Not long before the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokee Indians of Northwest Georgia and surrounding areas were forced to leave their homes and move west, an unusual school was established where Eastgate Towne Center now stands in Chattanooga.
Brainerd Mission, originally called Chickamauga Mission, was not born the same way so many missions to Native Americans were in the 1800s. Instead of forcing themselves on the Cherokee of the region, the mission board requested permission to establish a school. They met with leaders of the Cherokees, who took the request under consideration at a council and agreed to it.
Thus was established a school that would be extraordinary even by today’s standards. The student body, according to journals kept by missionaries, consisted of about one-third Cherokee students, one-third black students and one-third white students.
The Trail Was A Circle: The Brainerd Mission Story
Where: Brainerd High School, 1020 North Moore Road, Chattanooga
When: Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 12 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $8-$12, available online
More info and tickets: brainerdmissionproject.com
The white students were mostly children of missionaries. The black students were children of slaves owned by the Cherokee and of some freemen who lived among the Cherokee. The distribution of thirds remained consistent throughout the 21 years the school existed – up until it closed due to the Cherokee removal.
The Brainerd Mission missionaries were harassed by the state of Georgia, arrested, beaten and imprisoned. It was against state law for them to be living among the Cherokee, even if they’d been invited. The Supreme Court became involved and ruled in favor of the missionaries and the Cherokee, but it made little difference in the end – the state had its way.
The story is a dramatic one and now, 200 years after the mission was established, it’s a theater production: "The Trail Was A Circle, The Brainerd Mission Story."
Bruce Sloan, Catoosa County resident, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Ringgold and current pastor of Ridgeview Baptist Church in Chattanooga, as well as a former columnist for The Catoosa County News, is serving as a historian for the play, along with David Clapp, former head of library services for the Chattanooga Library.
Sloan recently appeared at a Catoosa County Historical Society meeting to promote the play.
"Daisy Pratt from Ripple Productions, a theater company in Chattanooga, was looking for an idea for a new production," says Sloan. "I pulled out a book I have on the Brainerd Mission by Robert Walker, ‘Torchlights to the Cherokees,’ which I thought would be a good topic for a production."
Pratt liked the idea. Her theater company has a history of pursuing quality and Walker’s book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1931. (The author is the same Walker who turned his farm into a wildlife sanctuary that is now Audubon Acres.)
Ripple Productions took on the project. "Some of the actors participating are professionals," says Sloan. "The music consists of original scores written by Dr. Jim Burns, who was head of music at Lee College, and we’re using a professional lighting and sound company."
The group has developed the play in consultation with Cherokee Indians who have provided cultural guidance to ensure authenticity and have lent the production company some Cherokee clothing.
"The Trail Was A Circle" is being produced in partnership with Cherokee Area Council of Boy Scouts of America, WTCI-TV, Native American Services of Tennessee, Ridgeview Baptist Church, DAR Regent’s Council of Chattanooga and the Nancy Ward Chapter, SAR Sevier Society of Audubon Acres, JD Burns Co., Baron Studios, and Live to Inspire.