Last Updated on February 8, 2024

More cities and tourism bureau’s around America are waking up to a growing interest in Black history and cultural tourism. These places are finally highlighting long overlooked sites and stories hoping to attract visitors who want more from travel than hotel-restaurant-spa.

Chattanooga, TN is one such destination putting a newfound focus on African American legends and legacies which can be found there.

Chattanooga’s ‘Big Nine’ Neighborhood  

Chattanooga’s MLK District, a neighborhood once known as “Big Nine” when it was Ninth Street (now MLK Blvd), is still lined with Black-owned restaurants, lounges and clubs.  The street was the center of Chattanooga’s nightlife and similar to Beale Street in Memphis. “Big Nine” is where Cortez Geery, Tiny Kennedy and Wilfred Middlebrooks often played.

This is also where the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is located, which highlights the Blues singer’s life as well as other prominent African American performers and artists that also hail from Chattanooga, including Usher.

Blue Goose Hollow in downtown is where Bessie Smith grew up.  

National Medal of Honor Heritage Center 

During Black History Month, the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center pays homage to Tennessean and Medal of Honor Recipient George Jordan. Born into slavery in 1847 in central Tennessee, he enlisted in the U.S. Army following the Civil War.

He was illiterate when he entered the service, but taught himself to read and write during his early years as a soldier and eventually rose to the rank of Sergeant because of his character and dedication.

He retired in 1896 after serving his country; however, despite his position as a decorated war veteran and landowner, he was denied the right to vote as well as admission to Fort Robinson’s Hosptial after falling ill and told to try the Soldier’s Home in Washington DC. Denied the proper medical care, he died soon after. He received a full honors funeral as an exemplary Buffalo Soldier and changes were made to the healthcare discrimination policy, allowing his name and legacy as a Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor recipient.  

National Medal of Honor Heritage Center
National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Courtesy Visit Chattanooga.

Murals and Memorials  

There are several murals near the Tennessee Riverwalk that also depict Black history. Near the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge, visit the new reflective memorial that recognizes Ed Johnson and his brutal death by lynching. This new memorial honors the heroic and historic efforts of attorneys Noah Pardon and Styles Hutchins, and the Black community that supported them.

It also commemorates the landmark Supreme Court case that changed the course of American history and civil rights. The memorial is a welcoming contemplative space where people of all backgrounds and cultures can come to learn, reflect, mourn, and find inspiration.  

1960s Sit-ins to End Segregation  

On February 19, 1960, Chattanooga’s Howard High School Class President Paul Walker rallied 200 Black students and organized a peaceful sit-in at four businesses along one block in downtown, including the lunch counter at Woolworth. The rules were simple: leave seats between each other at the lunch counter, refrain from profanity or loud talking and make small purchases.

Although the lunch counter refused to serve them, they remained in their seats eating snacks from home and reading their textbooks and bibles. It was the beginning of the end for segregation. 

Black-owned Restaurant Row 

Within the last two years, more than 60 restaurants have opened in Chattooga. One neighborhood, the MLK District, is the go-to place for a variety of fabulous foods and concepts with a cache of Black-owned restaurants in an area where all the great blues and jazz musicians once played.   

  • Uncle Larry’s Restaurant has been a staple in the MLK neighborhood since it opened in 2013. For years, Larry was the designated fish fryer at all family gatherings, and after encouragement from friends and family, he opened Uncle Larry’s, offering pork chops, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, fried green tomatoes, homemade desserts, and of course his claim to fame – fish so good it will smack you!    
  • PROOF Incubator + Bar is a cocktail bar and test kitchen featuring up-and-coming concepts from a community of talented chefs.  PROOF is a resource center and collaborative community for the food and beverage industry that features an accelerator, incubator, educational space, and additional industry programs and tools. PROOF’s newest concept,Calliope Restaurant, is a place where Chef Khaled Albanna brings flavors from his childhood in Amman, Jordan, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Khaled’s southern influences, combined with his unique Levantine cooking style, deliver the best of both worlds. Cooking with open fire and coals to bring the Levant culture and traditions to light. Sommelier Joi Mason oversees the wine program and has curated a selection of vintages to a pair with any meal.    
  • Peach Cobbler Factory is where Chattanooga goes for their just desserts. Owner Londie Nicole has created a dozen flavors of cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Other selections include a cobbler-stuffed cinnamon roll and nearly a half-dozen flavors of banana pudding.  
  • Artist and poet Genesis the Greykid is owner of Home, located on Market Street, which offers an elevated Southern experience with a twist inspired by food crafted by the hands of loved ones—mom, nanas, fathers and grandads.  The restaurant features Chef Malik Tobias under the toque and opens later this month.