70 Years Ago In Chattanooga, Billy Graham Took Down The Ropes That Separated Blacks And Whites

  • Tuesday, March 14, 2023
  • Earl Freudenberg
Billy Graham preaching at the Warner Park Field House 70 years ago
Billy Graham preaching at the Warner Park Field House 70 years ago
photo by George Burnham

Seventy years ago Chattanooga was preparing for the Billy Graham evangelistic crusade that would make world history. The daily meetings took place at the Warner Park Field House on Third Street from March 14 to April 15. It attracted thousands from all denominations.

Before the crusade started, the 34-year-old evangelist told ushers to take down the seating ropes that separated blacks and whites inside the large field house. When one of the ushers refused, Dr. Graham took them down himself ending his segregated meetings.

Southern Coach Lines ran buses every 15 minutes for two hours from downtown before the packed nightly services.

Dr. Graham came to the city after a group of Chattanoogans lead by the News Free Press’ Everett Allen heard the evangelist at Engel Stadium in 1950. Both pastors and laymen formed a committee and urged the preacher to conduct a month of services.

Broadcaster Luther Masingill remembers giving the evangelist a ride in his Model T from the fieldhouse to the Hotel Patten downtown where Dr. Graham’s team was staying. Luther said, “Mr. Graham with his long legs had a little trouble getting in my old car.”

WDEF Radio Chief Engineer Bob Briscoe said when Mr. Graham’s radio engineer got sick he was tapped to make sure the sermons were fed back to New York and Chicago over telephone lines for national radio broadcast, including the “Hour of Decision.”

Mr. Briscoe said Dr. Graham did his Easter Sunday, 1953 radio broadcast from Chattanooga. He said, “Billy Graham was very friendly but business-like. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”

The late New Free Press Editor Lee Anderson recalled Mr. Graham coming to the paper and asking publisher Roy McDonald if writer George Burnham’s articles could be used by the AP and UPI. Mr. McDonald said yes as long at the Chattanooga paper was given priority. Mr. Burnham’s stories were on the front page of the paper every afternoon.

Mr. Burnham went on to travel extensively with Dr. Graham and wrote several books about the popular traveling preacher. Several of Mr. Burnham’s newspaper stories (from Mr. Burnham’s daughter Lynne) have been posted on the Chattanoogan.com.

The Siskin brothers donated a lot of money to build the Warner Park Field House which has been used for many purposes since it was constructed. It still stand today and brings back many memories for those who attended the Graham crusades, many making life-changing decisions.

The late Earl Stevens, pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, was on the platform for most of the services. Rev. Stevens recalled meeting with Dr. Graham, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea. Radio Revival Pastor Rev. T. Perry Brannon and First Presbyterian Church Pastor Dr. James L. Fowle for morning prayer and coffee. Rev. Stevens said Dr. Graham gave him a signed Bible. Rev. Stevens said there will never be another Billy Graham, who dedicated his entire life to preaching the Gospel.

Former Cleveland, Tn., Mayor Tom Rowland corresponded with Dr. Graham several times because of his connections to the city. Dr. Graham attended Bob Jones College, now Lee University. Mayor Rowland said at the age of 19, Dr. Graham preached his first sermons in Charleston, Tn. The mayor met Dr. Graham after he and his wife were invited to attend the wedding of Dr. Graham’s daughter Gigi. The city renamed 15th Street Billy Graham Avenue.

The evangelist died on Feb. 21, 2018, at age 99 at his home in Montreat, N.C. He is buried in the Prayer Garden at the Billy Graham Library near Charlotte. Many of those who attended the 1953 Chattanooga crusade still reflect on the meetings and the impact on their lives.

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