By Jenelle Pierce, Staff Writer–
It’s no secret that Chattanooga has experienced change over the past 30 years that few other cities have seen happen so swiftly. The improvements to the city’s infrastructure and economy are bringing new life that is welcomed by the people of Chattanooga. However, with these changes, many believe there is a risk of erasing some of the rich history that exists in the streets of this city.
The roots and history of Chattanooga are exactly what the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation aim to preserve. On Oct. 5th, 2019, the two organizations joined together to host the Big 9 Roots Festival, which aimed to celebrate and bring awareness to the cultural importance of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
M.L.K. Boulevard was formerly known as Ninth St. It was renamed in 1981 to honor the fallen civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Decades before the renaming, Ninth St. was bustling with black businesses and entertainment 24 hours a day. It became known as “Big 9” at a time when segregation was the law and the street was a gathering place for the African-American community in Chattanooga. It was at this time that artists like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole could be seen performing on the strip. It was also home to the largest African-American hotel in the South, The Martin.
Elijah Cameron, Director of Community Relations at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, spoke about the importance of Big 9 and how The Bessie Smith is taking charge of telling African American history in Chattanooga.
“Ninth St. was the mecca of all black businesses… pharmacies, night clubs, grocery stores, everything that you would want,” he said, “[It] was a place where African-Americans could come and enjoy themselves without any retributions.”
Cameron went on to explain, “The reason we are doing this is because things have changed in Chattanooga. The street has become very diverse, which is very good–we embrace diversity–but we also need to make sure that we continue to preserve and present the history that was made long before it became M.L. King.”
The festival was a 12-hour long event complete with musical performances, vendors, and pieces of history scattered throughout. There was even a chop wiener cook-off and a line dancing contest, each with first place prizes of $1,000.
Major performers included Peace, Love, and Happiness, a cover band that’s been performing since the 70’s, and local soul artist and R&B producer Wilson Meadows. These artists, along with the other talents throughout the day, gave attendees a taste of what could be heard in the Big 9’s glory days.
Today, M.L.K. Blvd still has its struggles. Many of the buildings are left vacant as property owners are nervous about potential erasure of the history of the area and still feel the stigma left behind from the in-between years, when the strip fell victim to violence and drugs. However, more community leaders are hopeful that the area will once again become a pillar in Chattanooga’s community.