CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – In 2018, Georgian artist Jerome Meadows was shortlisted for a formidable project: a public artwork commemorating black victims of the lynching for permanent display in a bustling area of Chattanooga, a predominantly white southern town with a dark history of racial violence.
The memorial, which will be unveiled this weekend, specifically honors Ed Johnson, a black man who was hanged from the city’s Walnut Street Bridge by a mob of lynchers in 1906.
Johnson had been wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. After the United States Supreme Court ordered a stay of his execution, a mob broke into Johnson’s cell and hanged him from the nearby bridge.
Johnson’s murder led to the first and only criminal trial in Supreme Court history. The court found six white men, including Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, in contempt of court. Johnson’s name was cleared by a Hamilton County court in 2000, nearly a century after his death.
Meadows’ work features a bronze statue of Johnson, who stands alongside lawyers Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, black men who risked their lives to appeal his conviction. Johnson appears to be on the move, walking away from the scene of his murder. There is a noose under his feet. Along a slope that descends to the Tennessee River, Meadows fashioned silhouettes of figures that represent other black men who were lynched in Hamilton County. Commissioned by an organization in Tennessee called the Ed Johnson Project, the work was done in conjunction with Knoxville-based landscape architectural firm Ross / Fowler. (South Carolina-based artists Jan Chenoweth and Roger Halligan also helped design the project.)
Efforts to gain approval and public funding for the memorial after the formation of the Ed Johnson Project in 2016 initially met with some resistance from residents and community leaders who did not feel there was a need to display the the city’s shameful past in such an important place. Hamilton County Commission members ultimately voted to spend $ 100,000 on the project. The city of Chattanooga and dozens of private donors also contributed funding.
By the end of the 20th century, memories of the atrocity had faded, especially in white Chattanoogans. The bridge was redeveloped as a pedestrian path in 1993 and is today considered a gem of the growing city, a popular location for marriage proposals and family photos.
The Ed Johnson Memorial, a short walk from the scene of the lynching, seeks to bring history to light.
Meadows, a New York-born artist who has worked from his studio in Savannah, Georgia, since 1997, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and holds an MFA from the University of Maryland. Along with landscape architect Roberta Woodburn, he also designed the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth, NH. Recently, he spoke about his new job at Chattanooga and the challenges he had to overcome to complete it.
How do you think people will react to this memorial?
From the start, some people did not think this memorial should be created. They didn’t think it should be created there because this pedestrian bridge is a positive experience. Why do you want to create something that talks about such a dark event? But then I heard that there were actually members of the African American community wondering whether or not this should happen. Why do we want to revisit these things? Maybe it’s because I’m from New York, I was prepared for pushback. But that never happened. We need to let the whole city know that this is something that we believe in, that is positive and that will be adopted by the city.
As an artist who has designed other pieces for public spaces across the country, can you say what makes a monument worthy of public art?
By its very nature, public art is a cultural weapon. It’s best served by being at a level that people feel they can relate to. I dispute, for my own work, the very term “monument”. The monuments are people – mostly white – on pedestals. Whether they are white or black or whatever, it takes them out of human existence. Ed Johnson and his lawyers are there downstairs. You are heading towards them. You walk among them.
How is your personal style reflected in this memorial?
I prefer more poetic artwork than prose that prompts you to draw from yourself, but shapes that challenge you to think, what is it supposed to be? Ed’s arms are a bit over the top because he was a laborer. Noah [Parden], who ascended to Washington, stands like a warrior. He is looking at the bridge for his vision to be corrected. Noah is courage. fashions [Hutchins] is compassion. He holds out his hand, aside from the fact that he couldn’t hold on to Ed.
When you first designed the Ed Johnson statue, no one knew what he looked like. What did you want her face to express?
Ed’s face was the hardest part of this whole project. He made it easy in a way because you read the story and you know what he’s going through. As I try to build her face, I struggle with my own anger. But I realized I couldn’t just turn him into an angry black man. If you project the anger forward in terms of speech and interaction, it will only create more chaos. But if you project dignity forward, that’s what made it possible for these people to survive all this horror, all this abuse. His eyes rise above the situation. He is high above it all. The noose is a hot spot when it comes to the issue of racial injustice. I hope that would spark a conversation that would require some degree, if not responsibility, of perspective.
After you started, a photo of Ed Johnson appeared. Did you feel pressured to change jobs?
I care less whether he looked like Denzel Washington or my Uncle Joe, and more what his attitude is. Let this young man stand before this voracious crowd that insists that he admit his guilt and say, “God bless you all. I am an innocent man. There is a story that transcends specific physical details. This is what I was working on in my studio and all of a sudden this photograph appears. You can’t even see half of his face. As far as I’m concerned, this photograph is questionable at best. I believe I accomplished Ed Johnson – not only in his face, but also in his posture. He moves away from that experience. His hand is stretched forward so you can take his hand and feel like you’re with him.
The Ed Johnson Memorial will be unveiled as Southern communities demolish ancient Confederation monuments. What do you think of this moment of racial and historical awareness?
These monuments to the Confederates were not designed, developed or sanctioned in the same way as that of Ed Johnson. You have a diverse sample of a community that comes together and decides, “It’s worthy. One of the things that I find unacceptable is seeing the crowd degrade public art. At some point, a crowd mentality could decide that Ed Johnson is unacceptable. If we are able to degrade or demolish the idea of a culture’s symbolism, then what will stop a different group from thinking that they have a right to do the same? I would rather see what happens in Richmond, Virginia where it was understood that the cultural significance of these monuments was offensive and politically it was determined that it should be removed. The difference is between a crane that lifts it up and ropes that pull it down and push it into the river.
Do you think it is important that this work was designed by a black American artist?
Yes. It seems that there was this vocation in my education and the environments in which I lived, which really put me on this trajectory. I witnessed police brutality. I saw a young black man handcuffed to the ground being shot in the late 1970s. I lived in an environment where this despair was rampant. If you don’t have these [in your life] maybe the emotional or psychological connection is not so deep.