Over 200 people gathered last Sunday for the ceremonial unveiling of a bronze sculpture honoring Ed Johnson, falsely accused of rape and lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906.
Artist Jerome Meadows created the statues of Johnson and his Black attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, who appealed Johnson’s case to the Supreme Court after white lawyers refused.
Meadows revealed the statues with the help of Howard High School students Roy Miles and Trinity Smith.
Event chair Donivan Brown declared Sunday’s persistent rain to be “tears of joy from heaven” during the 3 p.m. dedication, held at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga.
Mayor Tim Kelly read a proclamation of apology from the city of Chattanooga for the miscarriage of justice against Johnson, inspiring a standing ovation.
“It was a gross injustice,” Kelly said. “I think this process of reconciliation is really critically important for the city.”
Keynote speaker Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, acknowledged the rarity of communities coming together to recognize, “A profound wrong, a wrong that haunts.”
“Over 100 years later, though it may be, this act to remember Ed Johnson–what happened on that fateful day–helps clear the path for a different way of being together here in Chattanooga,” Dr. Glaude said.
Eric Atkins, co-chair of the Ed Johnson Project, cited the dedication as a time for remembrance and reconciliation.
“When I think of this memorial, I think that it’s gonna stand as a symbol to where people learn that we are far better together than we are divided,” he said.
LaFrederick Thirkill, longtime Hamilton County educator and a leading advocate for telling Johnson’s story, said some memorials are designed to evoke emotion, while the Ed Johnson memorial is intended to educate.
“Seeing Ed Johnson walking away from the noose and being set free–or being just beyond the reach of the justice system–is beautifully illustrated in this memorial,” Thirkill said.
“I know there are going to be people who might be upset about it, be it Black people who are upset that it happened or white people who are upset that it’s acknowledged; but those conversations are healthy because then you can examine why you have those feelings, and when conversations happen, it gives you the opportunity to see it from a different perspective.”
In 1906, Johnson, a Black man, was wrongly accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. His attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed his execution. But a bloodthirsty mob dragged Johnson from his jail cell and hanged him from the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga.