Roy Exum: Let’s Remember Ed Johnson

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Some time ago, when I first learned a group wanted to put some sort of plaque on the Walnut Street Bridge in memory of a black man who had been wrongly and viciously hanged there, I was against it. Why should we celebrate mankind at its worst, a brazen mob riddling Johnson’s lifeless body after he was dead to the point bullets actually severed the hangman’s rope?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the County Commission meeting last week a group of those intent on erecting a suitable memorial explained their intentions and asked Hamilton County for a donation of $100,000. After I have taken the time to learn the story, I wish a statue could be erected instead of a plaque because it is a history lesson not just every student should know, but every adult as well.

Better yet, after the commission meeting I was lucky enough to walk out with one of the principals in the project who has quietly earned my respect in recent years, Eric Atkins. Eric, who is black, was aware I don’t believe that tearing down a statue accomplishes anything, yet with merriment flashing in his eyes, he wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if Chattanooga could give the country another lesson?”

And, yes, yes it would. Eric is a history scholar. Not only does he quietly speak with authority, he has a grasp for the stark realization America hasn’t always done what’s right. For example: “I am really torn on removing Civil War statues … the Civil War was wrong but we must never forget 620,000 Americans died. If we tear away history, does the lesson also disappear?”

I stand as living proof of Eric’s theory. I’ve lived in Chattanooga for 68 years but only because a determined group is intent on building a monument to Ed Johnson’s horror, have I learned in just the past two years why his is a story the world should use in bettering the lives of all of us.

In December of 1905 there were several incidents that triggered claims of a “black crime wave” in Chattanooga, heightened when a black gambler shot and killed a Chattanooga police officer on that Christmas Eve. With tensions high, the daughter of the Forest Hills Cemetery caretaker got off the streetcar in St. Elmo and was walking to the family cottage on the grounds.

Suddenly and without warning, the young woman was attacked by an unknown assailant, the rope he wrapped around her neck causing her to lose consciousness. She testified she didn’t see the man but believed he was black. Key point: She believed he was black, but not for certain. According to a witness, Ed Johnson was later seen near the trolley line with a leather strap and was the second suspect arrested by Sheriff Joe Shipp.

That same night, a mob of about 1,500 confronted the jail, wanting vigilante justice, but Hamilton County Judge (mayor) Sam McReynolds, told the ringleaders Johnson has already been transferred to Nashville for his safety. Both the sheriff and the county judge promised justice.

What ensued was a mockery of a trial. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death. The hanging was scheduled for March 13 but a stay was ordered by Tennessee Governor John Cox until March 20. Then, on March 19, as black attorney Noah Parden appeared before the Supreme Court, Justice John Marshall Harlen issued another stay until the nation’s highest court could hear an appeal.

Citizens in Chattanooga were still seething. This was black-on-white rape over a hundred years ago. On March 19 a more sinister act took place. The night guards at the jail were allowed (or ordered?) to leave and the only person at the jail was an elderly night jailer, Jeremiah Gibson.

Between 8:30 and 9 p.m. the relentless mob used a sledge hammer and an axe to enter the unguarded jail and, unchallenged, grabbed Ed Johnson. Sheriff Shipp soon showed up and his protests were worthy of vaudeville.  He didn’t even draw his pistol and was taken to a jail restroom and told to stay in it until he had permission to come out. His reply: “Yes sir.”

Ed Johnson said before the hanging, “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.” At the base of his grave marker are the words, “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.” When bullets severed the hangman’s rope, an easily-identified deputy sheriff knelt beside Johnson’s body and, at point-blank range, emptied the cylinder of his  revolver into Johnson’s head. That is when someone else pinned a note to Johnson’s body: “Justice Harlen, come get your (n-word) now.”

Sheriff Shipp, in the only criminal trial heard by the United States Supreme Court to this day, was found in contempt of the court and spent 90 days in jail. He was welcomed home a hero. In February 2000 Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Doug Meyer overturned Johnson’s verdict on grounds the case was heard by an all-white jury and the fact that undue publicity and mob rule made the proceedings grossly unfair. At that time, mind you, Johnson had been dead 94 years.

* * *

In front of the Hamilton County Courthouse there is today a bust of Civil War Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart, not because he was an outstanding Confederate but because he was the first “commissioner” of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefield parks. He was an immensely popular man in Chattanooga at the time and the statue was actually dedicated in 1919.

So last week Eric Atkins wondered why couldn’t the Stewart statue and an Ed Johnson tribute (yes, it most certainly needs to be more than a plaque) coexist … this within a forgiving city steeped in history, both good and bad. The nation marveled at “Chattanooga Strong” after a terrorist zealot killed five in the military here in July 2015.

What if we could take the life lessons learned from the Civil War and the shameful death of an innocent martyr and show, when properly applied, that what we have learned and embraced is indeed what has forged a nation?

As ever-wise Eric Atkins just asked, “What if we could teach our country another lesson?”

Glory. I say glory!

A $100,000 donation is a drop in the bucket compared to an educated mind. Approve this request on the first reading. Let’s teach our nation another lesson.

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