Ghosts of Walnut Street Bridge
By Timothy George
On a sweltering summer afternoon in July 1998, my friend and Beeson colleague Robert Smith Jr. and I drove from Birmingham to Chattanooga, where we planned to meet the next day with local pastors and church leaders. The next morning we arose at five o’clock to take a walk around the city before the heat had become unbearable. As we drove down Market Street toward the Tennessee River, we passed the building that used to house Woolworth’s Five-and-Dime, the scene of ugly lunch counter confrontations between whites and African Americans during the early stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement.
We parked near the Tennessee Aquarium and began our walk along the riverbank. In the distance, blood-stained Lookout Mountain, the site of a famous battle during the Civil War, was barely visible in the haze of the early morning light. Soon we came to the historic Walnut Street Bridge, which at 2,376 feet is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world. There we were, a white man and a black man, walking together across this bridge, the swift currents of the Tennessee swirling beneath our feet.
We both knew that this bridge had a history and that we were a part of it. Robert Smith is the great-grandson of slaves from Washington County, Georgia. Some of their children may well have crossed this very bridge, built in 1890, on their trek toward what they hoped would be a better life in Cincinnati and Detroit. Chattanooga is my hometown. I grew up in a section of the city called Hell’s Half Acre, where poor whites and poor blacks lived side-by-side in the 1950s simply because they could not afford to live anywhere else in town. When I was a boy, my great-uncle Willie Nash recalled when, as a teenager some fifty years before, he had personally witnessed the lynching of an African-American man at Walnut Street Bridge. The name of that man was Ed Johnson, a 24-year-old laborer. The little-known story of his tragic death has been told in a book by Leroy Phillips and Mark Curriden, Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.
Accused of assaulting and raping a blonde and beautiful twenty-one-year-old white woman named Nevada Taylor, Johnson was convicted on flimsy evidence in a hastily arranged trial that left many wondering about the validity of the verdict. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court stepped in to stay the scheduled execution in order to allow further consideration of the case. But an angry mob of some seventy-five men stormed the county jail where Johnson was held. They seized him and then dragged him to Walnut Street Bridge, only a few blocks away. (Alfred Blount, another African-American man, had been lynched at the same spot in 1893.) Johnson was hoisted onto the second span of the bridge. When asked whether he would like to make a final statement, he responded: “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.” When the lynching rope gave way before the strangulation was complete, Johnson fell onto the pavement below. Uncertain that he was dead, one of the sheriff’s assistants fired multiple shots into his body. It was eleven o’clock at night, and the murderous mob dispersed as quickly as it had assembled. Around midnight, a horse-drawn cart from a “colored” funeral home came, and three men “scooped up” the mortal remains of Ed Johnson and carried them away. According to the coroner, his body had been riddled with more than fifty bullets from assailants.
Today, Walnut Street Bridge is a popular site for recreation and family outings. There is no marker to remind pedestrians and bikers about the lynching that took place there on the night of March 19, 1906. At the time, however, this event created quite a sensation and led to the only criminal trial ever conducted by the United States Supreme Court. President Theodore Roosevelt condemned the lynching and sent two Secret Service agents to Chattanooga to investigate the situation. As a result, Chattanooga Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, a former officer in the Confederate Army, was charged with criminal contempt. Shipp denied active involvement in the plot, but evidence indicated that he had connived in the lynching. He was tried by the Supreme Court, found guilty, and was sentenced to ninety days in a federal prison in Washington, D. C. After serving two-thirds of his sentence, Shipp was released early (for good behavior). He returned home to Chattanooga, where a crowd of some 10,000 local whites turned out to give him a hero’s welcome while a band played “Dixie” and “Home Sweet Home.”
On the Sunday before the lynching, several hundred Christians from St. James Baptist Church, a leading black congregation in the city, had gathered at the jail to worship and to minister to Ed Johnson. On this occasion, Johnson professed his faith in Christ and was baptized “according to the Baptist style”—presumably in the jailer’s bathtub. Johnson was received into the church by acclamation amidst rejoicing over the salvation of a new child of God. Many of those who witnessed the jailhouse baptism would be among the two thousand who trudged to Pleasant Grove Cemetery later in the week for Johnson’s funeral and burial.
We do not know what was said in African American pulpits on that first Sunday after the lynching. But we do have the text of a sermon preached by Pastor Howard E. Jones at the all-white First Baptist Church in Chattanooga on March 25, 1906. In a rhetorically charged address titled “Is Lawlessness a Cure for Crime?” Jones compared the lynching of Ed Johnson to the crucifixion of Christ:
Take your place in the gray dawn of that fatal Friday outside the Pretorium, where Pontius Pilate stands before the fury of a mob and presents the only sinless One who ever lived, and say, “Behold the man.” Hear the hoarse cry of that awful creature, the mob, as with gathering force it answers back, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And then stand forth and tell me if you hope by the force and fury of a mob to accomplish anything but to destroy the best and crucify the holiest!
Later, Jones’s house was set on fire.
Despite his defense of the rule of law and his stirring protest against mobocracy, Pastor Jones, like almost every other respected community leader in the South at the time, was a white supremacist. He began his sermon by noting simply as a matter of fact that “the white man rules in this community . . . he always has and he always will.”
Ninety-four years after Johnson was brutally murdered on Walnut Street Bridge, another trial took place in Chattanooga. This time his conviction and death sentence were overturned—alas, posthumously—in a Tennessee court of law. Criminal Judge Doug Meyer remarked, “It really is hard for us in the white community to imagine how badly blacks were treated at that time. It’s still a continuing struggle.” Sheriff Shipp’s grandson, who was alive at the time, expressed a contrary view. “It’s water under the bridge, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We can’t go back and undo things that were done ninety years ago.”
Two years after Robert Smith and I had first walked together across Walnut Street Bridge, we published a volume of sermons on racial reconciliation—an equal number of sermons by white and African American ministers. In the foreword he wrote for this book, the late Gardner C. Taylor referred to the anomaly—he used the word absurdity—“of the nation’s attempt to be sincerely religious and stubbornly racist at one and the same time.” The ghosts of Walnut Street Bridge are witnesses to that absurdity. We titled our book A Mighty Long Journey, from the traditional African-American prayer-chant:
It’s a mighty long journey,
But I’m on my way—
It is a mighty long journey
But I’m on my way . . .
Published at First Things, 7.13.15
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and, with Robert Smith Jr. and James Earl Massey, editor of Our Sufficiency Is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor
(Mercer University Press, 2010).