Reckoning With History In South Georgia

Aug 31, 2017

In South Georgia’s Wiregrass Country, a plaque in the town of Quitman marks a hanging place. It’s where, in August of 1864, four men were executed for plotting a slave rebellion. Over the next century, mob violence against African-Americans often erupted in South Georgia.

This is where our Senior Editor Don Smith was born and raised. He moved away in 1958. Don recently went back to his hometown to mark the anniversary of the Civil War hanging, and talk with longtime residents about how they remember the county’s history of racial violence. GPB's Emily Cureton reports. 

Don Smith narrates the drive through his hometown:  "That used to be the pool hall. And there is the old library and new historical society. That’s the Hotel General Quitman..."

The places he remembers have changed. One constant though, is the stately courthouse in the center of Quitman, Georgia. A marker by the entrance honors county founders.

Smith reads aloud: "This county created by act of the Legislature December 11, 1858, is named for Preston Smith Brooks. Zealous defender of states’ rights…"

Preston Brooks was a Congressman, best known for severely beating Senator Charles Sumner because he spoke against slavery. Next to the sign bearing the Brooks name, an obelisk...

"Our Confederate dead erected by the Ladies Memorial Association, 1878," Smith reads, and adds: "Looks like a headstone."

A Confederate monument in front of the Brooks County Courthouse.
Credit GPB News/Emily Cureton

A chunk of granite is missing from the monument.

"Somebody’s taken a whack at that thing."

This is not the monument we’re looking for. We’re looking for a marker about four people who were hanged in front of the courthouse during the Civil War’s final year. But we don’t find it by the courthouse. It’s not next to a gazebo on the lawn, either.  We meet George Boston Rhynes while we're looking.

"You mean the one for the bla… yeah it’s over there. They wanted it over here, but they wouldn’t let ‘em put it over here, so they had to put it over there."

We wait for semi-truck loaded with pine logs to pass, and he leads us across the highway to a sign posted between the sidewalk and the curb. Rhynes pulls a tree branch back to read the text:

"The Civil War slave conspiracy in August 1864. During the American civil war four men were executed in Brooks County Georgia for conspiring to plot a slave insurrection…"

Over the next 70 years, mobs in Brooks County killed at least twenty-four people. That’s more documented lynchings than in any other county in the United States during the same time period. At least 550 people were killed by mob violence in Georgia between 1880 and 1930. That’s according to the Georgia Historical Society.

A historical marker about a lynching on the Brooks County line is perforated by a bullet hole.
Credit GPB News/Emily Cureton

Rhynes remembers the 1960s in Quitman.

"Right down this street. Right there. There used to be a filling station right there. And I can’t think of the name of it. But this was the first time I had ever seen in the Ku Klux Klan was right in this street, where they marched down this street. I was a little child."

He graduated in 1970 from an all-black high school.  We get in his car and drive across town. We pull up to a blue house and follow Rhynes inside. The television shows images of white supremacists marching in Boston that day. President Obama’s portrait is pressed against the glass door of a china cabinet. Owen Wrice mutes the TV and settles into a recliner.

"I spent 20 years in the military. I spent 19 years and five months with the railroad.  And I’ve never been anywhere that  I’d trade it for Brooks County. Because the people are loving people. The people in Brooks County are friendly people. Now, that don’t mean all of them are good."

Wrice says the Confederate monument in town doesn’t mean a whole lot to him, but another symbol on the courthouse lawn does.  

"Lookee here. That, that gazebo. That’s for auctioning off black people just like you auction off hogs and cows."  

Rhynes jumps in. 

"When an ordinary white person goes to the Brooks County Courthouse, they don’t see that auction block. But I see it. I see the auction block. You can say gazebo. I don’t call it gazebo. I call it the auction block because I know that’s what they did there."

We couldn’t verify exactly where slaves were auctioned in Brooks County, but historians at Valdosta State University say it would not be usual for those auctions to be held on courthouse grounds. Wrice says, he doesn’t dwell on symbols of the past.

"Those things they are behind and I try to leave ‘em behind, because I’m looking toward the future."

Owen Wrice at his home in Quitman, Georgia.
Credit Emily Cureton / GPB News

Next, we visit another longtime resident. Jean Logan is a founding member of the Brooks County Historical Society and Museum. She graduated from an all-white high school in 1945.

Logan hosts us on her porch on the outskirts of Quitman. She says she doesn’t support moving Confederate monuments.

"Moving it doesn’t change anything. It happened and that’s just a part of our country. A part of our heritage."

She says old newspapers are one of her favorite windows to the past: "In every issue the editors have praised the virtues of Quitman and Brooks County and have urged the citizens on to bigger and better things."

One of the most celebrated things in Brooks County today is high school football. Maurice Freeman is the head coach and athletic director at the high school.

"When we have a football game here, black folks and white folks sit elbow to elbow."

He graduated from Brooks County High School in 1983. The  school was integrated by then. I ask Coach Freeman about the demographics of the football team today.

"We are 90 percent African-American. We have a few white males and a couple of Hispanic males on the team."

Coach Freeman says recent events have sparked conversations about race in the locker room, and that "those have been tough discussions."

He says the relationship between his players and local police is strained.

"They are jittery around the police, they feel like they are targeted and watched a lot more than the white males."

And when a player was arrested recently:"Next thing you know there are quite a few people around saying, "You unjustly stopping this young man." Somebody called me, said, “Coach you better get down here.” It was like, 10:30 at night and I got up and went down. They just needed a cooler head, and let’s just say I had a cooler head."

Still, Coach Freeman says things have gotten better since he was a kid.

"Maybe I was 14, 15 years old. I liked a white female at that time. She was my next door neighbor. We stayed out in the country. She was the only girl out there, actually. I went to the store one day and there was a group of white males that knew I was kind of dating her. And they took off chasing me, wanting me to beat me up. There were just too many of them for me to think I was gonna win it so I took off running. And just some of the words they called me were pretty tough. I kind of had a different look at my neighbors after being called all that."

He says he doesn’t remember exactly who chased him, but it’s possible he’s coached their kids.

"I’ve coached players and I’ve coached their sons. I for one, don’t think racism will ever go away."

We move on to our last stop in Quitman that Saturday: the cemetery where Don Smith’s family is buried.

"Well, I know Grandmother Smith is planted somewhere out here. My mother’s parents....  Ah me.... The only problem with dredging up memories is, sometime one creeps in and gets you like you weren’t expecting it to."