Compiled by John L. Edwards, III
While doing some research in the Chattanooga’s downtown Bicentennial Library back in1990, I ran across an old newspaper article by E.Y. Chapin, a prominent Chattanooga businessman. The article was about a man named William Lewis who ventured to Chattanooga around 1836 when it was still called Ross Landing.
Lewis was born in Winchester, Tennessee in 1810. The unique thing about Lewis was that he was still a slave. It is assumed that he had an arrangement with his owner, a Colonel Lewis, also of Winchester, Tennessee, who was also likely his father.
Amazingly, Lewis had enough money when he arrived here to purchase a plot of land. It was illegal for a slave to purchase land, so he had to do business through a white person. Lewis was a blacksmith by trade and worked odd hours to save enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife so his children would be born free. He continued to work and soon paid for his own freedom. In 1851 Lewis purchased the freedom of his mother, brother, and sister.
Lewis operated a blacksmith shop in what is now downtown Chattanooga at 7th and Market Streets where the Blue Cross Blue Shield offices were located for many years. His reputation for doing quality work spread throughout town and he became very prosperous during the civil war. His men (workers) forged the shackles for Andrews’ Raiders after the famous locomotive chase from Big Shanty, Georgia, to Chattanooga, and his son, George, fitted them on each prisoner.
William Lewis, lived in a large, two-story, frame house a block from Swain’s Jail, and he also befriended the raiders. He raised a large quantity of lettuce and obtained permission from the guards to send some to the prisoners. Known also as ‘Uncle Bill’ by the many soldiers and people he helped, William Lewis had continued to prosper in his blacksmithing business at his familiar shop on Market Street. He had been able to pay for his house and to hire workers to help operate the blacksmith shop. The longtime Chattanooga resident also had enough money to send several of his children North to be educated.
William Lewis was asked by the town officials to construct a bell that would be rung to call the meeting that ultimately changed the name of Ross Landing to Chattanooga. Uncle Bill continued to prosper after the war and was said to have been well-loved by all. He died on September 2, 1896 and was laid to rest in Chattanooga’s Forest Hills Cemetery. It is said that a large number of people both black and white attended his funeral.
Infatuated by Lewis’ story, I shared it with my father, Reverend John L. Edwards, Jr., founder and president of the Mary Walker Historical & Educational Foundation. He was also amazed by his story. I gathered Lewis’ information and applied for a historical marker with the Tennessee Historical Society. It was approved pending a location could be approved by the city of Chattanooga and property owners at the site proposed.
When we approached Blue Cross Blue Shield officials, they were clearly excited to approve the location of the marker. They even went a step farther and suggested they place a plaque on the corner of their building to indicate where the blacksmith shop was located.
With a commitment to diversity and inclusion, BCBST continues to recognize the achievements of outstanding black citizens during Black History month and throughout the year!