From the early part of the 20th century into the 1970s, ML King Boulevard was known as the Big Nine, which was East Ninth Street before the name was changed to honor the slain civil rights leader in 1981.
During its heyday, the Big Nine was lined with black-owned businesses and stars such as Bessie Smith and others played its clubs. Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Count Basie, Muddy Waters and B.B. King were known to visit the street after finishing their own concerts at other venues in Chattanooga.
Now UTC, WUTC-FM and the City of Chattanooga have partnered for a podcast series that highlights the history of the street. Called “Stories from the Big 9,” the series will launch on Wednesday, Jan. 30. All the podcasts will air on WUTC in February and will also be available on www.wutc.org.
East Ninth Street has a storied history as the home of much of Chattanooga’s African-American culture. Big Nine businesses included the Martin Hotel, which housed many famous black performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Nat “King” Cole.
“My students had just 10 weeks to find and research their stories, interview their subjects, and produce final versions of their podcast episodes,” says Will Davis, instructor and WUTC outreach manager. “We heard important stories and made new friends. This project is a great example of learning through experience.”
There will be a public launch party on Jan. 30 at 5:30 p.m. at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. At the event, several UTC students will share excerpts from their podcasts and talk about what they learned about the historic corridor and its important role in Chattanooga’s past, present, and future. Admission is free, but reservations are recommended. Reservations and more details are available at Eventbrite.
“It’s important that we keep the spirit and history of the Big Nine alive,” says Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. “This is a great chance for young people to tell old stories.”
James McKissic, chief operating officer at the Urban League of Chattanooga, says getting younger generations invested in the evolving story of M.L. King Boulevard will help keep its history alive.
“These podcasts turned out amazing,” McKissic says. “I am so grateful to the students and their professor for focusing on such an important piece of Chattanooga’s history.”