A New Beginning: The Ed Johnson Memorial at the Walnut Street Bridge

A must-see in Chattanooga for tourists and locals alike is the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. Known as “The Walking Bridge” by Chattanooga natives, as you enter the bridge from the south near the Bluff View Art District, you’ll find the new Ed Johnson Memorial. In the early 1900s, Johnson was falsely accused by a white man motivated by a $375 reward. Wrongfully accused of raping a white woman despite a dozen witnesses stating Johnson had been working at a saloon, Johnson was still imprisoned. An all-white, all-male jury sentenced him to death. While Johnson was in jail, angry Chattanoogans transported Johnson to the Walnut Street Bridge, and he was subsequently hanged and shot over 200 times on March 19, 1906. It is to be noted that his last words, inscribed on his tombstone, were “God bless you all, I am an innocent man.” The memorial has been described not as closure, but a new beginning.

The memorial features life-size bronze sculptures of three men–Ed Johnson and the black attorneys who took his case to the Supreme Court, Noah Pardon and Styles Hutchins.

Additionally, the memorial includes a space for reflection and commemorations for three other victims of wrongful convictions followed by brutal killings in Chattanooga. 

The idea for the memorial was born in 1999, when the cemetery that Johnson is buried in was cleaned up and LaFrederick Thirkill learned of Johnson’s case. He then proceeded to write a play, “Dead Innocent: The Ed Johnson Story,” and began organizing meetings with groups around the country that were anti racist activists. Proceeds from the creative piece were used by Thirkill to begin the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship Fund. 

The project really took off in March 2018, when Jerome Meadows was selected to be the artist to honor Johnson’s life. The team included local Chattanooga artists Roger Halligan and Jan Chenowith as well as members of the Ross/ Fowler Landscape Architecture Urban Design and Planning. 

It has been acknowledged that this injustice will forever be a part of Chattanooga’s history. Pastor Paul McDaniels petitioned the Hamilton County Court to overturn Johnson’s conviction in 2000, and this petition was granted. Later, in 2016, the Tennessee House adopted a resolution honoring Johnson and labeling his lynching as “unjustifiable.” Finally, a sincere apology was issued by Mayor Tim Kelly on September 19, 2021 on behalf of the original offenders who hung Ed Johnson. 

To learn more about this memorial’s history and the significance it holds, not just for Chattanooga but for our country, check out www.edjohnsonproject.com.

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