By Jillian Waterhouse, Staff Writer—
As Friday, March 19, 2021 marked the 115th anniversary of the murder of Ed Johnson, influencial Chattanoogans gathered to pay their respects and acknowledge how things have, and have not, changed in the intervening years.
On March 19, 1906, Ed Johnson was brutally mob-lynched and shot by over 50 bullets on the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga. Following an unjust trial with a biased jury, he was the second man to be hung in this location, after the death of Alfred Blount. Prior to his murder, Johnson was arrested and sentenced to death for the rape of Nevada Taylor, a white woman. During trial, Taylor refused to claim Johnson as her assailant, yet Johnson was found guilty nonetheless. On the night of March 19, Sheriff Shipp left Johnson unguarded in the Hamilton County Jail. Over a three hour period, a mob formed and broke into his cell using an axe and a sledgehammer. The mob then kidnapped Johnson and took him to the Walnut Street Bridge where he was hanged. The location of Johnson’s lynching was intentional, chosen as a warning sign for black commuters who often used the bridge to travel into the city.
115 years later, the Walnut Street Bridge has become a major tourist attraction in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. While the bridge draws in visitors from across the country, most do not learn of its intertwined relationship to Chattanooga’s history of racism.
The Ed Johnson Project was formed in 2016 with the intention to tell his story—a story that changed the trajectory of Chattanooga history, as well as the American judicial system. In the aftermath of Ed Johnson’s wrongful death, the Sheriff’s contempt of court in the case was scrutinized, as he allowed a mob to take and lynch Johnson with virtually no protections. It was this public criticism that led to United States v. Shipp (1906)—the only criminal trial to ever take place at the Supreme Court, and one that established federal oversight of civil rights issues at the state level. By amplifying the voices of local community leaders and activists, the Ed Johnson Project seeks to achieve racial healing in Chattanooga through accountability of the city’s often overlooked past. Through celebration and public acknowledgement of the work of those who fought to achieve civil rights in Chattanooga, such as Johnson’s attorneys, the Ed Johnson Project sees a brighter future for the city.
The 115th anniversary of Johnson’s lynching did not go by silently. In the early hours of the afternoon, members of the Ed Johnson Project committee gathered by the Walnut Street Bridge in his commemoration. Broadcasting to Chattanooga residents on Facebook Live, the committee shared words regarding Johnson’s death and his influence on the city, which is still felt over a century after his passing. Donivan Brown, chair of the committee, hosted the commemoration in front of the construction site of the Ed Johnson memorial—a key priority of the committee.
The memorial was designed by Jerome Meadows, a local artist who spoke at the commemoration.
“Seeds were planted 115 years ago with the death, the murder, of Ed Johnson,” Meadows said. “Although silence buried those seeds for so long, the truth is reemerging.”
The memorial, which will include life-size sculptures of Ed Johnson and the two attorneys who fought for his right to life, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, has only recently begun construction. But Chattanooga had already acknowledged their involvement with this violent injustice once before. Ninety-four years after the lynching of Ed Johnson, Johnson’s conviction was overturned by Judge Doug Meyer of Hamilton County’s Criminal Court. Arguments for his overturned sentence centered around the injustices of Johnson’s trial, including an all-white jury and the location of the trial, which remained in Chattanooga though there was heightened publicity about the case in the city. In 2018, Jerome Meadows was chosen to create the memorial in honor of Ed Johnson, almost two decades after the city’s admission of injustice.
In honor of the 115th commemoration of Johnson’s death, community members contributed their acknowledgments both over Zoom and in-person. Ternae Jordan, senior pastor of Mt. Canaan baptist church, led the commemoration with a prayer. Next, Nicole Coleman, a local theatre performer currently involved in Chattanooga ArtsBuild’s Community Cultural Connections program, performed a rendition of “Trouble of the World.”
Most famously performed by Mahalia Jackson, the meaning of this hymn has remained moving over time with lyrics like, “soon it will be done/trouble of the world/going home to live with God.” The hymn rings particularly true in memory of Johnson’s last words before he was mob-lynched, “God bless you all, I am an innocent man.”
Andy Berke, an ardent supporter of the Ed Johnson Project and two-time mayor of Chattanooga, was present at the commemoration. Berke’s words connected Johnson’s death to the continued unjust and racialized deaths across the country. On March 16, just three days prior to the commemoration, six asian women were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, marking a sharp increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
“This is not just about the past,” Berke said. “It’s about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It’s about Atlanta in the last couple of days—This is the reality in America still today.”
In 2019, nearly 60% of hate crimes were racially motivated. By 2020, hate crimes against specific communities, such as Asian Americans, had risen by 150%.
LaFrederick Thirkill, a local educator and member of the Ed Johnson committee, commented on the divisive state of America today.
“I hope that this memorial inspires people to come together and sit and have conversations about ways to continue to improve race relations, not only in Chattanooga, but throughout the country,” Thirkill said.
Though Ed Johnson’s murder occurred over a century ago, his story remains mirrored across America. While Chattanoogans are finally learning of his story, racially motivated murders are on the rise. The Ed Johnson Project hopes Chattanoogans may look to the past and learn from its injustices, particularly those occurring in their own communities. Eric Atkins, a local organizer, historian and founding member of the Ed Johnson Project, sees hope through the tragedy. Atkins spoke of water, a commodity that has become increasingly representative of racial inequality and justice in America. This connection was arrived at thanks in part to events like the Keystone Pipeline protests and the long-term lack of clean water in Flint, Michigan, a primarily black community. Atkins compared Ed Johnson’s story to drawing water from a well, gaining relief, emotional healing, and cleansing.
He said, “This well will not run dry because hearts will be moved.”