Chattanooga Women Who Made History
By Jennifer Crutchfield
When 19th-century booster Rush Montgomery declared Chattanooga “the funnel of the world,” people decried him as crazy. Now, over 150 years later, his predictions have come true, and the Scenic City has attracted fascinating people, including women who made history. From war heroes and feisty widows to land developers and suffragettes, these women’s lives are woven into the tapestry of Chattanooga’s story. Here are just a few of those women who called Chattanooga home.
Major Charity Adams
When the United States entered World War II, Fort Oglethorpe became an inductions center and a training center for the Women’s Army Corps. Major Charity Adams arrived there in 1942 to lead the 688th Central Postal Battalion, the first all-Black female unit deployed overseas.
After training at Fort Oglethorpe, the unit’s 855 women were to clear a two-year backlog of mail in the European Theatre and left Fort Oglethorpe for a harrowing trip across the Atlantic, pursued by submarines and plagued by seasickness. The WACs arrived in England facing unheated aircraft hangars full of undelivered mail, but their motto was “no mail, no morale,” and Major Adams and her team worked around the clock, sorting 65,000 pieces of mail each day.
Anna Safley Houston
Anna Safley Houston, Chattanooga’s “Antique Annie,” was born in 1876, and dropped out of school to take care of her siblings but possessed a quiet tenacity and spent a lifetime amassing what became the world’s largest collection of its kind. When she made her home in Chattanooga in 1904, Anna built a thriving property business while she grew her collection of “pretties.”
After the Great Depression wrecked her real estate fortunes, Anna’s eccentricities grew, and she took refuge with her massive collection, a shotgun, and her faithful dog in a barn she built. All walks of life visited Anna’s barn hoping to buy a treasure, turned away as often as they were welcomed according to her whim and hunger. She quietly amassed a collection that continues to awe the world and representatives from 100 of Chattanooga’s leading families became trustees of her gift to the children of Chattanooga, the collection that now is the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts.
Abby Crawford Milton
In 1920 Abby Crawford Milton was one of the women leading the campaign in Tennessee to approve ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ensuring that it became the 36th and deciding state to give women across the country the right to vote.
Born in 1881, Abby and her husband, George, were both suffrage activists during a consequential time for the women’s movement. George Fort Milton was editor of the pro-suffrage Chattanooga News and the couple shared three daughters and a passion for women’s rights. She earned her law degree, was president of the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Association and was the first president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee.
Before Bessie Smith became the “Empress of the Blues,” she came of age in a neighborhood on Ninth Street, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, called Blue Goose Hollow, singing on street corners to support her family. At age 18, she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, singing alongside the legendary Ma Rainey before she developed an international following and became a music icon.
Her contralto and showmanship launched her from poverty to international fame and before the Great Depression, Bessie was the highest-paid black entertainer in the world. Songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and “Backwater Blues,” were accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman. Bessie Smith was one of the biggest stars of the 1920’s and today her legacy is curated at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center with interactive experiences that introduce guests to Chattanooga’s African American history and the fascinating story of Bessie’s life.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in upstate New York and boldly entered Syracuse Medical College, earning a Doctor of Medicine, traditionally an all-male degree. When the Civil War broke out, she began working in Union tent hospitals in Virginia and then Tennessee, where she performed operations under fire at the Battle of Chickamauga. She was the first female surgeon in the US Army.
In April 1864, Mary crossed enemy lines to treat wounded civilians, was captured by Confederate forces and held as prisoner of war. Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas recommended her for the Medal of Honor, and she continued service as a suffragette, known for her pants, top hat, and bravery.
Mary Hardway Walker
Born into bondage in 1848, Mary Hardway Walker was 15 when the Emancipation Proclamation freed her, but she couldn’t read the document. She married, had three sons, and spent her life caring for others, cooking, cleaning, and dedicating time to serving her church. When Mary was 69, she and her family moved to Chattanooga and her service to her family, community and church continued.
In 1963 Mary joined the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement, a United Way program hosted at her retirement home. She was 114 years old, had outlived her husband and children, and was one of the last surviving former slaves. Regular classes, a dedicated teacher, and a courageous spirit guided the saga as Mary painstakingly studied and learned to read. She became known as “America’s Oldest Student,” her feat galvanizing people to learn to read across the country. Enjoying her final years as Chattanooga’s Ambassador of Goodwill, Mary became a celebrity, met two US Presidents, and inspired a legacy of literacy that is remembered today.
Emma Rochelle Wheeler
Emma Rochelle Wheeler grew up in Florida, becoming intrigued with medicine as a young child and meeting a lifelong mentor who encouraged her education. As a young widow, Emm attended Walden University and, in 1905, her childhood dreams became reality when she graduated from Walden University's Meharry Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical College. She married Dr. John Wheeler and together planned a move to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Walden Hospital served the black community, offering excellent medical care, during a time when the alternative was care in the basement of white hospitals. A booming success, they paid off the entire building debt in three years. Emma and her husband trained young, aspiring African American nurses, and founded the Nurse Services Club of Chattanooga. An avid advocate for women, she was part of the founding circle of the Pi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Chattanooga's first AKA chapter and in 1949, the Chattanooga branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) voted Dr. Wheeler the "Negro Mother of the Year."
Harriet Whiteside was born in 1824 and came to Chattanooga to teach music to a child of the city’s leading businessman, Colonel James A. Whiteside. Later, as his wife, she became his intellectual partner and when he died during the Civil War, she inherited his vast holdings. The widow became a force in the business community and started a battle of her own to challenge a rival turnpike company and control access to the Point, a drama notoriously known as the “War of the Mountain Roads.”
Arming her guards with shotguns to prevent public access to the breathtaking view, her actions showed Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times and Chattanooga icon, how important it was to protect land made sacred by battle. The conflict inspired him to preserve land that would become the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Park, a jewel of the National Park Service system.
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