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Descendants reluctantly keep slave history alive in White County community

POSTED: February 19, 2012 1:30 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Bean Creek resident Andy Allen was instrumental in desegregating White County school buses in the 1980s, years after schools integrated. School buses in White County officially became desegregated in October 1989. Allen still works as a bus driver.

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The gift and curse of the Bean Creek Community is its small size. These days, residents question if there are even 50 residents left.

Dorsey, Nicely, Jarrett and Richardson are family names you'll hear called up and down Bean Creek Road, the community's main thoroughfare.

With a community that small, it's no surprise many of the families share common memories of church picnics and community baseball games.

They also have other less pleasant things in common: The ability to trace their ancestry to ledgers keeping score of which black slave belonged to which slave owner. In later years, those ledgers kept track of which black sharecropper was indebted and bound by contract to white property owners.

It's a part of history that some people in the area would just as soon forget and not talk about.

"When I posed the first question about slavery, someone said, ‘You not from around here, are you,'" said Caroline Crittenden, project coordinator of the African American Heritage Site at the Sautee Nacoochee Center.

Some would argue that you should leave well enough alone. Others counter that you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

These particular stories may belong to the people of Bean Creek, but they're not unique to the area. Slavery and segregation are a part of America's history.

A hurtful past

As she relaxes in her tan recliner, Lena Dorsey has a clear view of the Bean Creek Community.

It's a close-knit neighborhood that she's called home for all of her 76 years, as did her mother and father.

"Mom would walk over to (Sautee Nacoochee) to go work on the farm. Her and my daddy," said Dorsey, who is known as the "blind matriarch of Bean Creek."

"Wasn't nothing else to do but to work on somebody's farm. They worked till they got through, wasn't no set hours.

"They had some pretty hard times, but my granny and them had a really, really hard time."

Why were times so hard for her grandmother? The answer is simple, if unpleasant: She knew all too well the harsh realities of slavery.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation technically freed enslaved blacks in 1863 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was meant to end racial discrimination, the residents of Bean Creek can attest that change is sometimes a slow and painful process.

"In order to subsist, the recently freed black people had to come into all kinds of agreements that weren't in their favor," Crittenden said.

To Dorsey's recollection, her parents never received an actual wage for their work.

"Wasn't no fair wage. Sometimes all they got paid was a bunch of (newspapers)," Dorsey remembers.

"Since they worked on the farm, I can say they kept us with food. That's the most we got out of it. I never went to bed hungry, but I can't say that I wasn't barefooted."

Even in the 1960s, family member Lawrence Dorsey says the exploitation of blacks for labor continued.

"A man would drive by in a truck and tell us to get in. We would work all day and not get paid," Lawrence Dorsey said.

"Sometimes we got a stack of newspapers and sometimes we got a sack of potatoes or something. We growed our own potatoes, we didn't need theirs. We was expecting to get paid."

And while logic would dictate avoiding such work, refusing to get in the truck carried an even worse fate.

"There could be consequences," Crittenden said. "You could be charged with vagrancy or some other trumped-up charge and go to prison, then be leased out. So you may have been better off to get in the truck.

"I don't know that it happened here, but I know that it happened all over the South."

Reminders still standing

Though slavery ended nearly 150 years ago, fragments of its impact remain.

The Old White County Courthouse sits in the center of downtown Cleveland and is used as a community meeting place. In 1970, the red brick building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In the mid 1800s, it was constructed using the free labor of slaves.

There are other unsuspecting monuments to racial discrimination and oppression in the communities like Sautee Nacoochee that surround Bean Creek, including a portion of the property owned by Skylake.

"Skylake is about four miles north of Bean Creek. Now it is a gated community with about 450 homes," Crittenden said.

"About 1825 or so, Jessie Monroe bought some of the land up there. Subsequently his family sold a lot of it to William J. Simmons, who was the (Ku Klux Klan) grand dragon for the state of Georgia."

Simmons had a little room built into the retaining wall of a dam he had built, which is where the KKK reportedly held initiation meetings, Crittenden says.

The land eventually passed through a few more hands before it before a Jewish rabbi turned it into Sky Lake Camp.

"To me, it was poetic justice that this place formerly owned by the grand dragon ended up being a place that employed the residents of Bean Creek," Crittenden said.

Living history

Driving down Bean Creek Road, Andy Allen recalls earlier times in her neighborhood. She easily recalls where families once lived, who has died and who has moved on.

"This road here, Trammell Drive, it goes round there for about a mile. They call that 'in the holler,'" she said with a laugh.

Some memories aren't as happy, like the time she wasn't allowed to travel with her school's basketball team.

"A lot of schools didn't desegregate as well as White County. We did it without no problems. There was no rioting or nothing like that," Allen said.

"When I went to White County High School in 1965-1966, I was the first black girl to play on the girls basketball team. We were going to Forsyth County to play ball and the coach told me, ‘Andy I love you too good to carry you over there. People don't accept blacks yet.'

"He said when they came to us, I could play. When they came, the fans threw black-eyed peas at me on the court. Every once in a while the officials would have to stop the game to clear the peas. They were some cruel people."

That wouldn't be Allen's last time integrating White County's school system.

Although the schools desegregated in the 1960s, the buses transporting students to school weren't integrated until 20 years later.

"I was the only black driver. I was only hauling black kids," Allen said.

Though she wanted to stop and pick up the other kids, she wasn't allowed to.

"I was bypassing white children standing on the road waiting for their buses and I would only have about 25 kids on my bus, and it was a 66-passenger bus."

Things didn't change until a number of community complaints, including those from Allen, caused the school board to integrate the buses in October 1989.

Good or bad, community preservationists say all local anecdotes and history need to be recorded. Not to judge, but for posterity's sake.

If it isn't written down, how else will future generations know that when 20th Century Fox came to Sautee to film "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain" in the 1950s, Bean Creek residents Lam and Pierce Jarrett rented film crews a horse and buggy for $50 a day?

Or that decades after it became available, Mary Ann Brown Winn never had running water or electricity installed in her home.

"She never even had a stove. Her windows didn't have glass, just wooden shutters that she would push open or pull closed with a rope," Allen said of her mother's aunt.

"That's how she grew up, so she saw no reason to change it. She lived there until she died."

And how the black congregation of the Bean Creek Baptist Church was able to save money to pay $10 in the 1800s for the church building and a surrounding acre of land.

"Our history is vanishing," Allen said.

If not for written history, who will tell future generations how Margaret Jarrett used a nail to scratch an engraving on the tombstone of her mother, Mary Lou Jarrett, who died in April 1955?

If not for local history books and museums, who will tell the tales of the descendents of slaves buried in the Bean Creek church cemetery?

People like Dorsey won't be around forever to share what they know.

"It was lots more people here than it is now," Dorsey said. "Everybody had big families then, but when they grew up and could do better, they got out from here. I reckon I never did have a desire to leave.

"The thang of it is, there's gonna be a bad apple in every bunch. That's between them and they God. Some of them didn't know better, but I suppose some of them did.

"I forgive 'em for it. They gotta pay for it. Not me."



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