Chattanooga's Black Community from the Civil War through Jim Crow

  • Friday, June 22, 2012
  • Chuck Hamilton

This essay was inspired by a class I substituted in a couple of days one year at Howard High School in the late 1990’s.  The teacher for whom I was substituting taught American History, and the period the classes were currently in was the War Between the States, though this material here covers mostly the time from Reconstruction thru Redemption to Jim Crow.

My point in sharing the information was that blacks in Chattanooga in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century had much more power and control over their own lives than their descendants who marched, demonstrated, and were beaten and killed as part of the civil rights movement.

After conferring with the regular teacher, I stepped out into the hallway to view what some of the students had posted on the wall as part of this section.  They were to write letters posing as either a soldier in the field or a sweetheart at home, depending on their sex.  With just two of three exceptions, the students chose to identify as Confederates.

That may sound strange to some, but Tennessee was a Confederate state, after all.  It’s more about home and belonging and having every bit as much right to the history of their home as the descendants of those who oppressed them.

Chattanooga was very fortunate after the Civil War in that it experienced no outbreak of riots like that in Memphis 1-3 May 1866.  In that violence, 46 blacks and 2 whites were killed, 75 other persons were wounded, 5 black women were raped, over 100 people robbed, and 4 churches, 12 schools, and 91 houses were burned to the ground.  These “riots” were actually an invasion of the black shantytown near Fort Pickering by white policemen, firemen, laborers, and small businessmen.

Since September 1863, Chattanooga had served as headquarters for the Union Army’s Department of the Cumberland, and, later, beginning with the Atlanta Campaign, as rear base for its primary field component, the Army of the Cumberland, after serving as its bivouac in the winter of 1863-1864. 

From late 1863 through mid-spring 1864, five infantry regiments of the United States Colored Troops were transferred to Chattanooga, which became their base.  These regiments were the 14th USCT, 16th USCT, 18th USCT, 42nd USCT, and 44th USCT.  Not long after they all arrived, the five were gathered into the Department of the Cumberland’s First Colored Brigade. 

Far from being used solely for “fatigue duty” (manual labor) and other routine garrison duty, all the units did see combat.  The 14th USCT fought in the First Battle of Dalton, 14-15 August 1863, while the 44th USCT fought against the vanguard of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the Second Battle of Dalton on 13 October 1864.  The 14th USCT saw action again at the Battle of Decatur, 27-30 October 1864.  The 14th, 16th, 18th, and 44th USCT’s all fought in the Battle of Nashville, 15-16 December 1864, which put the final nails in the coffin of the above-mentioned Army of Tennessee as an effective field unit.

True, the 42nd USCT served as the primary garrison troops in Chattanooga, headquarters to the Department of the Cumberland, and a large part of their duties was to maintain fortifications there, build roads, construct Chattanooga’s first bridge, etc.  However, its soldiers were the primary anti-guerrilla force for the immediate region, particularly in North Georgia, though its sister regiments also provided such support on occasion.

In August 1865, the Department of the Cumberland ceased to be and its First Colored Brigade became 2nd Brigade, 4th Division, Department of the Tennessee, in which they were joined by the 1st United States Colored Heavy Artillery.  All five regiments demobilized in Chattanooga on various dates in the spring of 1866.  There, most joined the large population of former slaves who had migrated there in the wake of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea and concentrated at Camp Contraband north the Tennessee River.

(For more on African-American troops in the Chattanooga area during the Civil War, see Raymond Evans’ “Contributions of United States Colored Troops” in the local history section of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.)

With the Union occupation of the city after the end of the Chattanooga Campaign, two men, one a former slave who had earned enough money as a blacksmith to free both him and his family and the other his free-born nephew, spearheaded the business development among African-Americans.  “Uncle Bill” Lewis made himself wealthy by the end of the war, and his nephew, John S.

Lovell, was well on his way.

Bill Lewis’ primary business after the war was real estate, primarily for the former slaves who poured into the area in Sherman’s wake or migrated to Chattanooga afterwards.  Though he later joined his uncle business ventures, John S. Lovell’s wealth sprang initially from his grand Mahogany Hall, which occupied the block where Miller Park now sits.  Three stories tall, the establishment had a hotel, restaurants, saloons, casino, dancehall, and brothel.

Reconstruction in the State of Tennessee lasted only as long as the Parson Brownlow administration in Nashville, which ended in 1869.  Brownlow’s successor, Dewitt Senter, immediately removed all the legal disabilities against former Confederate soldiers and officials placed by the preceding administration and began rolling back of rights won by the freedmen.

The postwar population of Chattanooga was two-thirds African-American, and so was its city police force and its fire department.  In addition to the former Camp Contraband, which eventually became Hill City, Chattanooga black citizens occupied primarily its Fourth Ward in the years after the war.

Lewis and Lovell’s business and real estate ventures helped spur the growth of the black neighborhood along East 9th Street past the former Irish Hill area.  Along the north side of the street, the neighborhood that grew up came to be called Tadetown, while along its south side the neighborhood was known as Scruggstown.  Naturally, the avenue that ran betwixt the two communities became the focus of commercial and cultural life from an early stage.

In 1867, Congregational minister the Rev. Ewing O. Tade founded the first public school in Chattanooga, which also included its first public high school, Howard Free School, to serve the black community.  As such, Rev. Tade became the county’s first Superintendent of Education as well as being headmaster of Howard Free School, where his wife was one of the teachers.

Public schools for white children were finally established in Chattanooga in 1873, with the beginning of four district primary schools.  Superintendent Tade was summarily deposed, and his congregation sent him to California, where he served as pastor to the First Congregational Church of Ferndale.  Chattanooga High School opened in 1874 on East 8th Street as the second public high school in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

Several African-Americans served the region in various positions of city, county, state, and federal government.

Until 1900, the City of Chattanooga had a unicameral Board of Aldermen elected by ward, or which there were five.  African-Americans who served as Aldermen during Reconstruction, Redemption, and Jim Crow included Commodore P. Letcher (1868), M. Shields (1869), Clem Shaw (1870 & 1873), David Medlow (1871 & 1875), George Sewell (1871), R.P. McCronklin (1872), Robert Marsh (1873-1875), William C. Hodge ( 1878-1884), Hiram Tyree (1888-1902), George Shaw (dates unknown), and Charles Grigsby (dates unknown).

In 1900, Chattanooga adopted a bicameral form of government with the introduction of a City Council as its lower house.  Due to the way in which boundaries for elections were now drawn, it was nearly impossible for a black man to be elected as Alderman.  Three black men served as City Council before the city’s adoption of a commission form of government with members elected at-large prevented any more black men from being elected for years.  They were Eugene Reid (1900-1902), Hiram Tyree (1904-1911), and Charles Grigsby (1904-1911).

In 1911, the city ordinance mandating the commission form of government went into effect, only being overturned by the case of Brown v. City of Chattanooga in 1989.

Five black men served the Hamilton County Court before Jim Crow brought its hammer down, four as Justice of the Peace: Alexander P. Flowers, George Sewell, G.L. Nelson, and B.F. Whiteside (who served 1904-1910); and one as Circuit Court Clerk: John J. Irvine, who won election by 1400 votes over white candidates from both parties.  Hiram Tyree also served the county as School Commissioner for 10 years, as did Dr. T. Edinburg from 1904 to 1908.

Hamilton County sent two African-Americans to the Tennessee General Assembly during these years:  William C. Hodge, who served 1885-1886, and Styles Hutchins, who served 1887-1888 and was successful in repealing the poll tax for Chattanooga.

In addition to his stints as Alderman and Justice of the Peace, George Sewell, was the Federal Court Cryer in Hamilton County for 20 years.  Another black man, Henry C. Smith, served the county as its Federal Clerk, and he was a Democrat where most black men were Republicans.

Other African-Americans who served in various official capacities included Jim Hodge, Larkin Fralix, Marion Keith, Charles Bird, William Richardson, Isaac Allen, Woodson Weaver, Andy Thompson, and J.R. Franklin.

Of all these elected and appointed officials, unquestionably the most influential and longest-lasting was Hiram Tyree, who was boss of the Fourth Ward until being dethroned by Walter C. Robinson in 1928.

Styles Hutchins was one of three of the last African-Americans to serve in the Tennessee State Legislature until the civil rights movement of the mid-2oth century.

Until the beginning of the Jim Crow era (around 1890), segregation laws were largely local, such as the Chattanooga ordinance requiring segregated seating in its streetcars in the 1880’s (then horse-drawn).  These laws did not meet without protest.  On 7 September 1885, Chattanooga experienced its first documented lynching in its jailhouse after Charlie  Williams shot a street car driver who tried to enforce Chattanooga’s segregated seating ordinance.

As Jim Crow raised its ugly head across the South in the form of state laws mandating segregation in public accommodations and transportation along with introducing such voter restriction measures as poll taxes and literacy tests, Alfred Blount has dragged from the Hamilton County Jail and hanged from the Walnut Street Bridge 14 February 1893.  He was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman.

At the beginning of the 20th century, African-Americans in Chattanooga were concentrated in the neighborhoods of Tadetown and Scruggstown along E 9th Street, in parts of East Side, the area from Georgia Avenue to East End (later Central) Avenue.  On the West Side, between Cameron and Academy Hills and the river, they lived in the shantytowns of Blue Goose Hollow (north of West 6th, later West 9th, Street) and Tannery Flats (south of the same street).

In the suburbs, African-Americans lived in Lincoln Park (between East End Avenue and the railroad tracks), Bushtown (the first all-black municipality in Tennessee), Churchville, Rosstown (behind Parkridge Hospital), Fort Cheatham (between Ridgedale and East Lake), the Gamble Town section of Saint Elmo, and north of the river in the municipality of Hill City (between Manning Street, Stringer’s Ridge, and Forest Avenue).

In the wider Hamilton County, African-Americans occupied the communities of Chickamauga (Shepherd), Shot Hollow, Turkey Foot (an organized municipality), Hawkinsville, Black Belt (south of Harrison), Black Ankle (south of Ooltewah), Summit, and Bakewell (between Soddy and Sale Creek).

The black community in Chattanooga and Hamilton County did not take its subjugation lying down.  African-Americans here chose nonviolent resistance.  In a foreshadowing of the later Montgomery bus boycott, blacks in Chattanooga and its suburbs boycotted the segregated streetcars of the three trolley companies in the city in July 1905. 

In place of these, enterprising individuals ran “hack lines”, horse-drawn trolleys from such suburbs as Churchville, Tannery Flats, St. Elmo, and Fort Cheatham.  The leaders of the boycott were Alderman Tyree and Randolph Miller, editor of The Chattanooga Blade, which was a nationally-syndicated publication.

In 1906, a black man in St. Elmo, Ed Johnson, was accused, arrested, and convicted on faulty evidence of sexually assaulting a female resident of that suburb.  Two black lawyers, the former Assemblyman Styles Hutchins and Noah Parden, approached former judge Lewis Shepherd to help them with Johnson’s appeal and in the meantime to get a stay of execution.

Their attempt for a stay was successful.  It was the first time in the history of the Supreme Court that it had intervened directly in a state criminal case.  However, on 19 March 1906, a crowd stormed the jail, overwhelming the single guard present who tried to resist, dragged Johnson out to Walnut Street Bridge, hanged him, and shot him several times.  Sheriff Shipp and others were indicted for violating Johnson’s civil rights.  Judge Shepherd defended them; they were convicted but given light sentences. 

The next year, Shepherd successfully won acquittal of a black man, Floyd Westfield, who had shot the local white constable, Lon Rains, on Christmas Eve 1905.  Rains at the time was attempting to invade the home of the old woman with whom he (Westfield) was staying near, armed with a pistol and by testimony of his companions intent on using it.  The events were the result of Rains having been disturbed at a Christmas party at Walnut Grove School (on South Gunbarrel Road) by firecrackers and Roman candles shot off by guests at the house.

Shepherd also worked on the writ of habeus corpus in the Leo Frank case in Atlanta.

Once the commission form of government and at-large elections were in place in Chattanooga in 1911, no black man had a chance of being elected to office.  The next significant attempt by a black man to be elected to office was in 1930, when Mark Coad of the Communist Party ran for city judge.

In 1915, the municipality of North Chattanooga took the ultimate step in segregation.  The town and its neighbor to the immediate east, Hill City, were separated by Forest Avenue.  North Chattanooga’s main street was Tremont Street, while Hill city’s was Spears Avenue.  North Chattanooga’s town council passed an ordinance that forbade any African-Americans not already residing within its borders from living there. 

They also changed the name of Forest Avenue to Forrest Avenue in honor of former Confederate general Nathan Bedfo0rd Forrest.

You may remember that year, 1915, as the one in which D.W. Griffith’s movie “The Birth of a Nation” premiered across the U.S. and became the first film ever screened in the White House, at the request of then-President Woodrow Wilson.  It was also the year that Indiana native William J. Simmons, inspired by the movie, inaugurated the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the Georgia town of Stone Mountain.


Chuck Hamilton>


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