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Ahmir Montez, right, and Garrell Woods perform with the group Young Gifted & Black Chattanooga during a Juneteenth Celebration in Miller Park on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of an eight-day Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas, but other current events will raise the profile of its one-night alternative.

On Friday, in observance of Juneteenth, 155 red, black and green Pan-African flags will be posted along the Walnut Street Bridge, according to the festival's founder and CEO, Ricardo Morris. The number represents each year of emancipation. The location is a reminder of racial injustices in Chattanooga's past, which include the lynching of at least four black men on the Walnut Street Bridge, including Ed Johnson, whose 1906 case made legal history.

"Our original plan was to have some type of socially distanced event on the bridge," said Morris. "I didn't anticipate also having three weeks of protests going on."

The bridge also will be the site of a Justice & Equality Prayer Walk by the Divine 9, a group of nine historically black sororities and fraternities, the Clergy Koinonia and the Young Ministers Network of Chattanooga.

Anthony Taylor, pastor of Greater Community Church of Chattanooga and a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, said the prayer walk will be a chance to come together "just to pray and seek direction" as they celebrate Juneteenth.

Juneteenth began in Texas to commemorate June 19, 1865, the date that Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with news that the Civil War had ended and that all previously enslaved people were free. The day has since come to be celebrated nationally and is taking on more significance this year as protests roil the nation following the death of George Floyd on May 25. The Minnesota man died after a police officer pressed a knee to Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes.

"We're not coming together for any protest or to speak against something, just to pray for God's will and protection, to seek God's call for justice and what direction we should go," Taylor said of the prayer walk. "We'll be celebrating our heritage and Juneteenth and praying for our country. We'll be showing solidarity and unity, praying for peace and reconciliation and speaking out against injustice."

According to Morris, participants in the nightly protest against police brutality, ongoing in Chattanooga since May 30, are expected to cross the bridge later in the evening.

Morris said his flag-bearers will begin gathering around 6:30 p.m. and expect to be in place by 7 p.m. when the prayer walk begins from the north end to the south end of the bridge.

He said the city has agreed to hang 55 of the Pan-African flags from the trusses of the bridge, and volunteers, stationed every few feet on either side, will stand with the other 100 flags for about an hour. The flag-bearers will disperse when the protest demonstrators complete their march north from Miller Park through downtown and across the bridge and into Coolidge Park.

Morris and Taylor said their groups will adhere to safety measures such as the use of face coverings and hand sanitizer.

Morris said an international placemaking conference that drew hundreds of community planners from across the globe to the Scenic City in October nudged him toward tying in more of the city's history as the black arts festival morphed into a single-day celebration of Juneteenth.

"The 155th year of Juneteenth, the Ed Johnson Project, the Walnut Street Bridge — all of those symbols were coming together," he said. "Being able to combine that symbolism [of the bridge] with Juneteenth, after the City Council made it official, seemed like the right thing to do."

The Chattanooga City Council adopted a resolution in March designating Juneteenth "as a day of commemoration which shall be known as 'Juneteenth Independence Day.'"

Email Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com.

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Staff File Photo / Ricardo Morris
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