Town learns its rich and storied black heritage
Feb. 23, 2007
NOTE: Photographs available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report By Henri Giles*
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (UMNS) - If a life's significance is measured by contributions to society, how can that legacy be celebrated if there is no record of those contributions?
It was a question that Linda Rucker Hutchens and Ella Wilmont Smith asked themselves as they began to collect information on African Americans who had helped shape their northeast Georgia town.
Hutchens, a former school teacher, and Smith, a library historian, had read history books about other southern towns and were amazed at the role that black Americans played in local business, medicine, civil rights and education. Surely, similar African-American contributions had been left behind in Gainesville as well.
"There were stories in the black community that had not been told," Hutchens said of Gainesville, a town of about 30,000 people located 50 miles northeast of Atlanta.
"There was a rich history there that needed to be uncovered, and stories needed to take their place along the side of the mainstream history. To tell part of an area's history and not tell the whole story is doing a disservice to the area's people. So we needed the entire history."
As members of the St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville, the women discovered many of the stories were connected to their church, whose building was constructed in 1903 and is the city's oldest building continually used as a church.
After two years of research, the women published Hall County, Georgia, a collection of photographs and writings that tells a more inclusive story of the history of greater Gainesville.
The women learned that African Americans lived in a thriving economy in the community at the turn of the 20th Century, as segregation prompted blacks to start their own businesses to meet demands for goods and services. For instance, George Stephens, an African-American tailor, amassed enough wealth to loan money to the city of Gainesville and to nearby Brenau College, which was an all-white school at the time, so that they could continue operating.
The women found many surprises during their research, including people they had never even heard of before such as Rena Bush Harrison. "She was an entrepreneur in the area of business, who managed a boarding house, owned the boarding house for teachers, had a café, managed the cooks at Brenau College and had several rental units-all simultaneously," said Hutchens.
James Grady Brooks, also a member of the St. Paul United Methodist Church, grew up in Gainesville in the 1940s and has seen many changes in the community.
"You don't have a black business community as such now," Brooks said. "We have black businessmen, but not a black business district, so to speak. But when I was growing up, we had the Athens Street business district, which at that time (had) at least 50 black businesses in operation."
Smith remembers fondly some of the relationships and conveniences of her childhood.
"It was an honor to have a black doctor because at this time doctors made house visits," Smith said. "In fact, Dr. (E.E.) Butler lived one street over from me and my mom would sometimes be sick in the middle of the night and it was very easy for you to go to the doctor, knock on the door and he would come out, see his patient and go back home. He made house calls."
Butler began practicing medicine in 1936 and was considered a pillar of the black community. He was also the first African American to serve on the town's board of education.
The success of Hall County, Georgia (Arcadia Publishing, 2004) fueled the birth of the Gainesville Black History Society in 2003 as a handful of citizens began working to preserve the city's African- American landmarks and honor the contributions of the city's African Americans. The importance of making the town's younger generations aware of their ancestors and the town's black heritage is at the core of the group's mission, according to Brooks, the society's chairman.
"In my kids' generation, there was a disconnect. ... You just exist in the now. There's no connection, or very little connection, between the past and the future," said Brooks, adding that the group hopes their work instills a sense of pride in Gainesville's black youth.
Brooks and a small group of men of all ages are working to restore old cemeteries in the area. "Most of them are black cemeteries," he said. "We will work on any cemetery, but those are the ones that are basically lost and forgotten. And we want to highlight them, locate them and restore them and make people aware of their existence and show some respect, and try to teach our young people to respect their ancestors and their past."
*Giles is a freelance producer and writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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