The State of Black Chattanooga: A Tale of Two Cities

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By Camm Ashford 

A scathing report released Wednesday afternoon by the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga during a news conference paints a bleak picture for Blacks living in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

The “State of Black Chattanooga,” the Urban League’s inaugural report on the dismal condition of African Americans living in the area, points out “numerous large and serious aspects of gaps in parity (equality) between Black and White populations in the city and region.”

The report uncovers a “tale of two cities,” said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly.

“Today, we’re facing two fundamentally different life experiences,” Kelly said during the 1 p.m. news conference at the Kingdom Center, 730 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. “It’s two Chattanoogas.”

The Rev. Dr. Ernest Reid, Inaugural State of Black Chattanooga co-chair, compared the status of the city’s Black residents in 2022 to the African Americans in 1787 who were subjected to the “Three-fifths Compromise,” which allowed a state to count three fifths of each Black person in determining political representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Black Chattanoogans experience only about 60% of the wellbeing outcomes that White residents enjoy,” Rev. Reid, pastor at Second Missionary Baptist Church, explained. “This three fifths of wellbeing presents a significant verdict on the progress which is lacking for quality of life for Black Chattanoogans.”

Citing the report and fighting back tears, Candy Johnson, the Chattanooga Urban League’s first female president and CEO, noted that “no one could tell the truth about Black Chattanooga but Black Chattanoogans.”

She continued, “The challenges of developing and maintaining an equitable environment for Black Chattanoogans are many, varied and real. The quality of life experienced by Blacks and Whites in Chattanooga differs widely from one another in terms of economics, workforce, health, education, civic life and many other areas.”

Highlights of the “State of Black Chattanooga”  include: Black Chattanooga mortgage applicants are denied (27%) almost 108% more often for conventional mortgage loans compared to White applicants (13%); median Black family income is around half of White family income; Black Chattanoogans have 3 times the mortality rate from diabetes and hypertension compared to White Chattanoogans; Black women face a significantly elevated rate of poverty in Chattanooga, triple the overall poverty rate; and looking at the Class of 2020, only 21% of Black students graduating from Hamilton County high schools were deemed as “Ready Graduates,” compared to 53% of White students. 

“Chattanooga is not keeping pace with other Tennessee metropolitan areas for the Black population in median income, educational attainment, homeownership and overall quality of life,” Rev. Reid said. 

“Left unaddressed, inequality dampens overall growth and generates a wide range of adverse social consequences. To work toward racial equity, we must work to eliminate policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that perpetuate unfavorable outcomes for the quality of life of Black Chattanoogans.”

In response to the “State of Black Chattanooga,” Mayor Kelly said he plans to “address affordable housing,” “jumpstart the local economy” and “focus on early childhood development.” 

John Edwards III, Chattanooga News Chronicle founder and president, served on the State of Black Chattanooga Exploratory Committee.

Since 1982, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga has been an affiliate of the National Urban League, the nation’s largest community-based organization devoted to empowering African Americans and other underserved individuals to enter the economic and social mainstream.