Bessie Smith Cultural Center | Chattanooga African American Museum

bessie smith cultural center

The Chattanooga African American Museum at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, reopened on June 25, 2021, to the public after being closed for fifteen months during the pandemic. The new museum vision, supported by its board and dedicated staff, displays the true history of African Americans in Chattanooga.

Incorporating new technology and exhibits has allowed the organization to better tell the story of African Americans in Chattanooga throughout history. The new vision and exhibits were made possible by support from numerous community partners in the Chattanooga area. Interactive kiosks, new exhibits, a children’s education corner and more give guests a new experience like never before. You can walk through Chattanooga African American history starting with Native Americans and slavery and up to today’s current events. The exhibits also include the story of Ed Johnson. Learn more about his life, followed by a visit to the new memorial honoring him. 

Ed Johnson Memorial Unveiled this Fall at Walnut Street Bridge

Ed Johnson memorial at Walnut St Bridge

On March 19, 1906, Ed Johnson woke in his third-floor jail cell to the possibility of hope. His execution, which had been scheduled for the following day, had been postponed. Johnson’s attorney, Noah Parden, along with attorney Emanuel Hewlett, had successfully argued before Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Marshall for a writ of habeas corpus. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court issued an order granting an appeal and astay of execution.

By 8 p.m. that evening, any hope that Johnson may have felt earlier must have turned to terror, then despair and finally resolve that he would die at the hands of a lynch mob. After being pulled from his jail cell and bound with rope, he was marched down Walnut Street to what was then known as the County Bridge. Once at the bridge, he was momentarily hoisted from the second span but was quickly shot down by numerous bullets. His body lay on the bridge after receiving 50 shots.

The story of Johnson and his attorneys changed the course of justice in America forever with a series of historic precedents and legal firsts. Ed Johnson was the first African American awarded a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the first ruling by the Court to acknowledge the rights of the 14thamendment applied to an African American man.

On Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, a little over 115 years since the lynching, the Ed Johnson Memorial will be unveiled at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge. The days-long dedication organized by the Ed Johnson Project (EJP) will include history panels, artist talks, art exhibits, and other experiences. The event will feature a keynote from the New York Times bestselling author and chair of Princeton’s Department of African American Studies, Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr.

“America is at a crossroads. We can choose silence and shame or remembrance and honor. It has been 115 years since the killing of Ed Johnson, and the time has come to bring honor to his name and to his brilliant and bold attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins,” said Donivan Brown, EJP Chair, ahead of the dedication events. The memorial will help ensure Johnson’s story and those of thousands of other lynching victims will not be forgotten. EJP aims to promote reconciliation and healing by engaging local communities in remembering Johnson’s story and reflecting on its implications for us today.

ed johnson

About the Artists

In March 2018, renowned artist Jerome Meadows was chosen to create the Ed Johnson memorial. His team includes local Chattanooga artists Roger Halligan and Jan Chenoweth and members of Ross/Fowler Landscape Architecture Urban Design & Planning. The memorial will have three, life-size bronze sculptures of Ed Johnson, Noah Parden, and Styles Hutchins, as well as story walls and space for contemplation. It will include sculptures dedicated to the other three victims lynched in Hamilton County.

Meadows is a full-time studio artist working and residing in a historic Ice House in Savannah, Georgia. Originally from New York City, he’s been living in Savannah since 1997. A graduate with a BFA degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA degree from the University of Maryland, Mr. Meadows has been self-employed as a visual artist and public space designer since 1992. His focus in the arts has been in the design and fabrication of large-scale public art projects, including site layout, landscape issues, along with the conceptualization and fabrication of sculptural components all fully integrated into a cohesive whole.

Encore Time: Music Returns to Station Street 


By Mary Howard Ade-Glover
Grab the kids, call your bestie, and head to Station Street to visit the new Songbirds launching this fall. The facility, located upstairs inside the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo that once housed the Guitar Museum (now closed), is being revived by the local nonprofit Songbirds Foundation. The space will operate as an interactive learning experience, a rental space, and a performance hall.

During daytime hours, you can learn about the guitar and Chattanooga music history. At night, the facility will operate as a music venue, hosting some of the best artists that tour the Scenic City. For guitar lovers, don’t fret. The new interactive learning experience offers tons of cool vintage and rare guitars, amps, and pedals for you to ogle. Rare guitars are sprinkled throughout the space, and a large celebrity guitar room features guitars owned and played by Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, Duane Allman, and many more.

In addition, there are numerous STEAM-based exhibits that teach visitors (of all ages) about the guitar and how it works. There are hands-on exhibits such as, Amplify, Pedal Power, Distortion, What is Sound? and many more. The space also provides several historical exhibits that spotlight Chattanooga’s vibrant music history, The Impressions whose career is rooted here, and the cultural impact of the electric guitar. The space also functions as a rental facility for holiday parties, rehearsal dinners, birthday parties, corporate meetings, or whatever you desire. 

The Songbirds venue includes a performance stage, audio equipment, giant LED screens as well as bar and catering packages. With the stunning vintage guitars on display, your event is sure to rock. At the heart of this new venture is a mission to spur the future of music. All profits generated from the space will support the Songbirds Foundation’s Guitars for Kids program, which provides thousands of free guitars, cognitive music therapy, and free music lessons to kids across the South.

Be sure to check out the Songbirds website to view its exciting lineup of concerts this fall. The 250-person venue offers a variety of seated and standing shows in an intimate setting, surrounded by some of the world’s rarest guitars. Songbirds opens Sept. 18, 2021. 


The original version of this article first appeared in a previous edition of our Magazine.


Chattanooga is rich in history, from the nation’s first and largest military park, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park; Ross’s Landing on the riverfront, a Cherokee removal site now memorialized by The Passage; the electronic map displaying the battle of Lookout...

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