By the same Walnut Street Bridge where black man Ed Johnson was lynched and shot in 1906 after most believe he was wrongly accused in the rape of a white woman, another crowd gathered Sunday afternoon.
But this time, it was to lift him up, not bring him down.
Amid a backdrop of newer residential buildings, Chattanooga showed it had taken on a new attitude as well from 115 years ago with the dedication of a new memorial statue to Mr.
Johnson and his attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, next to the vintage bridge.
Not even a drizzling rain that began falling again after the program began could put a damper on the event. In fact, the wet weather seemed to have a symbolic cleansing image, with one speaker calling the raindrops tears of joys.
Project chairman Donivan Brown thought the gathering was indeed a special moment.
“Today is not about death,” he said. “It is about resurrection.
“The last thing Ed Johnson saw on this bridge were hundreds gathered to take his life. The ones here today are gathered to honor his life.”
Mr. Brown was one of several speakers who offered remarks during a nearly 90-minute program that culminated with the unveiling of the three-part statue by Howard School students and a walk across the bridge toward Coolidge Park. The statue is said to symbolize grace, courage and compassion.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly called the day of dedication a long time coming.
“115 years ago in this city and in this place, a miscarriage of justice and a horrific act of violence set into motion a historic series of events that would make its way to the Supreme Court and set a landmark precedent for civil rights cases across the country,” he said.
“The lynching of Ed Johnson was a terrible but essential chapter in Chattanooga’s history and a chapter that for too long has been downplayed and dismissed.”
The mayor also read a proclamation saying, “I, Tim Kelly, do hereby issue a proclamation apologizing to Mr. Ed Johnson for the miscarriage of justice that occurred on March 19, 1906.”
The proclamation was met with applause by the several hundred people in attendance on the south end of the bridge.
Local school administrator LaFrederick Thirkill, who had also written a play about Ed Johnson, was given applause at the start of his talk for his longtime work on the memorial project, which began more fully in 2015.
He called the piece of work by Georgia artist Jerome Meadows a great way to tell the story of what happened.
“Ed Johnson’s story is not like a book that can be folded and put on a shelf anymore,” he said. “This piece of story stands before you and tells itself everything.”
After a song, “Strange Fruit, sung by Jacquie Ramsey accompanied on the keyboard by Marcus Dotson, keynote speaker Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., an African-American studies professor at Princeton University, challenged America and the South to continue to improve itself.
“America will not change and Chattanooga will not change until it re-examines itself and discovers what it truly means by the words, democracy and freedom,” he said, “and that we understand both words as practices and not as ends.”
Georgia sculptor artist Mr. Meadows, who created the memorial with support from Ross/Fowler landscape architectural firm and Jason Medeiros of Pointe General Contractors, read a poem with the words, “We see Ed Johnson walking,” about aspects of the man’s life. Mr. Meadows asked audience members to recite the line with him.
One of the lines in this poem that he said came to him while planning the memorial went, “We see Ed Johnson walking, restored and honored his footsteps sounding along the stream of time.”
Eric Atkins, another longtime memorial proponent, closed the program with some contemplative and uplifting thoughts about the memorial and Chattanooga.
At one point he said, “Every now and then when I walk across this bridge, I can see Ed Johnson and feel his spirit.”
Former Mayor Andy Berke received applause on one occasion for his backing of the project, as did the late local civil rights leader the Rev. Paul McDaniel, who had pushed for Mr. Johnson’s case to be reversed about two decades ago.
Also attending the ceremony was U.S. Sen. and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.
The 1906 case, which had periodically been mentioned in newspaper stories of recent decades but was brought more to the forefront with the 1999 book, “Contempt of Court,” by local attorney Leroy Phillips and journalist Mark Curriden, stemmed from a January 1906 incident.
A white woman named Nevada Taylor said she was walking home near Forest Hills Cemetery when, she told authorities, she was attacked and raped.
Ms. Taylor said that she did not see the perpetrator’s face during the incident, but someone claimed to have seen Mr. Johnson near the trolley stop that night and he was arrested.
Despite witnesses who testified to his innocence and that he was elsewhere, he was convicted by an all-white jury.
Black attorneys Mr. Parden and Mr. Hutchins filed an appeal, but it was denied. However, a stay of execution was allowed by the governor and later by a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice on grounds of his constitutional rights being violated.
However, a mob broke into the County Jail on Walnut Street, which stood until the 1970s, and took Johnson to the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, where they attempted to hang him and later shot him.
The U.S. Supreme Court the next year put 25 members of the mob on trial for contempt of court in what was the first criminal trial the U.S Supreme Court has ever heard. Six were sentenced in the case.
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To hear Mayor Tim Kelly’s comments Sunday at the dedication, Click here.
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