Black in the Day: A close look at black history in Chattanooga

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CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) – The diverse and vibrant city of Chattanooga we know today is far from the city that once existed before the start of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s.

Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks once said, "I’m tired of being treated like a second-class citizen." That was a feeling felt by most African Americans in the Deep South, especially Chattanooga and the surrounding areas.

No one knows that all too well than current Chattanooga city councilman Moses Freeman. The 76-year old was born and raised in Chattanooga during a time when blacks were considered inferior to whites.

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"We were second class citizens and low class. To some extent, we were not citizens," Freeman said.

During a half hour interview, Freeman explained what it was like to experience true racism in a segregated Chattanooga that is far from what we know and see today.

"Anytime you left your neighborhood and had to go downtown or any place else, you were immediately reminded of your race," Freeman said.



Being reminded that a person was black meant having to hear words like: spook, spade, coon and jigaboo.  But Freeman said there was one word that always degraded and humiliated African Americans the most.

"The N-word; Nigger; we were called that anytime by groups of approaching white people whenever we walked downtown. We were called those names and provoked. There were efforts to provoke us so we would get arrested and beat up by the police," Freeman said.

In recent times, several people have claimed to experience racism by Chattanooga police. But many of those claims may not stand up to the type of police racism Freeman said he witnessed as a child.

"It was horrible. Policemen without warrants would walk in and out of black homes in my neighborhood on the West side. They would do this without warrants and search for anyone they wanted to search for. They would talk to anyone they wanted to talk to. Sometimes they would bring other white men with them who were not law enforcement to do things to these people. A lot of times they would take them away without arresting them. They would beat them up then bring them back to community," Freeman said.

Growing up in segregation, Freeman said he quickly realized the wheels of justice didn’t always turn in the right direction for blacks.

"Allegations then were the same as a conviction. So if you were accused of doing something, you were automatically convicted," Freeman said.

After a long discussion about the dangers of venturing into areas outside the black community, Freeman talked about what it was like for African Americans who were fortunate enough to have a car and could travel between Chattanooga and other areas in the Deep South.  He said being pulled over by police was a common occurrence.

"You were always aware that you could be stopped anytime by the police; which happened very often. We were subject to what they called fee grabbing where African Americans would be required to pay the person who stopped us. That person was sometimes not a police officer or county official," Freeman said.

Whether it was a police officer or a person acting as a member of law enforcement, Freeman said the conversation was usually the same when it came to how much an African American had to pay.

"If you go to jail, it would cost this amount. If I let you go it would cost this amount. That happened all up and down the line in certain places that were notorious for that," Freeman said.

The councilman told WDEF that fear of being beaten and or arrested wasn’t the only issue blacks had to face. While African Americans in Chattanooga had to deal with segregation, they also had to deal with economic inequality.

"Survival was really important back then.  Black families made less than half of the income that white families that did the same job. My mother made $3.00 a day plus car fare for a bus ride to go to and from work. She couldn’t get a job that paid decent wages working as a secretary or a clerk. Whites who had the same level of education as my mother could go and get those jobs," Freeman said.

WDEF also spoke to newly elected Chattanooga NAACP President Dr. Elenora Woods. She said African Americans continue to suffer from economic inequality.

"What we have to do is get back to working together as a group. It’s called group aggregation or aggregation economics where our group comes together as one," Woods said.

When Freeman was a kid, he attended all-black schools because education was just as segregated as the rest of society. Education was a major focal point for African Americans. But students were taught more than just ABC’s and 123’s.

"They taught good values. They taught race pride. There was a strong sense of race pride in our community; who we were. There was always an effort to put the best foot forward for us to be seen and to behave in a way that we would do the right thing for the right reason," Freeman said.

WDEF asked what happed to that pride. Aside from the NAACP and several black community and church leaders who are still fighting to improve Chattanooga’s black community, there appears to be something lost. A disconnect within a younger generation; a hip-hop generation that may not understand the struggles of the generations before them.

In modern times, the news cycle is consumed with a lot of black on black crime in Chattanooga. Many young African Americans are dropping out of school to join gangs. Many blacks can’t get good jobs because they either have felony convictions on their record or they don’t have the foundation of pride that was once the staple for African Americans who lived through segregation.

"I can’t imagine not acting in the same way if I had to go through what kids are going through now; what young men are going through now. I was able to work. I was able to have self-pride. The work was minimal and the pay was small but I saw myself as a man growing up," Freeman said.

"Until we all come together as a group like we use to, then we’re going to continue to have this inward clashing or the ethnic clashing which is what you’re really seeing; survival of the fittest," Woods said.

Woods is only 49-years old but she remembers hearing the stories of what her parents and grandparents had to endure. It’s one of the reasons why she’s part of the NAACP.

"Oh my god, we can never let that happen again. So when we see little glimpses and signs that we may be reverting back to that, then we go in the court room. We do whatever we have to do to prevent those things from happening because you’re only as free as you fight for it every day," Woods said.

"I thank the lord every day that I was able to survive that period and that a lot of things that happened to friends, neighbors and adult I knew did not happen to me," Freeman said.

According to Freeman, life for blacks in Chattanooga began to change in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement; not only through the famous sit-ins and peaceful protest but also through an unlikely ally.

"We also began to identify white people who saw and felt the pain that we had suffered. Those people thought it should be better," Freeman.

Eventually, segregation ended and integration took over. As the years went by; relations between blacks and whites continued to progress. 

But race relations in Chattanooga took a nasty turn in the summer of 1980 after Three Ku Klux Klan members shot four elderly black women.  Prior to the shooting, the men reportedly burned a cross in Alton Park. The women survived the shooting and all three men were charged with attempted murder. But an all-white jury acquitted two of the men.  The third suspect was reportedly given a slap on the wrist by receiving a jail sentence that was less than year. The perception by blacks as a lack of justice resulted in civil unrest and protest.