In my wildest nightmare I cannot imagine the satanic last hours of Ed Johnson’s life. Oh, I knew the story, how a vicious mob stormed the unguarded Hamilton County jail back in 1906 to hang an almost certainly innocent black man from the Walnut Street Bridge. But not until last week’s meeting of the Hamilton County Commission did I have an inkling of its magnitude. It was mankind at its worst and a Child of God at his best.
Greg Martin, our county’s Commissioner from the Hixson area, knows the Ed Johnson story well. He’s even preached it on Sand Mountain. After I wrote a story, “Let’s Remember Ed Johnson” (Sept.
5), Greg was waiting for me before the commission meeting. I adored listening as he shared far more than I could ever know after he had carefully and meticulously studied the gut-wrenching story some years earlier.
A dedicated group, led by storied elementary school Principal LaFrederick Thirkill (Orchard Knob), is valiantly organizing an effort to build a memorial to Ed Johnson. It is hoped this martyr’s shrine will teach us, as well as future generations, that the scars from 112 years ago can become stars in our future. We must cherish good over evil in all of what we teach and what we learn.
Several years ago Greg wrote what he learned about the last night of Ed’s life. How the framed man was forced to listen as a mob took three hours in their criminal assault of the jail, how a female bootlegger in the next cell was unmerciful to him all the while, and how our Jesus instilled in Johnson a calm and peace to rival the Sea of Galilee. The commissioner shared his story about Ed Johnson’s final hours and it is absolutely brilliant:
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‘I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY. I HAVE A CHANGED HEART.’
By Greg Martin, Hamilton Co. Commissioner, District 3
There is a tragic and yet redemptive story in Chattanooga’s history that must never be forgotten. It revolves around the lynching from the Walnut Street Bridge of Ed Johnson on March 19, 1906 – 111 years ago. Ed was falsely accused of raping a white girl in front of where my church, Calvary Chapel Chattanooga, stands today (on South Broad Street.)
Ed Johnson was a 24-year-old black man and was accused of assaulting Nevada Taylor, the daughter of the man who was the sexton of Forest Hill Cemetery. To keep Johnson safe from a mob of angry citizens he was initially transported to Nashville to wait for trail back in Chattanooga. Later he was transported to Knoxville to await trial. In the Knox County jail he met Christ and found forgiveness for his sins on earth.
When Ed got back to Chattanooga he was tried and convicted of raping Nevada Taylor although there was no solid evidence. He was sentenced to die by hanging. In 1906 the State left executions in the hands of the Counties.
A couple of days before Ed was to be executed the sheriff asked Ed for his last request. Often prisoners would ask to visit their mom one last time. One prisoner asked to play cards all night long on the eve of his execution. Ed Johnson’s request was to attend St. James Baptist Church.
The sheriff refused that request for fear a mob might attack Ed. But the sheriff did allow the church to have a service that Sunday morning at the jail. Over 300 congregants came to the service. Ed requested the choir sing “There is power in the blood.”
After the preaching Ed said, “I have something to say. I have a changed heart. I am ready to die. The change came over me all at once and I can’t tell you how it was. Before the change, I hated the people who were against me. I couldn’t eat and could only think of the arrest and the trouble I was in. I didn’t want to talk or eat and didn’t want to see anyone,” he said publicly.
“All at once, I felt different,” he added. “I didn’t hate white people anymore. I pray every day for Miss Taylor. But I am not the one that did those things to her. I am not that man.”
The church had revival in the jailhouse. Ed was voted in the church and baptized that very afternoon by the minister of Saint James Baptist Church. The service was so powerful that the Chattanooga Times reported that “some of the women fell prostrate to the floor and one of them apparently going into a trance.”
Later that day the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution. That ruling just infuriated the people of Chattanooga like nothing else. A plot was set in motion for a mob to get Ed Johnson and execute street justice. 111 years ago that night the Sheriff, Joseph Shipp, left the Hamilton County Jail in the hands of one old man to guard all the prisoners. (All other guards and staff were told to leave.)
Johnson was being held alone in a cell on the third floor. There was only one other prisoner on the entire floor and no guards. In an adjoining cell was Ellen Baker, the only female prisoner in the jail that night. She was bootlegger from Polk County.
That night Ed Johnson was taken out and hanged by the mob on the bridge had to have been a terrifying night.
The rioters numbered over 250 when they stormed the jail and dismissed the old jailer. They beat on the locks and actually slowed the process of getting Ed Johnson. It would have all gone smoother if they had just taken the old jailer’s keys. It took them three hours to finally get to Ed Johnson. The woman in the cell next to him mocked him as they heard the commotion on the first and second floor. She and Ed knew what was happening.
She ridiculed him. She is reported to have said, “They are coming for you Negro. They are going to string you up!”
And they did. But do you know what Ed Johnson was doing that horrifying night? He was praying and singing hymns he had learned. Ed had a third-grade education and all he knew was the first four verses of the 23rd Psalm. That was the passage his mom said to him every night as a little boy.
He quoted those four verses, over and over, and prayed. The Chattanooga Times reported that Ed was the most calm person in the jail that night. In fact I love the marking on his tombstone on Missionary Ridge. It commemorates his last words hanging on that bridge, “God Bless you all. I am an innocent man.”
Ed Johnson could have this mindset because he knew the midnight wouldn’t last forever but heaven with Jesus would. You too can sing a song in the night when you remember who holds the morning.
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THE FIRST FOUR VERSES OF THE 23RD PSALM
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
THE OTHER TWO VERSES WE WISH ED JOHNSON HAD KNOWN
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
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THE ED JOHNSON MEMORIAL
It is planned to be at the south entrance of the Walnut Street Bridge, near the girder where he was hanged and shot down in a flurry of bullets. The Memorial Committee has asked the County Commission and the City Council for $100,000 apiece to help with construction costs and they have approached businesses, foundations and private citizens for support. Anyone wishing to give to “The Ed Johnson Memorial Project” can mail donations to the committee’s chairman: LaFrederick Thirkill, Principal; Orchard Knob Elementary School, 400 North Orchard Knob Ave., Chattanooga TN 37404
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THE BOOK ABOUT ED JOHNSON
In 1999 a local author, Mark Curriden, teamed with trial attorney Leroy Phillips to write the definitive book about Ed Johnson and the travesty of justice. Entitled, “CONTEMPT OF COURT: The Turn Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism,” the book is available on the Amazon website in various formats.