Two weeks ago, an online petition created by Joseph Malley, a Dallas-based attorney, began to change the name of the Walnut Street Bridge aiming to honor a man lynched on the bridge on March 19, 1906.
The bright blue structure is a well-known landmark in Chattanooga. It stretches across the Tennessee River, connecting downtown to North Shore. The bridge sits in the heart of the city and is frequented by tourists and residents alike. Built in 1889, the Walnut Street Bridge has been rooted in Chattanooga’s history for over a century.
The petition is named “Chattanooga Tenn: Rename the Walnut St. Bridge to the Ed Johnson Memorial Bridge” and appears on a website called change.org. It seeks to name it the “Ed Johnson Memorial Bridge” to honor the black man lynched there after being accused of raping a white woman. Malley says Johnson’s trial was unfair and possibly renaming the bridge will be a step to remedy that injustice.
Mark Curriden, in the ABA Journal, chronicles the story of Ed Johnson. Johnson’s case was a historic event as he was the first African American to be granted a stay of execution by the Supreme Court. On March 19, however, people stormed into Johnson’s jail and mob-lynched him on the bridge before his appeal could be heard.
The city has approved a memorial to be placed on the south end of the bridge to honor Johnson and the legal fight for his freedom. The memorial will depict three men: Ed Johnson and his two attorneys who tried to help him in his case.
However, Malley writes on the petition page, “Maintaining the same name of the bridge where Ed Johnson was hung is an injustice to him.” He does not see the placement of a memorial as being adequate enough to commemorate the life of Ed Johnson.
Malley writes on the petition, “Many people today avoid the bridge due to its history, some even scared to walk across the bridge. It would benefit the community, help reconciliation and unification if the Chattanooga City Council would initiate such a referendum and approve the name change.”
The City Council members, on the other hand, do not see the immediate need to rename the Walnut Street Bridge.
Councilman Russell Gilbert told WDEF News, “I think the majority of all of us said that we have a great memorial that’s going to be placed on this bridge, and that it will show the memory of that — of Ed Johnson and the struggles that people went through back in those days, and just renaming it… doesn’t just fit. I think the memorial fits it better than a name calling a bridge something different.”
So far, there has been no indication that the Walnut Street Bridge will undergo a name change.