A group of citizens has formed a collective to honor the memory of a man who was lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906.
The Ed Johnson Memorial Project seeks to promote “racial healing and reconciliation in Chattanooga by creating a permanent memorial.”
The memorial would also honor the work of the attorneys who stood up for equal justice and the legacy of the landmark United States Supreme Court case that “established federal oversight of state-level civil rights issues then and now.”
According to project leaders, a permanent memorial is being proposed near the site of the lynching on the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge. In addition, the Ed Johnson scholarship-available to college sophomores of any race majoring in criminal justice-would be reliably funded. The third component includes the completion of a documentary called “‘I Am a Innocent Man’: The Ed Johnson Story” for use as an educational tool.
More information on the project is available here. Those interested can sign up for email alerts and learn how to get involved in the project.
Although plans for the project have been talked about for years, members anticipate at least two more years of work to complete every phase. But they are determined to see the project to completion.
“This is a story that changed the course of civil rights for the country,” said Mariann Martin, a project leader. “And the city where this happened has no acknowledgement of it.”
Project members think a formal recognition of the tragic event should be memorialized at the Walnut Street Bridge. They think the creation of a memorial would help people remember the past as we continue to envision a “brighter, more inclusive future for our city.”
In the coming months, project members will be working with Public Art Chattanooga on ideas for the physical memorial. Ideally, Martin said, the future art sculpture would be in an area with some benches and flowers. The display would also include a plaque describing the legacy of Johnson.
Martin said a good example of what they have in mind can be found in a similar art project to honor victims of lynchings in Duluth, Minnesota, although she said the Chattanooga installation could be much different.
“There are many memorials dedicated to the legacy of this chapter of our history,” Eric Adkins, a project member, said. “We’re looking through artist submissions and reviewing other memorials.”
Nearly 100 years after his murder, Johnson was formally cleared of his crime. In May, the state Legislature-led by Rep. JoAnne Favors-passed a resolution on the memory of Johnson and the events surrounding the ordeal. The Ed Johnson Memorial Project stemmed from that resolution.
“As a byproduct of that resolution, people around Chattanooga started coming together,” Adkins said. “There was a renewed enthusiasm for properly remembering this portion of our history. A lot of people were already doing work.”
LaFrederick Thirkill, a board member on the project, established the Ed Johnson scholarship in 2009.
On March 19, 1906, 24-year-old Johnson was murdered by a lynch mob of 1,500 people in Chattanooga. Johnson had been sentenced to death for the rape of Nevada Taylor and had been issued a stay of execution when the mob broke into the jail.
Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph Shipp, six of his deputies and nineteen individuals were linked to the mob and officially charged with contempt of court.
Johnson’s last words were “God bless you all; I am a innocent man,” which was the phrase etched onto his tombstone at Pleasant Gardens Cemetery. Almost 100 years after his murder, Johnson was cleared of the crime by Judge Douglas A. Meyers.
More than 2,000 people attended Johnson’s funeral the following day.
“The Ed Johnson story is an important part of the greater landscape of American history,” Adkins said. “At the turn of the century, there were terrible instances of mob violence and lynchings across the state.”
In 2015, a multiyear report from the Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings of blacks in Southern states between 1877 and 1950. That is 800 more instances than had previously been reported.
Johnson’s case is notable for several reasons. First, it marked the first time a black lawyer, Noah Parden from Chattanooga, argued the merits of a case before a sitting Supreme Court justice, John Marshall Harlan. Secondly, it marked the first time the Supreme Court held someone in contempt of court.
Click here to read a story from the National Endowment of the Humanities about the case.
Martin first heard of the Johnson story as a teacher. She read “Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism” by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips.
Many of her college-aged students, even those who grew up in Chattanooga, had never heard of Johnson or his story.
Thousands of locals and visitors to Chattanooga enjoy the Walnut Street Bridge every day without realizing the dark history associated with it.
“They would say things like, ‘How did we not know about this?’ and ‘Why doesn’t the community care?'” she said. “Seeing how passionate they were about it, I knew this was something we needed to do.”
Members of the Ed Johnson Memorial Project will hold monthly meetings to assess progress. Martin said she hopes others will get involved.
“The city has been very involved from the start and we have their full support,” she said. “This is a memorial for racial reconciliation-we’re not trying to drag up any kind of story. We all believe it’s very important for Chattanooga to recognize this part of history and find unity in recognizing and learning.”