A MLK Day Reflection

The National Park Service’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day service project brought with it many reasons to stop and reflect on the current state of Chattanooga’s race relations.  For this day of service was not a normal confluence of events. It was a dynamic illustration of where Chattanooga was and where we hope to go.  As with all MLK Day service projects, the participants were working to effectively memorialize a man that radically subverted the racial and socio-economic order of his day.  However, this day of service had another layer of meaning; it was being played out on a piece of land that saw Civil War bloodshed in an earlier chapter of America’s strange and unique relationship with race.   In this place, Chattanooga history was being made again in all its complexity and brokenness.  This day of service was the most current event in the effort to realize the hope of our founding: a society where all men are equal, regardless of race.  Let me explain.

In urban East Chattanooga, there is a jewel of a place nestled at the boundary of two very distinct places and two very distinct audiences.  I am speaking of Sherman Reservation, the fourth largest area within the nearly 10,000 acres of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (only  Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, and Moccasin Bend National Archeological District preserve larger cultural landscapes).  The park features a scattering of Union and Confederate historical tablets, more than a handful of monuments memorializing the soldiers that fought and lost their lives there, and over a half mile of urban forested walking trails.  It is perched atop an East Chattanooga peak directly flanked by the modern-day, upper-class, white Historic Missionary Ridge Neighborhood and the predominately black, urban poor Glass Farm Neighborhood – home to historic Glass Street.  It is a 50-acre majestic remembrance of a pivotal battle for Missionary Ridge that determined the course of America’s Civil War and the fate of our black and white citizens.  Today, despite its beauty, accessibility, and cultural significance, it is a place known by only a few Civil War buffs and utilized by even fewer.  However, on this 14-degree January 18th day, an inter-organizational effort to connect Sherman Reservation with the people living under its gaze broke ground.

The service day kicked off at 9:00 a.m.  Leaders met, walked the grounds, cleared some trees off the trail, and talked over the goal of the day: to clear off 20 yards of overgrown city sidewalk in order to provide pedestrians a safe walking path from Campbell St. to the park entrance.  Eighteen young men from Baylor School volunteered over 70 man-hours to the effort.  Using only hand tools, the Baylor students dug out the six inches of dirt that had accumulated on the sidewalk and ripped up all the pesky ivy.  This was the first phase to begin connecting Sherman Reservation to the community that lives at its base.  Thanks to a grant from the Sierra Club, within the year the Southeast Conservation Corps will create a quarter mile walking trail from the smaller Pennsylvania Reservation on Glass St. to the newly cleared sidewalk at Sherman Reservation.

The task now is figuring how to engage and attract a low-income black community traditionally unrepresented in both outdoor recreation and Civil War history to this destination in their own neighborhood.  Fortunately, Glass House Collective has formed a coalition of organizations dedicated to doing just that and local city and nonprofit initiatives have been leveraged together with two national grants to get the process moving.  In partnership with National Park Service (including representatives from both Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park as well as the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program), the City of Chattanooga’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and Outdoor Chattanooga’s Diversity in the Outdoors program, and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department’s Step ONE Program, Glass House Collective received a National Park Foundation Active Trails grant and were also awarded National Park Service Cost Share grant monies administered by the Outdoor Foundation that affords all the means to equip and transport low income East Chattanooga teens to greater Chattanooga’s national park for healthy, recreational activities and to build a relationship with the natural world.  Nicole Lewis of Glass House Collective also received a Causeway grant for the same purposes.

There are a lot of unknowns in this work.  Will the community respond positively to the invitation to experience the outdoors or will there not be enough interest to drum up?  How will we handle the delicate history of the Civil War and how the struggle for civil rights continues to this day?  Will we be bold enough, as Dr. King was, to address the racism of the past and present head on, or will we shy away from what makes us uncomfortable?  At Glass House Collective our hope is to use this opportunity to speak directly about racism and how it has influenced the making of our city and the lives of those we work with every day.  The post-Civil War Reconstruction era of Chattanooga provides many examples of racial progress but just as illustrative is the regression into Jim Crow segregation that occurred when the Federal government left the South after Reconstruction.  The Civil Rights Movement saw many local and national accomplishments but was fought during a time when, as the Chattanooga NAACP’s 2015 report, “The Unfinished Agenda,” clearly illustrates, deliberately unequal and segregated policies like race-based redlining lending and housing practices and “Negro Removal” of the 1960s were creating the current state of Chattanooga’s segregated neighborhoods.  The report goes on to state that despite the globally celebrated and locally funded “Chattanooga Renaissance” (i.e. clean, green, & gigged) the conditions in East Chattanooga and other post-industrial Chattanooga neighborhoods like Alton Park and the Westside are getting worse.   When we are introducing urban youth to Civil War history we will be forced to address race, and we hope to do so in a thoughtful and intentional way.  For the youth we will be engaging are the ones with the most to gain from such a candid and enriching conversation.

Sherman Reservation and the rest of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park can become the place in which further racial reconciliation occurs, where the promise of the Civil War is more fully realized.  There could not be a more beautiful, storied, and unsuspecting place for such a thing to occur.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply