John Shearer: More Than 75 Learn Unusual Facts At Black History Tour

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 - by John Shearer

The familiar and unfamiliar, and the uplifting and somber, were all highlighted Wednesday morning during a nine-block African-American historical tour that took more than two hours and covered about 200 years of history.


Put on by the National Park Partners as part of a grant received to put together a tour map, the event drew a larger-than-expected crowd of nearly 80 to hear about such little-mentioned places in black history as Tadetown and Camp Contraband.


“The attendance was incredible,” said Tricia Mims, executive director of National Park Partners, adding that they might have had even more if it had been on a weekend.


“It was really incredible the stories that came out about the hidden treasures.”


One such little-known fact was mentioned at the first stop outside the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park ranger Chris Barr explained how the current M.L. King Boulevard area became a haven for the black community.


He said that a white missionary named E.O. Tade had purchased some land around the Fort Wood area as a place for the numerous freed blacks to live, and they could secure loans for businesses and homes there.


“That turned it into a big, thriving African-American community,” he said.


Andy Mims, who alternated with Mr. Barr in speaking to the tour group of black and white attendees, told how this area that was centered on what was formerly known as Ninth Street became a thriving black cultural and business center.


“You had everything a community needed and more,” he said, mentioning the theaters, hotels and barbershops. “There was hustle and bustle with people spending money. Try to imagine what the place looked like.”


At the second stop at Miller Plaza overlooking the former Union Depot rail yards to the south and west, Mr. Barr talked about the more somber history before that, when even some local Cherokees had slaves.


And because Chattanooga was such a railroad hub, many slaves being traded from the upper South to the lower South likely passed through the station. And Mr. Barr said there was even a holding pen where they were kept while waiting to switch trains.


He read an old newspaper article pointing out that 600-800 slaves likely passed through Chattanooga on rail every week on their way to new destinations in the years before the Civil War.


“There was a lot of wealth in broken people passing through here,” said Mr. Barr.


Pointing westward down M.L. King Boulevard, Mr. Mims mentioned that in the early 20th century, the Westside of downtown Chattanooga uniquely had a cross-cultural mix of people all in one area. Prominent whites lived on Cameron Hill, while blacks lived in the shantytown-like Blue Goose Hollow. Those from such areas as the Middle East also lived nearby, he said.


“That was unique to see in a Southern town so long ago,” he said of the eclectic mix.


He added that some of the businesses closer to Market Street that also catered to blacks in the early 20th century were run by Jewish merchants.


Mr. Mims also mentioned the nearby Rogers Theatre, which, he said, some local blacks tried to integrate during the sit-in days, but tear gas ended up being used by local law enforcement officials. 


At the third stop, the former Carnegie Library at Georgia Avenue and East Eighth Street, Mr. Mims pointed to the nice door along Georgia Avenue and said that during the Jim Crow days of segregation, that was the entrance for black patrons. White patrons entered through the nicer and larger door on the East Eighth Street side, he said.


After the group reached the fourth stop on the northeast corner of the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn, Mr. Barr discussed the life of former freed slave William Lewis and how he made the iron shackles for the Andrews Raiders. They were housed at the nearby Swaim’s Jail.


He pointed out that Mr. Lewis’ historical marker on Market Street mentions his nickname of Uncle Bill, but that such a moniker was consider derogatory at the time. As a result, he asked if it is appropriate to have on the marker today.


“Little subtleties of racism still exist,” he said.


The Rev. John L. Edwards, who was on the tour wearing a Vietnam veteran hat, chimed in that an invitation to noted national black figure Booker T. Washington’s wedding was found in Mr. Lewis’ belongings. He thinks his wife may have been related.


Mr. Mims discussed the life of black newspaper publisher Randolph Miller here, saying he was interested in running a “gypsy taxi line” years ago during a local streetcar boycott he helped start. It was similar to the later bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala.


The tour group then got a break from the heat -- and an architectural treat -- by getting to go inside the historic and air-conditioned Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church across Lookout Street from the Unum headquarters building.


Built in 1887 after the previous one was burned down by suspected arson, the church was one of several that developed after the Civil War in Chattanooga and became black spiritual havens, the tour guides said. The churches also became centers of planning during the civil rights days.


One church member pointed out that Bethlehem-Wiley – which also featured colorful stained-glass windows and uniquely curved old wooden pews – was an early black church to get a large pipe organ in 1901.


Officials said it does not work well now, and some modern band equipment like drums are used.


The church was also where actor Samuel L. Jackson attended as a child and performed on the stage in a downstairs room, the member said. His mother also attended the church for a number of years.


The Rev. Willie D. Kitchens, the pastor, also welcomed the group and played a tape of an acoustical-style song he recorded about the life of Ed Johnson.


Mr. Johnson was the focus of the sixth and final stop at the Walnut Street Bridge. He had been convicted in the rape of a white woman – wrongly, most believe – and was lynched on the bridge in 1906 after he was given a stay of execution.


The incident had taken place 13 years after another black man named Alfred Blount was lynched there.


Mr. Barr believed that part of the reason that the lynchings occurred on the bridge was that another thriving black community for freedmen had developed after the Civil War on the present North Shore in a place called Camp Contraband.


He believes the Walnut Street Bridge was built in part in 1891 to help the blacks from that area walk easily to the various mill and factory jobs they had across the river, and the lynchings would be a daily reminder to them.


“It sends the message to everyone coming to work to know your place,” Mr. Barr said.


Eric Atkins, who has been among those pushing for an Ed Johnson memorial on the south end of the bridge, also offered remarks and said that such a marker could help bring about reconciliation.


“We can’t have any healing without truth telling,” he said. “We want our children to know we are better today than we were.”


Mr. Barr had ended his comments before Mr. Atkins’ by encouraging people to learn the past stories and those of today. “The challenge for you is to share your stories,” he said.


* * * * *


To listen to National Park Partners executive director Tricia Mims discuss the tour and its significance, listen here


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