It would benefit your community, help reconciliation and unification if the Chattanooga City Council would initiate such a referendum and approve the name change."
City Councilman Chip Henderson said he hadn't seen the proposal on any agendas so far, adding, "I like the name just the way it is."
Councilman Russell Gilbert said he wants to talk to other council members before he forms an opinion. Attempts to reach other council members were unsuccessful as of Friday.
Malley is a Dallas-based attorney specializing in constitutional law who has been researching Johnson's case for a book.
After Johnson's conviction, attorneys argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, persuading the court to grant him a stay of execution. But a mob broke into the jail and took matters into its own hands, allegedly locking the sheriff and deputies in a bathroom and removing Johnson from his cell, according to national newspaper archives.
Johnson's case was the first time in history the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution and the first and only time the high court held a criminal trial, which ended with Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp being held in contempt of court. The justices said Shipp failed to keep Johnson safe, noting some of his deputies took part in the lynching, according to a book called "Contempt of Court."
A memorial depicting Johnson and his two attorneys is set to be placed on the south end of the bridge.
Malley said he just thought it would be great to change the name, "so when the monument is done, it would be a great place for those interested."
"If it is a waste, I'm not going lose sleep over it," he wrote in an email to the Times Free Press. "Not going to protest."
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