by Chris Bunton
I traveled recently to Chattanooga, Tennessee for my honeymoon. While there, we spent some time checking out the sights, seeing Lookout Mountain, and all the history of the place. While I was there I also worked on a piece about the Serial Killer, Joseph Paul Franklin who had blown up a synagogue in Chattanooga, and traveled the country on a killing spree.
While doing the research for the Franklin piece, I ran across several references to a couple of lynchings that had occurred on the Walnut Street Bridge, in downtown Chattanooga. Two black men had been hung from the girders of the bridge. Alfred Blount in 1893 and Ed Johnson in 1906— Both were accused of raping white women.
The bridge is one of the center points of the city. So, I went down town to the river front to check it out. I walked across the bridge which spans the Tennessee River. It leads to a neighborhood full of restaurants, cafés, and art studios, on the other side.
As I crossed the bridge, I was struck by the fact that there was nothing that spoke of what had happened. I was researching the incidents, and expected to find some kind of plaque, or memorial, but there was nothing; at least nothing that I found.
Alfred Blount was lynched on Feb. 9th, 1893. He was accused of assaulting Mrs. M. A. Moore.
Within 30 minutes of the attack, a description was given and a search party formed. They arrested Blount and placed him in the jail.
On the night of the lynching, there was a show going on at the local theater. The mob broke in to the jail, against resistance from the sheriff and deputies. Blount was taken to the bridge where he was beaten, hung and shot.
The local newspaper of the time, describes the event like this,
“Last night while 1,000 people at the opera house were paying tribute to the magnificent beauty of Spain’s adorable Carmencita, 1,000 men but two blocks away were taking the course of the law from the law’s own hands. 1,000 men had surrounded the county jail and despite the determined resistance offered by the county and city officers, more than 100 of the crowd led by cool and deliberate men battered down the street door of the prison, broke the steel locks and bolts of the prison doors, and lifting from its cogs the cell door, behind which Alfred Blount was crouching, dragged him to the street below. As Carmencita left the stage 1,000 pairs of hands clapped praise. The echo of the applause had scarcely died when the yell of the populace outside could be heard within the house of amusement. The plandits inside spoke praises for a woman, the plandits outside meant death for a wretch at the hands of an outraged and indignant community.”
Blount’s widow sued Chattanooga over what had happened. I have not found whether she won or not.
In a similar fashion, Ed Johnson, a black man, was lynched from the same bridge, in Chattanooga on March 19th, 1906. He was accused of raping Nevada Taylor, a white girl.
On the night of his arrest the jail was surrounded by a mob, but Sheriff Shipp was able to talk them into letting the justice system take its course. They relented, and the Sheriff moved Johnson to another jail.
Johnson was tried and found guilty. He was sentenced to death. However, several local attorneys felt that the evidence was severely lacking and that the atmosphere surrounding the case, along with an all white jury brought question upon the conviction. So, they appealed Johnson’s case, and the Supreme Court ordered a stay of execution.
It was then that the mob formed again, and took Johnson to the Walnut Street Bridge where he was hung and shot.
After the lynching, a member of the mob pinned a note to Johnson’s shirt saying “Justice Harlan, come get your n***** now.”
The federal government was appalled. President Theodore Roosevelt had his own secret service agents do an investigation, and swore to bring mob members to justice. The Supreme Court actually held a trial; the first in its history, and found Sheriff Shipp along with his deputies in contempt of court.
Ed Johnson’s conviction was overturned in Feb. of 2000.
In 2021, due to the efforts of the Ed Johnson Project, the city of Chattanooga decided to build a memorial to Ed Johnson, Alfred Blount, and Charles Williams, who is another lynching victim in the county. It is due to be finished in the spring of 2021. Update: It was erected in September of 2021.
Sources, and further reading:
Bio: Chris Bunton is a writer, blogger, and poet from Southern Illinois.
Photos by the writer.