By John D. Pierce
The renaissance of downtown Chattanooga in recent decades has brought much to enjoy from the North Shore to the Southside — making the choices challenging when deciding where to eat and what to do on a given day.
It is a quite different place than when my Aunt Edith and I, as a young boy clutching an eager-to-spend quarter she’d given me, would take the city bus from her home in the Highland Park neighborhood to the stores along Market and Broad Streets.
This combination of nostalgia and modern entertainment make the Scenic City a favorite escape for me as well as providing a sense of being home. Spending weekends there for six months in 2010, while serving as interim pastor of the wonderful First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, added to my enjoyment of the city.
It seems there is always something fun going on along the scenic riverfront. Mornings in Chattanooga draw me there where the sun rises over Missionary Ridge, reflects off the Tennessee River and offers varying coloration (depending on the presence of clouds) as a backdrop to the historic bridges.
By day and night the riverfront and the city blocks beyond are delightful places to enjoy concerts and festivals, good food and drink, or simply a little exercise or relaxation. The area’s locals, like myself, can speak from memory about the long-ago years when Chattanooga was castigated for its dirtiness.
However, there is some darker history than even the polluted water and air and run-down buildings from decades ago that have given way to lively local food and drink establishments, great children’s attractions, creative public art, vibrant downtown living and an abundance of outdoor activities. Like most of America, historically, this lovely city of hills, waterways, bridges, architecture and activities is a place of both great tragedy and exceeding joy.
Long before the glass-topped aquarium, modish condos, trendy restaurants and shops — and even the industrial era that brought jobs and pollution to town, the riverfront was an embarkation point for removal of Cherokee Indians. The 19th-century death march known as the Trail of Tears is commemorated in various ways around Ross Landing (named for the Cherokee chief, John Ross).
Signs mark the now busy streets that once served as the route for the displacement of native people. It’s easy to drive or even walk through such a bustling place without taking notice, however.
A few decades later Chattanooga — a strategic river-and-rails transportation point — would host deadly and decisive battles of Americans against Americans. Monuments, cannons and commemorations abound in the city and region as part of the mission of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the oldest and largest of its kind.
The Chattanooga area was not filled with plantations like in the deeper South where slave labor created white wealth. Therefore, this region of Tennessee was slow and varied in choosing sides in the American Civil War. Yet, there is a history of racial discrimination that cannot be ignored.
Today, one of the city’s most popular spots is the now-pedestrian Walnut Street Bridge — a century-old structure across the Tennessee River that was saved from the wrecking ball by local efforts. One of plaques on the bridge reflects a small gift I made in honor of my daughters to the restoration cause. The bridge is now receiving another makeover.
It is easy to traipse across the bridge today and enjoy the views of the river and mountains and never know that “the walking bridge” — as it is sometimes called — was known earlier to some as “the killing bridge.”
Often when one raises shameful history like this there is push-back from those who say, “Move on!” “That’s in the past!” “Why keep bringing up things like this?”
(As editor, I heard such responses to Bruce Gourley’s recent American Civil War series in Nurturing Faith Journal that revealed what Christian leaders were saying in defense of slavery a century and a half ago.)
Well, here’s why it is important to recall even our most shameful history:
Who was responsible for such horrific acts as removing Native Americans from their lands at the high cost of many lives? Who took the law into their own hands and snuffed the out the lives of innocent black Americans falsely accused yet left dangling from the span of a bridge as intimidation for others?
The answer: Good ol’ Americans who likely had professed their faith in Jesus Christ. Those whose fear and self-interest squeezed out love and enabled them to dehumanize groups of people based simply on race and ethnicity — to the point their lives didn’t matter.
Fear-fed hatred can be blinding to the point that those who claim faithfulness to God do not recognize the very image of God in others for whom Christ came and died.
That’s why we need to remember our past. A better approach than denial or intentional forgetfulness is to recall and learn from our history and to celebrate progress, while always being alert to those places where our worst attitudes and misguided behaviors bubble up again and again.
Now is an opportune time for such alertness. With the rising public expressions of racism and religious intolerance, we must remember the tragic chapters of our history so that we don’t repeat them.
We must never allow fear and hatred to fester to the point that the absence of love, equality and mercy is justified.
Otherwise, such well-rationalized hatred becomes something much more tragic than just historical recollection — something more than just water under the bridge.