This April 19 marked exactly four decades since one of the more somber events in Chattanooga’s history of trying to become a more racially harmonious city.
That was when five black women were injured from gunfire coming from a passing automobile carrying three men on Ninth Street, now M.L.
One of the victims was Fannie Mae Crumsey, who was injured from flying glass while working in front of her home at 808 E. Ninth St.
Granddaughter Juanita “Missy” Toney recalled her family’s life being emotionally damaged for a brief period as well afterward.
But 40 years later, Ms. Toney does not talk with a feeling of vengeance regarding the perpetrators, who authorities said had racist motivations. As an admitted Christian, she even discussed forgiveness and possible future reconciliation regarding the three men, saying her career as a mental health counselor has made her realize their actions were likely due to personal issues they were experiencing at the time.
She primarily wants people to remember her late grandmother and wants her positive legacy to endure.
“She taught us love and unity and that education was important,” Ms. Toney recalled.
Back in February, Randolph McLaughlin, a lawyer who represented Ms. Crumsey and the other four women in a subsequent federal trial related to the case, spoke at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center through the efforts of UTC graduate student Tiffany Herron.
I covered the event, in which Ms. Toney also made brief remarks about her grandmother.
In my effort to identify the several women who spoke, and without the help of a printed program, I accidentally had the name of Ms. Toney and another speaker reversed in a photograph, and Ms. Toney later emailed me.
We had a nice brief phone conversation, I told her I would get the names switched in the online chattanoogan.com, and she agreed to look back on her grandmother’s life in connection with the 40th anniversary in a followup story.
We ended up talking over the phone on April 23, a few days after that Sunday anniversary. Of course, something called the coronavirus pandemic had occurred not long after a crowd of 150 or more packed the central entrance area of the Bessie Smith Center on Feb. 20, and lives had been distracted.
As she talked, Ms. Toney said that in April 1980, she was 9 years old and lived with her mother, Annie Mae Crumsey, and her grandmother, and other extended family in the large, still-standing home that had two living units.
“Grandmother had raised us,” she said. “To her, no one could raise you better. She loved us enough to want to raise us.’
She added that her grandmother even took in other families on occasion, and her home was known as the place to go for those needing to briefly get back on their feet. She said an Asian family just getting settled in Chattanooga even lived with her for a period, and Ms. Toney said they were jokingly called the Asian cousins.
Ms. Crumsey liked to take care of her yard almost as much as her family, and Ms. Toney even has some of her old bulbs, etc. She liked to work in her yard sometime after dark, and that was why she was outside on that Saturday night when the shooting took place.
Police charged Bill Church, Larry Payne and Marshall Thrash in connection with the shooting of her and Viola Ellison, Lela Mae Evans, Katherine O. Johnson and Opal Lee Jackson. Authorities said the other four had been leaving a nightclub near Ninth and Douglas streets and were shot shortly before Ms. Crumsey was.
In a trial that July, Mr. Church and Mr. Payne were found not guilty, while Mr. Thrash was sentenced on a lesser charge. The soft verdicts set off outrage among those in the black community, and rioting that made national news for several days took place in such areas as Alton Park.
The case did end up having some positives, as the women received a favorable judgment in a subsequent federal jury trial in 1982.
And by then, Chattanooga leaders realized the city did need to show better outward compassion for all its citizens and perhaps create better harmony. So, the renaming of Ninth Street as M.L. King Jr. Boulevard and the Riverbend Festival/Bessie Smith Strut were indirect offshoots of the incident.
When the 1980 shooting incident occurred, Ms. Toney said she remembers another adult making sure she and the other children stayed upstairs and did not come downstairs, in case more shots were coming.
“I remember the police and everyone came,” she said. “Yes, we were nervous and yes we were scared.”
Her grandmother was able to recover, she said, and learned authorities had linked both shootings. Ms. Crumsey realized that by pushing for justice and doing her part to testify, she could help others, her granddaughter said.
“She had made a decision that it is not about her, it’s about the rights of others,” she said, remembering that her grandmother even spoke in Washington, D.C., on one occasion. “That’s what she was doing, making a better world for others.”
Ms. Toney also remembered that when news reports referenced that the other four women were shot after walking out of a nightclub, and some criticized the women for such behavior, her grandmother became agitated.
“She would say, ‘They were coming out of a nightclub and they were supposed to get shot?’ That really motivated her. Nobody has the right to get shot at.”
Ms. Crumsey had learned to stand up for herself and others at an early age. A hard worker in jobs ranging from working at a baking facility to housekeeping, she had seen a young son get killed after being hit by a garbage truck in the Onion Bottom area around 11th Street.
The tragedy led to an agreement with the city of Chattanooga to hire members of her family and offer more city job opportunities for black Chattanoogans.
She would later have to raise other younger family members, and along the way command respect from everyone, despite her 4-foot, 11-inch height.
Ms. Toney said she was such a positive role model and encourager for everyone, preaching love, justice and the importance of making something of yourself.
Ms. Toney’s mother, Annie Mae Crumsey, died in October 1980 from cirrhosis of the liver and other complications just after the shooting and criminal trial, and Ms. Crumsey became the youngster’s surrogate mother.
The granddaughter remembers having to go on to the now-closed Joseph E. Smith Elementary on 10th Street, even right after the shooting, before later attending Northside and Chattanooga High.
She graduated from UT-Chattanooga – with her grandmother at her side – and had thought about getting into TV journalism and even interned at WTVC Channel 9.
“I was going to travel the world and be bigger than Joan Lunden,” she recalled with a laugh of the noted former ABC “Good Morning, America” host.
However, she soon had a change of heart and realized she wanted to more directly help people as her grandmother did.
So, she received a master’s degree – with her grandmother on hand for this graduation, too – and became a licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider.
“It took me back to my grandmother,” she said of getting into that line of work. “That’s what it’s about, helping others and bringing the community together.”
Besides helping others, she also wants to help her grandmother’s legacy endure in some way. The old homeplace at 808 E. M.L. King Blvd. is still there and is currently being offered for lease, and Ms. Toney said she would love to see it turned into a museum for maybe her mother and the other women shot in the 1980 incident.
She and some of Ms. Crumsey’s other grandchildren have also talked about starting some kind of foundation to maybe help troubled youngsters between the ages of 11 and 25, who have come from broken homes or other negative situations.
“We want to give back by helping to educate and offer skill training and show love, just the same as she did,” she said.
Caring for all was her grandmother’s goal, and it continued and became even more a part of her philosophy after the shootings of 1980, her granddaughter added.
“After something as traumatic as that, she still promoted love and unity,” she said of Ms. Crumsey, who died on April 25, 2005, at the age of 84 and was buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery next to her veteran husband, James Crumsey, who died in 1964.