Political prominence, small-business ownership and influential voices in the media allowed the black population to become successful while outgrowing the number of whites in Chattanooga. By the late 1860s the city was two-thirds black, populated by freemen, runaways and native-born African-American children. Progressive ideals and economic success in the city’s diverse community was short-lived though, for laws were soon passed as whites pushed back against the 13th Amendment. The exhibit will feature a memory box showing actors portraying white interpretations of the Civil War. These statements will sit alongside black retellings of experiences with segregation, such as one woman who was not allowed in an establishment when she was only 4 because of her race.
“People make our common humanity. You have the responsibility to make that future,” Daryl Black, historian and curator of the Chattanooga History Center, told those in the audience during the gallery talk. The tone of the exhibit is summarized in this phrase. Viewers are given the opportunity to understand the real struggles Chattanooga communities faced and make the connection to how they can solve modern issues. Before leaving the museum, visitors can share what they learned and what changes they would like to see made. The history center will then channel these insights to the right ears.
Perhaps my personal lack of knowledge on this time period stems from the white institutionalization of the education system. Perhaps its origins are rooted in my ambitious and unachievable dream for a universal end to color stereotyping, racism and bigotry. But this is the South, and I believe this story isn’t told in elementary history lessons because we don’t like to talk about anything that makes “us” look bad.
For whatever reason it’s been hidden, the truth is coming out in full force this fall at the history center. Maybe I can readjust that dream into one in which everyone is, if not totally eradicated of prejudice beliefs, at least well versed in history and can appreciate the efforts of a community who loved—and still love—Chattanooga. As much progress as we’ve made, as far as we’ve come, there’s still room for more understanding.
Julia Sharp is a senior at UTC and an intern at The Pulse.