Chattanooga History Column: J.B. Collins — Newsman extraordinaire

Chattanooga History Column: J.B. Collins — Newsman extraordinaire

September 10th, 2017 by Jerry Summers in Opinion Columns
. Caption from the publication, Tennessee Snake Handlers by J.B. Collins ; former Chattanooga News Free Press journalist. : "FOUNDER OF THE FAITH - Preacher George Hensley, who founded the snake-handling faith near Dolley Pond in 1909, allows brethren to fashion a crown of snakes."

. Caption from the publication, Tennessee Snake Handlers...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

As he nears his 100th birthday on Sept. 24, James Bennett Collins, known by all as J.B., can look back with pride on 59 years as a reporter and photographer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

J.B. was a 1935 graduate of the old Central High School on Dodds Avenue. At Kings College in Bristol, Tenn., he majored in journalism, earned magna cum laude honors and was class valedictorian.

He joined the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1940 and covered a broad range of news during his career. He fit the observation of newspaper founder Roy McDonald that "newspaper reporters are born, not made."

During the 1940s, he wrote "Tennessee Snake Handlers," based on his investigation of the Pentecoastal sect that handled serpents. J.B. captured the drama of the snakebite experience in seeing preacher George Hensley at the Dolly Pond Church of God in Birchwood — with his crown of poisonous snakes — preside at the funeral of Lewis Ford, a husky 200-pounder in his early 30s. Ford had been bitten two days before.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

He wrote and photographed the "Battle of Athens" in August 1946. Returning World War II veterans in Athens and Etowah organized to defeat the entrenched political machine. Illegal practices of the bosses included charging innocent citizens with false offenses of speeding and public drunkenness to secure increased revenue through fines and court costs.

On Election Day, Collins witnessed corruption firsthand when "special deputies" substituted pro-administration ballot boxes for the original vote boxes. The original boxes were taken to the McMinn County Jail, which left the new ballot boxes to be illegally counted.

Collins photographed the illegal box exchange only to see his camera seized and film destroyed. He was incarcerated for two hours in the county jail. Gunfire erupted and several were wounded. Hand grenades and dynamite were thrown onto the porch of the jail. From his cell, J.B. heard the mob of veterans outside shout "let's hang them," and "no, let's shoot them." The deputies surrendered. The original ballots were counted, making the G.I. slate victorious over the machine candidates.

J.B.'s main beat for the Free Press was covering Chattanooga's city government. For most of his 59 years, he worked out of the mayor's office as "urban affairs editor." He knew the good and bad of many political leaders but respected their private lives unless it involved corruption. His style was to report strictly the news without the investigative fervor of his Chattanooga Times colleagues.

He was a close friend of the late Lee S. Anderson, publisher and editor of the News-Free Press. J.B. started working at the paper three years before Anderson began his 70-year tenure. The two shared a workplace for 55 years.

Mayor Jon Kinsey and his predecessors hosted a celebration recognizing J.B.'s 50 years with the Free Press in August 2000 at Chattanooga City Hall. The reporter responded, "You made my day made the rest of my life."

Mayor Ralph Kelley spoke of Collins' coverage of the sensational story, "Kelley's Raiders Seize General," when city officials kidnapped the famed Civil War locomotive rolling through Chattanooga on its return to Kennesaw, Ga. Chattanooga later lost the court case over ownership of the General.

Mayor Robert Kirk Walker pointed out that Collins had covered the administrations of 10 mayors — from Ed Bass through Kinsey.

Mayor Pat Rose thanked J.B. for "always giving an objective evaluation of the involved issue." Mayor Gene Roberts credited the reporter and his counterpart at the Chattanooga Times, Springer Gibson, for publicizing over two decades the air pollution problem in Chattanooga.

Finally, Kinsey, who had taken office with no previous political experience, credited J.B. for "being a treasure trove of facts about the history of Chattanooga City government."

In February 1991, the Society of Professional Journalists honored Collins and renowned radio personality Luther Masingill for their contributions to the media.

J.B. was an avid golfer and regularly walked and played at Brainerd Golf Course until the age of 96. "I enjoyed the game, but I wasn't very good," he confessed in 2017.

Collins can look back with pride on his career as a newspaper reporter in Chattanooga. Happy 100th birthday, J.B.

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. For more visit

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315