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Hall County duo making sure the area’s rich black history isn’t soon forgotten

POSTED: February 13, 2011 1:30 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Linda R. Hutchens, left, and Ella Jean Smith have collaborated on a book, at left, covering the black history of Hall County. The lifelong friends were students together at Fair Street Elementary, which in itself is a landmark for black history in this area.

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It's easy to tell that Ella Smith and Linda R. Hutchens have a lot of history.

It's apparent in the way their thoughts overlap and how they can finish each other's stories.

Hutchens' outspoken ways bring out the best in Smith's more reserved personality.

"We go way back," Smith said.

"We came up through Fair Street (Elementary) School together. Graduated high school together in 1966," Hutchens said.

"We had Girl Scouts together," Smith added.

"And children," Hutchens interjected.

"So we've always been intertwined," Smith concluded.

As girls at Fair Street, they bonded over their shared love of reading, early morning stops to buy goodies from the "candy lady" before school and trips to the library.

The similarities don't end there.

"I have always loved history. When I was growing up, my grandmother would always talk to us about what was going on during her early years of life," said Smith.

"As we were growing up, it was like a bedtime story for us."

"Mmm hmmm," Hutchens said with an agreeable nod.

"It always fascinated me," Smith said.


Hutchens also enjoyed hearing stories about real-life from the adults in her life.

"My grandmother lived up in Lula. In the summers we would always spend time with her. I can remember as a child that the neighbors would come by and we'd all sit out on the porch," Hutchens said.

"They would inevitably get to talking about the past things that happened when they were little. It was just fascinating to me, listening to them talk for hours."

"My grandmother didn't have a TV, she had a radio, but that was how people entertained themselves back then - by talking and sharing."

Although the two Gainesville residents were just enjoying the stories they were being told back then as children in the 1950s, as women in the 21st century they would take their love of stories and history to the next level.

"I was working at the Hall County Library in the cataloging department. There were books coming in about the (black) history of other counties," Smith said.

"I picked up one about Winder-Barrow County, which is close to us. I was looking at this book and thinking, ‘Oh my God, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had our history of Hall County,' which we never had. So I called (Hutchens) and asked if she thought we could do it and she said, ‘Yes.'"

After getting that affirmative, Smith took the idea to her then-supervisor, Adrian Mixon, who encouraged the ladies to go for it. After conferring with various community members about the feasibility of such a project, the duo — with the help of the library system's staff — applied for and received a federal grant to help fund the endeavor.

Although they both grew up here in Hall County, the ladies say they learned a lot while pulling together the information for their book.

"I learned a lot about the things that black people had accomplished. The successes, the first black dentists and doctors, the educators. It was awesome," Smith said.

"What about Ms. Rena Bush? She was a women ahead of her time. Talk about a liberated woman and entrepreneurship," Hutchens said.

"This woman owned cafes and boarding houses."

"The whole time I was growing up, you would pass people and you never knew how successful they were," Smith said.

It took two years of research, countless hours of work and even a few tears, but in 2004, the women's dream came to fruition when their book, "Black America Series: Hall County Georgia," was published.

"I never in my life dreamed that I would be the author of a book. I never had that much confidence in myself, but Linda, I would've dreamed that for her," Smith said.

"It's the most rewarding thing I have done in my lifetime. My best moment was when the publisher brought the book to us and placed it in our hands. It was like, ‘Oh my Lord. Did we do this?'"

"The book that we did, was the book that I always wanted to read," Hutchens said.

"I just love history."

Their endeavor was as much for their own pleasure as to make sure that future generations knew their own local history, which often gets lost as elders die and buildings are razed.

"You could go down on what is now E.E. Butler Parkway, it was Athens Street then, and get anything you needed or wanted," Hutchens said.

"You wouldn't even have to leave this area."

"It was all black-owned," Smith added.

"There were doctors, dentists, businesses ... everything was right there."

"All those landmarks are gone," Hutchens said.

"There are only two or three buildings left around here (in the Fair Street community) that were around when we were coming up."

"The thing I hate about today's times is that parents have gotten away from (sharing family stories). That's the reason why kids don't know their history," Smith said.

"Some of them were probably never told these things about their parents and their grandparents. It's sad.

"They spend more time putting them in front of a TV or they think once a year during Black History Month, they'll learn everything. But I always tell kids, it is not all about Martin Luther King Jr. You have black history right here, probably right in your family."

"There's so much more that can be written — we stopped in the 70s," Hutchens said.

"We just hope that some of these young people pick up the torch."

 



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