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Before the Highway: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Moses Freeman remembers the arrival of I-24. Half a century later, he's still working to repair its damage

Archival highway maps and an aerial image of the College Hill Courts housing complex

Images from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Chattanooga Public Library

Left: Hand-drawn maps from 1960 documenting progress thus far on Tennessee's interstate highway system. Right: A view of downtown Chattanooga and Highway 27 looking northeast from College Hill Courts, circa 1964.

Ninth Street — or the Big 9 — in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a 20th century cultural mecca filled with clubs, restaurants, bars and other businesses drawing the likes of musicians including Bessie Smith, Lovie Austin and Clyde Stubblefield, as well as Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. (Ninth Street is now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard.) The city is also home to the Walnut Street Bridge, now a popular destination due to its views and walkability but a location where Black men were lynched by hanging in 1893 and 1906.

Afterward, Chattanooga signaled a racial progressivism that rivaled the social unrest seen in larger urban areas throughout the South. In Chattanooga, Black and white residents lived in relative equanimity.

That was, until highway construction upended many Black residents as well as their socioeconomic gains, the reverberations of which are felt to this day. Interstate 24 and Highway 27 (sometimes called Highway 29), and various redevelopment pursuits to attract employers and high-income transplants, led to the gradual dissolution of the Big 9 and a decrease in Black home ownership.

Moses Freeman, 84, is a former government employee, city councilmember and civil rights spokesperson. He saw the impact of the interstates and adjacent routes on the Black community through the experience of his family’s church. Eminent domain stripped the church of its land, ended the generational ownership of Black homes and thwarted community entrepreneurship. Subsequent actions sought to increase the white population of the city. 

5 photos showing Chattanooga resident and advocate Moses Freeman

Courtesy photos

Clockwise from top left: Moses Freeman (in red shirt) at a ribbon cutting; Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association street art featuring Freeman; Freeman as a Howard High School class sponsor; participating in a Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial march (he's wearing a red hat) in 2013.

AARP: How did the construction of the interstate highways impact where you grew up?

Moses Freeman: It went past our back door! We lived in what was called the College Hill Courts, on the low side of the freeway as it was being developed. We didn’t call it “public housing” per se, but the units were known by their name rather than a descriptive like “projects.” The families that lived in them were mostly lower middle class with a few folks who were lower upper class. There were lots of businesses. The segregated Black areas were contiguous to each other, so altogether combined that made up the Black community of Chattanooga.

The freeway just disrupted everything. Of course, there were parts that had been unattended to by city and county governments because the area was so segregated. We had areas of housing that did need to be torn down because in some instances there were no paved roads or running water in the houses.

We had relatives on the high side of the freeway, but their property was purchased, or they had to vacate in order to make way for the freeway. My uncle owned a boarding home and was a retired railroad worker. He and his wife housed a lot of the Black workers from the heavy iron and steel manufacturing plants. I-24 ran over those plants. 

College Hill Courts in 1957

Image from Westside Community Evolves

A timeline on the website Westside Communty Evolves shows how College Hill Court, a housing complex for low-income Black residents (and a one-time home to Moses Freeman), became isolated from the rest of the city as the area was leveled for highway construction. (Click on the image to learn more.)

AARP: Please talk about the importance of your church growing up and what happened to it.

Freeman: Churches were the basis of institutional life. Our schools were segregated and weren’t first rate, even though we had quality education by our teachers. The churches, though, were the political and cultural oasis of “fellowship.” Everything I grew up around was connected to the church. I give the church more credit for my education than I do the school system, because I started reading the Bible at a very young age. By the time I went to formal school, I was already reading comprehensively.

We had Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Baptist churches. All kinds of denominations. Our teachers came to the same churches that we attended. We saw them in different capacities within the church, versus them just being teachers. Even then, they served the same purpose, modeling behavior, posture, things of that nature. Those kinds of things set the basis of our growth and development as kids.

The freeway knocked all that down, dispersing everyone in different directions, which led to the advent of redlining. People who owned homes and sold their homes because of the freeway couldn't just go and buy anywhere. They were sent to certain parts of Chattanooga where white people were deserting the area to go further out in the suburbs. I-24 brought suburban development and white flight. We had to settle for the areas white people left behind. It was the same dynamic as the textbooks we read, the school buildings and lockers we used. They gave Blacks discarded white neighborhoods and that, to an extent, is what created the next wave of low-income, depressed areas where Black people still live. 

"People who owned homes and sold their homes because of the freeway couldn't just go and buy anywhere. They were sent to certain parts of Chattanooga where white people were deserting the area to go further out in the suburbs. I-24 brought suburban development and white flight. We had to settle for the areas white people left behind. It was the same dynamic as the textbooks we read, the school buildings and lockers we used. They gave Blacks discarded white neighborhoods and that, to an extent, is what created the next wave of low-income, depressed areas where Black people still live."

— Moses Freeman

My church was the Second Missionary Baptist Church. It was given an opportunity to be on land that was in the redeveloped area around the freeway. There was a lot of flattened land, overlooking downtown in areas near where Black communities had existed. We were offered land there, but the standard for Blacks to buy property was much higher than the standard for white companies, churches and others who wanted to come to that area. We were eventually knocked out of the competition and couldn't get the land, so we had to flee the entire area and go to the outskirts of a previously all-white neighborhood to establish our new location, where it still is to this very day.

AARP: How old you were when the freeway was built?

Freeman: The freeway was built in about three or four different stages. I was in high school at the beginning of the construction, and I had finished college and was teaching at a high school by the time the freeway was completed through downtown Chattanooga. Black communities were destroyed by big earth movers to pave the foundation for I-24.

AARP: What was Chattanooga like before I-24?

Freeman: Well, it was two communities. It was a Black community and a white community. You behave differently. You talk differently, depending on which community you’re in. You just knew you had to comply with the laws and mores of the community you were in. The Black community was a safe community. For the first 18 years of my life, I never had a key to my house. Never needed a key. The door was never locked, because we were all neighbors. We got along. As long as we stayed in the Black community, we had high self-esteem. Chattanooga was a wide-open city, full relationships between white and Black citizens. There was some degree of cultural crossover, though it was limited.

Construction of I-24 did influence that because you had whites come from Georgia, Alabama and East Tennessee. They weren’t locals. The locals were moderate to liberal. You couldn't integrate yourself into businesses' practices. You couldn't eat in a restaurant. You couldn't do a lot of stuff like that, but whites spoke to you on the street. They were not harsh to you. They just expected you to obey the rules. 

Chattanooga had an unusual amount of well-to-do white people because it had come up as a major manufacturing place after the Civil War. A lot of businesses were owned by white northerners who had come to the South. They started a lot of businesses, including chemical labs and manufacturing plants. Some of us worked for them in their plants as laborers. Some of us worked in their homes as maids. They gave money to our churches and came to the funerals of Blacks who were in their employ. It was sort of a give and take relationship. For instance, we had a fundraising drive to improve the church with some special windows. We could call on our “good white friends” for contributions.

Sometimes we fought back about what was going on with the freeway. Sometimes we threw up our hands and essentially said, “Let it be.”

AARP: What did fighting back look like for Black Chattanoogans then?

Freeman: In the 1960s, fighting back meant you had to go to court. It was where you could reasonably have a chance for justice as a Black church or organization. But we had to go through steps that included going back to the very people who had denied us. There were no Blacks on the housing authority board that oversaw the eminent domain claims and public housing. Some didn’t want to fight the system and others did. We had the militant faction, which has always been in the Black church, and then you had the very liberal radicals, who wanted to destroy everything. The point was to find common ground they could all stand on. That was true regardless of the issues.

A map showing the highways and impacted communities in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Image from Google Maps

A contemporary map shows the Big 9 neighborhood (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), College Hill Courts and the roadways that impacted the larger community.

AARP: Please talk a bit about your family.

Freeman: I am the only child of my mother. She died when I was two years old. My father remarried when I was three years old, and that woman became my mother, bearing him four more children. 

My father had a job working as a display assistant for the electric company, which we call the Electric Power Board here in Chattanooga. My dad was trained as a musician and artist, but he had a wife, a young son and another child. His first obligation was to us, so he had to have a part-time job. too. He was elected by the church congregation to be the superintendent of the Sunday schools, and he was a Boy Scout leader of the local troop. Generally, he was community oriented in his participation. His formal education was like eighth grade or something.

The supervisor at the power board where my daddy worked respected him, even though he didn’t pay him what he was worth. But he gave my father a promise, which he kept. He said he was going to send all of us to college, and all of my brothers and I went to college thanks to him. He once told me the community wasn’t ready to have a Black employee oversee the electric power board company. I actually got a chance to tell him publicly that education and segregation are not compatible and “If you educated me, you can't segregate me.” I told him that in 1960 because I became a sort of a spokesperson in the Civil Rights Movement after college. I was never a leader. I was always a follower, but I was also a spokesman. I had to leave town for a while because of threats on my life.

AARP: Are you comfortable talking about why you had to leave Chattanooga?

Freeman: Well, yeah. I had left the school system to work for a private corporation called Chattanooga Progress Incorporated that was writing grants for the city. When it went out of business, the city hired the organization’s employees, including me. I became a city employee.

Some Black people not connected to me were picketing my office because they were mad at the mayor. I was just a program analyst writing programs. The mayor wanted me to cross the picket line. I refused and resigned. It was hard for me to get another job.

"Our children need to be born and raised in an environment that does not reek of poverty or being disadvantaged."

— Moses Freeman

Eventually, a rich white man I knew wanted to put a Boys’ Club in the Black community and thought I would be a good director. At the time I was in Florida looking for work, but I came back to become the first Black Boys’ Club director. Then there was a conflict between my civil rights activism and the work I was doing working with whites and the Boys' Club. I was told to get out of the Civil Rights Movement, or else. I chose “or else.” 

I moved to Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 years and worked with some guys I knew who had a consulting business. When I came back, I ran for the city commission and lost. But being a candidate established that I was back in Chattanooga, and people were very interested in my being a part of the city. The commissioner of education hired me as his chief of staff and from that point on I had a career in Chattanooga.

AARP: During that time, you had a child, and you later had a political career in Chattanooga, which is where you still live.

Freeman: Yes. I have one son, who is retired and lives in California. I also have two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I retired from being a city employee in 2000. I ran for a city council seat and won in 2013, serving one term. I lost my next race. I said what I wanted to say. I did what I wanted to do. I sided with anybody I thought was right.

Today I live about eight blocks from the center of downtown Chattanooga. The west side of Chattanooga, where I lived across I-24, had some property for sale and the College Court housing still exists. I wanted to buy land so I could build a house where I grew up. That didn’t work out.

After I retired, I went to work at the Lindhurst Foundation, a nonprofit that was working on a physical revitalization strategy for the downtown neighborhoods. I was selling people on downtown, and somebody said, “Why don't you move back down here?” I've been here 18 years, and the downtown is developing all around me.

AARP: How can Chattanooga’s Black community recover from the disruptions caused by I-24’s construction?

Freeman: With money, money, money in every area. Our children need to be born and raised in an environment that does not reek of poverty or being disadvantaged. The next is education. My church is working to become an education player for preschool-aged children. We don't have any millionaires and folks of that nature within the church, but I think there's enough for us to pool money and do things. Also, I think every Black person who has made it needs to look around to see who they can attach themselves to in order to help change and improve a life. 

Jimmie Briggs is a documentary storyteller, writer and advocate for racial and gender equity. He is the co-founder and executive director emeritus of Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to activate youth to stop violence against women and girls, and the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War (Basic Books, 2005). A native Missourian, he is the author of an upcoming oral history of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 police killing of teenager Michael Brown Jr. Briggs’s articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Huffington Post and The Root, among other publications. 

Additional research by Tracy Matthews and Martin Penny, AARP Tennessee

More 'Before the Highway' articles

Visit the "Before the Highway" landing page for interviews with impacted communities in Florida, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Texas.

See the "Before the Highway: Learn More" page for links to articles, videos, histories and more about the communities impacted by the interstate highway system. 

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