walgreens sit in
It seems unfair to lend the shortest month of the year to commemorate the history and achievements of black Americans. Most probably agree with actor Morgan Freeman when he said black history is American history, so a month will never be enough. Schools teach “white” history essentially every day, only mentioning black history when they reach the last few chapters in the textbook on the 1960s. But Chattanooga is making the most of those bold chapters by hosting many unique events, including the Tennessee State Museum’s traveling exhibit, “We Shall Not Be Moved—The 50th Anniversary of Tennessee’s Civil Rights Sit-ins,” an empowering and humanizing approach to the local evolution of the Civil Rights Movement.
This exhibit, on display at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center through the end of the month, tells this story, following four major phases of the movement: segregation and resistance, non-violence, Tennessee sit-ins and direct action.
While adults and college students were the primary activists in non-violent protests across the United States, high school students played a major role in the success of the Civil Rights Movement in Chattanooga. There were no historically black colleges or universities in the area at the time, so Howard High School students led the Chattanooga sit-ins after learning about protests in Greensboro, N.C., and Nashville. Graham Perry, curator of the exhibit, commented that these young people “provided the spark” necessary to fuel the fire of the local movement. And yet, it seems focus has been pulled away from these students’ amazing demonstrations, leaving their stories virtually untold—until now.
Progress wasn’t going to come over night, but the movement had to start somewhere. The weight of this task fell onto the shoulders of young people in the area, specifically those attending Howard High School. Two notable student leaders were class president Paul Walker, who encouraged students to get involved, and Lehman Pierce, who was the driving force behind the movement and left to continue with the movement after the sit-ins were over. Students were briefed on what to do and what not to do at sit-ins. The checklist included reminders “to be on your best behavior,” leave seats between each other at the lunch counter, try to make a small purchase and no profanity, weapons or loud talking. Tough rules to follow, considering the opposition.
Age is certainly an interesting factor in the Howard student narrative, but even more significant is how they organized almost entirely without adult supervision. At a Feb. 5 forum held at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, former Howard student Moses Freeman mentioned there was no adult leadership because they feared adults wouldn’t support their children doing something that could have them incarcerated—or worse. Even within the community, activism was not too popular.
“We didn’t want to disappoint our parents, but we were willing to break the law if we had to,” Freeman said. At this, one participant laughed and said, “Virgil’s parents didn’t even know [he was involved] till he was grown.”
Freeman pointed out that black students had nearly accepted the teaching that it was “better to be a second-class citizen in America than a first-class citizen in Russia. But the sit-ins changed that.” Eddie Holmes added, “We had a desire to do something, but we didn’t know exactly what.”
“Nobody had ever asked before, but now you are,” said Holmes, when I asked his opinion. After hearing that, I finally understood what they meant by the “young generation” taking everything for granted, regardless of skin color. As a reporter and human being, I thought nothing of asking this gentleman for his opinion. My university, UTC, is wonderfully diverse and students probably aren’t heckled for being seen with someone of another color. To the new young generation, this is natural. We possess the privilege all young people enjoy, that sense of limitless possibilities and the bliss of having never known the difference. However, this wasn’t always the case—students a few years younger than I am now participated in a massive social movement and brought about the changes that allow us to live so comfortably.
At the end of the forum, Holmes, Freeman, Ralph Moore Lawrence Curry, Virgil Robinson and Booker Scruggs left the audience with a few suggestions, most of them aimed at my generation because we will be the ones to raise fresh new minds in the coming years. We have a responsibility to educate children, because an appreciation for history and culture must be ingrained in young minds at an early age.
Young people’s declining respect for adults was also mentioned, noting they know how to make babies, but not how to raise families. That timeless refrain is well known even to the young, but it was the next comment that surprised me: “We had communication. The same community. The young people don’t know how to really talk to each other.” It’s true. With so much digital communication, young people don’t organize face to face as often. “We want young people to take advantage of life and recognize the struggles of the past. Then we would appreciate them more,” another man added.
I have to wonder why black history stories like these aren’t taught more frequently in schools, especially at the elementary- and middle-school level. Classrooms have long since been integrated, so why does the material in history books remain segregated and pushed into a few programs in February?
This question left me looking for answers, and I wanted to know more about black history—and not merely the post 1950 events. Luckily, the Chattanooga History Center would provide me with the next level of understanding this vibrant part of Chattanooga’s history.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” gave me personal narratives to connect with and remember. Anyone who claims Chattanooga (or even simply the South) as their home will walk away from this exhibit feeling like they have a deeper understanding of black history, but that’s not all. Visitors get to know the men and women who “didn’t know about courage, might have been crazy,” and took a leap of faith to make a change not just for themselves, but also for the entire city and its future people.
The Chattanooga History Center, set to open in the fall of this year on Broad Street in front of the Tennessee Aquarium, is hosting a series of gallery talks intended to be a preview for each of the historical periods covered in the museum’s exhibits. “Imbued with the Spirit of Freedom” was the theme for a Jan. 29 discussion, and the story of how our modern city was established will fascinate locals and tourists alike.
When the words “civil rights” are mentioned, one’s immediate thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr., segregated water fountains, bus rides and the 1950s and ’60s. All these images were a powerful force in closing the racial inequality gap, but the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement were laid much earlier than history textbooks suggest.
Union strongholds in the Deep South during the Civil War were few and far between, with Chattanooga being the deepest, taken at the Battle of Chickamauga in Sept. 1863. After the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Confederate states, the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery altogether. Many decided to escape plantations for a northern or Union-occupied city. Chattanooga was the closet city to many of these newly freed men and women, and after arriving, they settled near the river into a community nicknamed Camp Contraband. Over time, they created a thriving economy and maintained political power as alderman of different wards of the city.
This particular exhibit spans 1850 to about 1910 and features a creatively placed window that looks out over the area on the riverbank that used to be Camp Contraband. Of all the major eras covered in the new museum, this is probably the story least told. A gallery focusing on the Industrial Revolution in Chattanooga follows, without overshadowing, and allows visitors to first understand how Chattanooga became a spot where industrialization could flourish.
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.