CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In 2018, the Georgia-based artist Jerome Meadows was selected for a formidable project: a work of public art memorializing Black victims of lynching for permanent display in a bustling section of Chattanooga, a majority-white, Southern city with a dark history of racial violence.
The memorial, to be unveiled this weekend, specifically honors Ed Johnson, a Black man who was hanged from the city’s Walnut Street Bridge by a lynch mob in 1906.
Johnson had been wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. After the U.S. 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 the history of the Supreme Court. The court found six white men, including Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, guilty of contempt of court. Johnson’s name was cleared by a Hamilton County court in 2000, nearly a century after his death.
Meadows’s work features a bronze statue of Johnson, who stands with the attorneys Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, Black men who risked their livelihoods to appeal his conviction. Johnson appears to be in motion, walking away from the site of his murder. A noose lies beneath his feet. Along a slope that descends toward the Tennessee River, Meadows has fashioned silhouettes of figures that represent other Black men who were lynched in Hamilton County. Commissioned by a Tennessee organization called the Ed Johnson Project, the work was completed in collaboration with the Knoxville-based landscape architecture firm Ross/Fowler. (The South Carolina-based artists Jan Chenoweth and Roger Halligan also contributed to the project’s design.)
Efforts to secure approval and public funding for the memorial after the Ed Johnson Project formed in 2016 initially faced some resistance from residents and community leaders who didn’t think it was necessary to display the city’s shameful past in such a prominent place. Members of the Hamilton County Commission ultimately voted to spend $100,000 on the project. The city of Chattanooga and scores of private donors also contributed funding.
By the end of the 20th century, memories of the atrocity had faded, particularly among white Chattanoogans. The bridge was refurbished as a pedestrian path in 1993 and today is considered a gem of the growing city, a popular place for wedding proposals and family photos.
The Ed Johnson Memorial, mere feet from the location of the lynching, seeks to bring the history to light.
Meadows, a New York City-born artist who has worked from his studio in Savannah, Ga., since 1997, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and holds an M.F.A. degree from the University of Maryland. With the landscape architect Roberta Woodburn, he also designed the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth, N.H. Recently he spoke about his new work in Chattanooga and the challenges he faced to complete it.
How do you expect people will respond to this memorial?
From the beginning, there were some people who didn’t feel this memorial should be created. They didn’t feel it should be created in that location, because that walking bridge is this positive experience. Why do you want to create something that speaks to such a somber event? But then I heard there were actually members of the African American community who questioned 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 make it known citywide that this is something that’s believed in, is positive, and it will be embraced by the city.
As an artist who has designed other pieces for public spaces throughout 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 on a level that people feel they can relate to it. I take issue, in terms of my own work, with the very term of “monument.” Monuments are people — white, mostly — up on pedestals. Whether they’re white or Black or whatever, that removes them from human existence. Ed Johnson and his lawyers are right there on ground level. You walk up to them. You walk among them.
How is your own personal style reflected in this memorial?
I prefer artwork that is more poetic than prose, that engages you to draw from yourself, but forms that challenge you to think, What is that supposed to be? Ed’s arms are a bit exaggerated because he was a laborer. Noah [Parden], who went up to Washington, is standing like a warrior. He’s looking at the bridge so his vision is fixed. Noah is courage. Styles [Hutchins] is compassion. He’s reaching, except for the fact that he couldn’t hold on to Ed.
When you first designed Ed Johnson’s statue, no one knew what he looked like. What did you want his face to convey?
Ed’s visage was the most challenging part of this entire project. He made it easy in one sense because you read the story and you know what he’s going through. As I’m looking to construct his face, I’m struggling with my own anger. But I realized I could not simply turn him into an angry Black man. If you project anger forward in terms of discourse and interaction, it’s just going to create more chaos. But if you project dignity forward, that’s what enabled these individuals to survive all of that horror, all of that mistreatment. His eyes are rising above the situation. He’s elevated above all this. The noose is a hot spot when it comes to the question of racial injustice. I would hope that would trigger a conversation that would ask for some degree, if not of accountability, perspective.
After you began, a photograph of Ed Johnson did emerge. Did you feel under pressure to change the work?
I’m less concerned about whether he looked like Denzel Washington or my Uncle Joe, and more with what his attitude is. For this young man to stand before this ravenous mob who’s insisting that he admit guilt, and say, “May God bless you all. I am a innocent man.” There’s a story that transcends specific physical details. That’s what I was working on in my studio and all the sudden this photograph shows up. Half his face you can’t even see. As far as I’m concerned, that photograph is dubious at best. I believe I have accomplished Ed Johnson — not only in his face, but also his posture. He’s walking away from that experience. His hand is extended forward so you can take his hand and have a sense of being with him.
The Ed Johnson Memorial will be unveiled as communities in the South are tearing down old monuments to the Confederacy. How do you feel about this moment of racial and historical reckoning?
Those monuments to Confederates were not devised, developed or sanctioned in the same manner that Ed Johnson’s was. You’ve got a diverse cross section of a community coming together and deciding, “This is worthy.” One of the things I do find unacceptable is to see the mob defacing public art. At some point a mob mentality might decide that Ed Johnson is unacceptable. If we’re able to deface or tear down one culture’s idea of symbolism, then what’s to stop a different group from feeling they have the right to do the same thing? I would prefer to see what’s happening in Richmond, Va., where it was understood that the cultural meaning of these monuments was offensive and politically it was determined that it should be removed. The difference is between a crane lifting it as opposed to ropes pulling it down and kicking it into the river.
Do you think it’s important that this work was designed by an American Black artist?
Yes. It seems as if there was this calling in my upbringing and the environments in which I lived, that really set me on this trajectory. I’ve witnessed police brutality. I witnessed a young Black man handcuffed on the ground get shot in the late ’70s. I’ve lived in an environment where that hopelessness runs rampant. If you don’t have those [in your life] maybe the emotional or psychological connection isn’t as deep.