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From the rubble, a new town is built

POSTED: April 5, 2011 9:36 a.m.

Richard Smith was playing in the schoolyard when the 1936 tornado flattened most of Gainesville.

A Summit High School teacher yelled at him and several other students to come inside before the storm hit.

"We started running and before we could get in the door, it turned real dark and I saw swirls of white, red and gray," said Smith, a Desota Street resident who was 9 at the time. "By the time we got inside the door, the storm hit us and the lights went out. A big heater fell in the floor and set it on fire, and it got to smoking and raining and glass was flying."

After the storm, a neighbor told him his mother and brother were up the street.

"There was mama and her hair was just red as fire but she was alive, and my brother was still holding onto her around the waist," Smith said. "They put her up in the ambulance to go to Atlanta, and I remember running behind it, but they didn't let me go with her."

Smith's home was blown to the ground, with nothing left but the floor.

"Then I went around walking to see what I could see, and down the street a tornado had blown a woman up in the tree. They had to go up and get her, and she was dead," he said. "... we all had a hard time after that. Everything was flat and you could see up to the courthouse. I will never forget it."

An April 9, 1936 article in the Gainesville Eagle described the damage.

"The negro section lies prostrate for more than a square quarter of a mile," the article read. "Many a home there has totally disappeared, only a few strewn boards and mutilated bricks telling of what once existed."

After the destruction, a "new town" was created for the black community. It was built atop an old landfill, and for most Newtown residents, it was a complete restart.

"Everything came after the tornado. There were dirt streets, and you had to pay for the spot in front of your house to be paved," said Faye Bush, who moved to Gainesville after the tornado. "They created two new towns then. One was for the whites, and one was for the blacks."

Bush remembers the shared community feeling in Newtown after the houses were built.
"People were more like family. Everybody was seeing after everybody's children, and you don't see that happening today," she said. "Kids used to play back behind the houses, but now with the industrial areas and junkyard, you can't sit on your back porch with all the dust and noise."

Few current Newtown residents were living in Gainesville when the tornado hit.

"I was a little girl when it happened and had just moved here from Knoxville with my mother to live with my aunt," said Elizabeth Westbrooks, a Summit Street resident who was 3 at the time. "I know we didn't get blown away, but that's pretty much it."

Smith remembers government workers building houses and doling out personal items to help the families readjust. Red Cross employees also replaced farm animals, and Smith's family received a cow, a pig and several chickens.

"They brought in those houses on trucks and all they had to do was put the sections together and then pop the next one up next to it," Smith said. "We didn't have nowhere to stay, and they dug the sewers and everything."

They built Fair Street High School to replace Summit. The school today is Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, which will be torn down this year to make room for a new building.

Smith now focuses on beautifying the parts of Newtown that will benefit upcoming generations, including Desota Park, situated across from his home. The tennis court and playground inside the park complex are named for him.

"I try to stay on top of it and make sure it's clean," he said. "Everybody knows it's me when I'm coming. They know I care and want this place to look good for everybody."



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