Why I Got Involved in the Ed Johnson Project

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Eleanor McCallie Cooper and Dollie Hamilton share their story during an Ed Johnson Commemoration on the Walnut Street Bridge 111th years after Ed Johnson was lynched.

By Eleanor McCallie Cooper

My friend Dollie and I met at the Walnut Street Bridge to take a walk. We’d gotten no more than a few feet on the bridge when she said, “I can’t…I can’t walk across the Walnut St. Bridge without thinking about Ed Johnson.”

She seemed reluctant to go further.

I had read the book, Contempt of Court, about the lynching of Ed Johnson on the bridge in 1906 and the subsequent case before the Supreme Court. Leroy Phillips, a local attorney, and journalist Mark Curriden had published the book in 1999. It got a lot of attention when it first came out, but interest had waned and the book was out of print.

When Dollie brought it up, I hate to admit my first thought was “Dollie, that was over a hundred years ago. Why is it bothering you now?”

You see, my friend was African-American.

But fortunately I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “Why don’t we move over to the side and take a few minutes to remember him.”

Some runners passed us, and we walked over to the edge. Looking into the trees on the south end of the bridge, Dollie began to pray. She prayed for Ed Johnson. She prayed for his family. And she prayed for the community.

Our community. She prayed that our community would find a way to heal the past and live in the present as one community.

I was struck to the heart. For me, Ed Johnson was a part of the past—a terrible tragedy and a travesty to justice, for sure, but for Dollie, he was an innocent man whose life had been cut short and who left a grieving family.  He was part of a community torn apart by that tragedy. And the bridge was a reminder of a wound that had not healed.

After her prayer, Dollie and I continued our walk.

As we walked, we began to tell each other our stories—growing up in Chattanooga, our families, going to school…you see, we were the same age and had both been born here but had only met recently. Because of segregation in our early years, it was impossible to have known each other then. We’ve had very parallel lives with many of the same themes. We met because of Chattanooga Connected, an effort to bring blacks and whites together with the intention of building friendships. We both liked to walk, so we had decided to take a walk together. We continue to walk together every week. Ed Johnson was the start of our friendship, and from the first walk I had learned something very powerful from Dollie. When we heard about a group forming to create a memorial on the side of the bridge to honor Ed Johnson, there was no question in my mind—this had to happen and I wanted to help.