Cooper: Telling the Chattanooga stories

Cooper: Telling the Chattanooga stories

November 19th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

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If you could mine the brains of Chattanooga area residents about significant people, events and changes in the Scenic City over the past century or so, what would you want to know?

The Chattanooga Memory Project (, a collaboration between the Chattanooga Public Library and Pass It Down, soon will launch a platform where stories, photos, videos, oral histories and other memorabilia from residents and organizations can be collected.

Although it will be open to everyone, how it will be accessed and the parameters of exactly what can be included are not available yet. But our imaginations are flowing freely on some of the memories we'd like to see there. Here are 12 suggestions:

-The World War II exploits of Charles Coolidge that earned him a Medal of Honor have been detailed many times in print. But hearing him recount them would bring a chilling realism to future generations who will know the name of Coolidge Park but not have any idea about the man for whom it was named.

-Chattanooga is deservedly proud of the efforts it made moving from one of the most polluted cities in the country to today's envied outdoor mecca. Since the dirty old days were as recently as the early 1970s, longtime residents will be able to describe an inability to see downtown from Missionary Ridge and the light gray matter one might get on one's skin from walking around downtown.

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-The saga of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins that spurred the end of segregated businesses and public facilities in Chattanooga has often been told in print and documentary. But what do those who were not a part of those sit-ins remember about the days when "colored" water fountains and "colored" restrooms existed and blacks would not be welcome in certain schools, businesses and clubs?

-Most Chattanoogans are familiar with the Chattanooga Choo Choo as a hotel, but they don't know anything about its past as a railroad station, one of two in the city. Yet the last passenger train only pulled out of the city in 1970, so many people remain alive who can describe the lively activity in either the Terminal (Chattanooga Choo Choo) or Union stations.

-Jim Ogden, historian for the Chickamauga-Chattanooga Military Park, is a walking database of local Civil War history. Having him either in general or in specific relate any aspect of local battles or the people, places and minutiae surrounding them will enhance anyone's understanding of the area's role in the war.

-Much of the area that is today Chickamauga Lake was once communities with homes, churches and small businesses. Since Chickamauga Dam didn't open until 1940, residents who lived, worked and played on the now-flooded land are alive to tell about what they remember before, during and after the coming of the Tennessee Valley Authority project.

-The Walnut Street Bridge is today a popular pedestrian bridge and the North Shore one of Chattanooga's most popular neighborhoods. But the bridge closed to automobile traffic in 1978, and what was then more widely known as North Chattanooga was a neighborhood most people wanted to avoid. The resurrection of the bridge and the neighborhood both make good stories.

-Today we're used to hearing about the "Ridge Cut," the "Split" and other clogs in our interstate arteries. But the interstate highways we take for granted in and around Chattanooga weren't built until the late 1950s and weren't complete for about a decade. What used to be where these major thoroughfares are now? Many people around today can fill in the details.

-Sonia Young, known widely by many area residents as "The Purple Lady," grew up in a Chattanooga downtown heavily populated with Jewish small businesses. Hearing her describe her family's part in that world paints a picture of part of the diversity in the city in the late 1930s through the 1950s.

-A little more than a century ago, Cameron Hill was one of Chattanooga's more fashionable neighborhoods with large homes and wealthy residents. In the 1950s and early 1960s, a city redevelopment project removed large portions of the eastern and southern portions of the hill and sheared off its top. Longtime residents can describe for future generations what the area now occupied by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee used to look like.

-M.L. King Boulevard, when it was known as Ninth Street, once was a thriving entertainment district for Chattanooga's black population. Seasoned residents can speak with authority on its theaters, nightclubs, music and restaurants.

-How fun would the early days of television have been? In Chattanooga, WDEF was first on the air in 1954, then WRCB (then WRGP) in 1956, then WTVC in 1958. Hearing from local TV pioneers about their efforts in local programming, their bloopers and the rapid advancement of the technology would be both interesting and instructive.

As Pass It Down founder Chris Cummings noted in a news release about the launch of the Chattanooga Memory Project, "You assume that somebody, somewhere is archiving all of these things," he said, "but they aren't"

Now they can be. We hope this project will attract this area's storytellers — experts, sure, but also the average resident telling his or her story. For we can be sure that what we know from yesterday can help us tomorrow.

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