Cook: Why some Chattanoogans won't walk across Walnut Street Bridge

Cook: Why some Chattanoogans won't walk across Walnut Street Bridge

What is justice for Ed Johnson?

January 18th, 2015 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

In 1906, an innocent black man named Ed Johnson was terrorized, beaten, shot and lynched from the second span of the downtown side of the Walnut Street bridge.

Thirteen years before, another black man, Alfred Blount, was lynched from the first.

But if you walk, run or bike the Walnut Street bridge, as millions of people have, you won't see any mention of that.

Why not?

Why is there no plaque memorializing the lives and deaths of Johnson and Blount?

"I would pay for it out of my discretionary funds," said Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck.

Since our downtown renaissance, the bridge has emerged as the scenic and iconic symbol of our city: vibrant, communal, aqua-blue beautiful.

But it is also haunted; whereas whites and tourists may see the bridge as a pedestrian place -- clean, healthy, without any history -- others in Chattanooga are pained by it.

"Some black Chattanoogans won't even walk across the bridge," one man told me.

A plaque or piece of art could serve as an act of honesty -- let us not forget what happened here -- and an awakening against a racial amnesia that has, to some extent, whitewashed the bridge's past.

We have public memorials for soldiers, veterans and police officers. When the city remade the riverfront, we intentionally remembered the history and richness of the Cherokee, as well as the Trail of Tears genocide that fell upon them.

Yes, other, more pressing racial issues leapfrog to the forefront. A plaque for two men who died more than 100 years ago? What about the slow lynching of today that is poverty?

Would a plaque only operate as a feel-good distraction while real racial work goes ignored?

It should not be a question of either/or. If a plaque helps us cross the cultural bridge between racial amnesia and historical integrity, it might also help form black-white bonds that make racial violence less possible.

(I've been told that Johnson's grave near Brainerd Road lies in tremendous disrepair. Which is more sacrilegious? The lack of a plaque, or the lack of a grave?)

"Most of my students have never heard of Ed Johnson," said Mariann Martin, who teaches at Virginia College.

In her literature class, Martin uses excerpts from the Johnson narrative "Contempt of Court," written by former Chattanoogan Mark Curriden and the late Leroy Phillips Jr.

Her students -- many from Chattanooga -- often react with confusion and frustration: How do we not know this story? We've lived here all our lives.

Martin then wisely leads them in a discussion on justice.

Would it be an act of justice to create a plaque or memorial? Is the absence of one unjust?

Some students shake their head no. No, a plaque won't help. Bringing it up won't do any good.

Others? They get angry, in a let's-do-something kind of way. Some talk of a petition. One student contacted City Hall. (After hearing from Beck and his generous offer to fund the plaque, I did the same.)

"We would welcome the opportunity to be a part of any larger community discussion on the idea," said Lacie Stone, spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke.

For Martin, teaching is an act of justice.

"Using Ed Johnson's story as a starting point encourages students to wrestle more honestly with issues of race and justice in their own lives and communities," she said. "This is a man who lived in Chattanooga and who was lynched by Chattanoogans. Knowing and discussing his story encourages them to confront those same issues in today's Chattanooga."

We've got a county commissioner who'll pay for it. A city mayor willing to listen and discuss. A columnist, ready to write.

Now, what does the community think?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

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