John Edwards, III – A Guardian of Area History & Leader

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John Loyd Edwards, III, former president of the Mary Walker Historical & Educational Foundation stands in front of the Mary Walker’s Historical Marker with her favorite chair. In a rare photo, Mary Walker was photographed sitting in the same rocker; one of several of her artifacts often displayed by the foundation. (Photo: MW Foundation Archives)

As you read the Chattanooga News Chronicle, many, if not most, know John Edwards, III, the founder and publisher of the region’s only printed and online source of news which has an audience that transcends race and ethnicity that comes with no firewall or subscription.

But do you really know John L. Edwards, III? Do you know he is a highly, decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam? Did you know his family’s home was firebombed?  Do you know of his work with his dad, J. Loyd Edwards, Jr. to serve as a second-generation guardian of so much rich history in Chattanooga?

Let’s meet and appreciate John L. Edwards, III a bit more during 2023’s Black History Month.

CNC:  John, you and your family chose to live in Chattanooga after your dad worked with prominent Civil Rights Leaders in Nashville, such as C.T. Vivian, US Congressman John Lewis, and Diane Nash, just to name a few, in marches and most notably in organizing the Nashville “Sit-ins.” While most see you as one who publishes the news, your dad, Reverend J. Loyd Edwards, Jr. who pastored the Cosmopolitan Community Church on East Third Street, and your family actually made the news and addressed current issues for the Black Community during the 60s and 70s. Give readers a few examples of news-making moments involving your family.

JOHN E:  In December 1969, I was serving our country in the Army in Vietnam. One of my brothers, a student at Tennessee State University, just happened to be back in Chattanooga for an unscheduled visit. His presence likely saved the lives of my mom and two other siblings.

Dad wasn’t home that evening and our home located on Fortwood Street, between UTC’s Campus and Central Avenue, was firebombed! The intended effect of the bomb failed!

In 2011 at the 20th anniversary of the Edwards family-owned Chattanooga News Chronicle newspaper, the late Reverend John Loyd Edwards, Jr., founder of Mary Walker Historical & Educational Foundation, imparts knowledge to his grandchildren, Adrian and Nikita Edwards. Adrian, now president of the Mary Walker Foundation, and the Chattanooga News Chronicle, is continuing the legacy. (Photo: CNC Archives)

Rev. J. Loyd Edwards was not one to shrink in fear. He’d already established an organization for the poor and underserved in Chattanooga named H.E.L.P – Health, Equal Opportunity, Legal Assistance and Political Education. His leadership opened doors for hundreds, especially in housing and medical services.

Attacks on our family only spurred him to do more. His next endeavor came, literally, from the inspiration of seeing a news story printed just below the news article that covered the bombing crime against our family.

The Chattanooga News-Free Press daily paper had featured the bombing of our home on the front page of the paper, dated December 1, 1969. The story printed immediately below the news about our family was about the death of Mary Hardway Walker, who died the same day our home was bombed. Mary Walker was the woman born as a slave, lived, served others in Chattanooga, and learned to read by age 117.

Instead of focusing on the horrors of our family being victimized, Dad was immediately inspired to action upon reading about the death of the 121-year-old icon. My dad submerged himself in the Mary Walker story and realized how powerful her life story was to inspire our youth at a time when the reading levels of children were at their lowest point in America.

CNC:  So, out of that which was meant for evil, good was born?

JOHN E.: God works that way! It gets even better.

At HELP, Inc, my dad shared an office with Allen White, a record producer. Dad did not realize Mr. White had interviewed Mary Walker years earlier and had even recorded her in hopes to produce an audio record to inform and motivate others of America’s Oldest Student. White eventually left Chattanooga;  however, he allowed Dad to use his Oak Street home as a temporary residence for individuals needing housing assistance. By this time, I was home from Vietnam, and was processing the hidden scars of war.

Dad asked me to live at the Oak Street house and manage the program. And, as a preacher does, Dad routinely came by to check on me and the residents. One evening as we sat at an older desk that remained in the house belonging to Mr. White, Dad randomly opened drawers in curiosity and, after working to get the bottom drawer loose, pulled out a tin cylinder. It contained the audio recording of the interview with Mary Walker from years earlier.!

Using extreme dedication, a few days later, Dad found the equipment needed and began playing the interview and recording of Mary Walker’s voice as she described her years as a slave!  He listened…..over and over and over again!

Weeks later, one night Dad was late getting home.  Mother, after growing concerned as the time became later, sent me to check on Dad. I found Dad at church listening to the Mary Walker recording. Dad convinced me to sit down and listen. He had already committed to creating the Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation to capture amazing stories like hers as well as many others from African Americans.

I sat down and listened. I was transformed by what I heard.  We knew we had a responsibility to share her story and others like hers with the world.  

CNC:  John, is it safe to say that Mary Walker’s own voice helped inspire you to get more involved in the robust history of African Americans in Chattanooga and the region?

JOHN E.:  Absolutely! That very night Dad and I agreed we would study everything we could obtain pertaining to slavery, the antebellum period, and the Civil War.  We collected artifacts at numerous outlets and wherever we traveled.  Also, we began encouraging officials at the Chattanooga/Chickamauga Battlefield to display more history on African Americans in the Civil War.  Ultimately, that resulted in the Mary Walker Foundation’s first exhibit displaying African American Soldiers in the Civil War; the exhibit has also been on display at both the Battlefield and Chattanooga State Community College.

The Mary Walker Historical and Educational Foundation has displayed exhibits featuring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Tennessee’s Capitol.  And, one of the most popular collections is “Bright Ideas” showcasing African American Inventions.   That popular and educational exhibit has been featured at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, EPB, The Chattanooga Choo Choo, Chattanooga State, The Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and numerous high schools, and community centers throughout Tennessee and Georgia. 

CNC: The Mary Walker story is set to be published in a March 2023 release entitled, “The Amazing Mary Walker: America’s Oldest Student.”  And, Reverend  J. Loyd Edwards, Jr. wrote, “Ex-Slave Extra: The Mary Walker Story” years ago before his death. What are your words to encourage readers to get to know the story of this amazing Chattanooga woman and to be inspired to become a lifelong learner, just as she proved to be?

JOHN E.: Mary Walker lived during the lives of American icons: Abraham Lincoln, Harriett Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an ex-slave, a wife, mom, worker, and finally, a student.  Her hunger for learning came from wanting to be a better Christian and she felt she could only accomplish that goal by learning to READ the Bible.  Mrs. Walker‘s ability to READ exposed her to opportunities and options she had never known.

Who shouldn’t be inspired by such a woman?! 

                                                                                               

Enjoy reading today’s news in the Chattanooga News Chronicle? Appreciate more amazing history by reading and engaging with the Mary Walker Foundation at marywalkerfoundation.org.