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Two Gainesville natives preserve black history

Women collect Hall County's stories for future generations

POSTED: August 25, 2013 1:00 a.m.

As childhood friends, Ella Smith and Linda Hutchens spent most of their summer evenings listening to stories.

The two girls hurried to finish their chores to spend the nights hearing their grandparents tell old family histories on the porch.

“It must have just been germane to the South’s period,” Hutchens said. “Grandparents sitting out on the porch, neighbors coming by and they would inevitably start telling these stories. They weren’t really stories. They were true.”

By listening to their elders, the girls picked up details of local and family history that might otherwise have been forgotten.

As adults, those details served them well as the duo recorded Hall County’s African-American pictorial history in their book “Black America Series: Hall County Georgia.”

Preserving history and keeping the old stories alive has always been important to both women. Both said they made it a point to tell “bedtime stories” to their children as they were growing up, so they would understand where they came from and where they were going.

Storytelling, they agreed, is becoming a lost art.

“Young people don’t do the storytelling with their kids like we did,” Smith said.

Hutchens’ favorite stories as a child were told near the train station in Lula where her grandfather worked.

“All the men in the community, they would come by and sit under the tree and they had all these stories to tell of their adventures of working on the railroad in the Carolinas,” Hutchens said.

While the stories were “fascinating” for the children, they also learned about the difficulties their grandparents faced and how to appreciate the changes coming their way.

“They would really tell you about their struggles and the dreams they had for you,” Smith said. “They always would say, ‘I want you to have a better life than I had.’ That’s what I would tell my kids. They would really put a lot of emphasis on you having a better life.”

Both of their families felt education paved the way for a better life.

“Education was very important when we were growing up, because it was going to get us where we were going in life,” Smith said. “We knew without that education we wouldn’t succeed as well as a kid that did have an education. My mama always taught us that the sky was the limit. To go for it if we wanted to succeed in life.”

Hutchens nodded in agreement, explaining there were no options when it came to school in her family.

“The rule in our house was that you were going to complete high school. You were not given a choice,” Hutchens said, laughing. “You would complete high school and they preferred that you go to college.”

The women grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, “in the midst of the civil rights age.” The changing social landscape proved intimidating.

Smith first learned about integration as a child in her fifth-grade classroom at Fair Street Elementary. Smith said when her teacher explained one day she would sit in the same classroom and eat at the same lunch table with white students, she felt scared.

“Being 10 years old and always in a segregated classroom I thought ‘Oh my gosh.’ I thought she was crazy,” Smith said. “I couldn’t even visualize things being that way at 10.”

As nervous as she felt, Smith said the idea became a dream.

“In the segregated time, it was a scary era,” Smith said. “It was like we were going to be boxed in from succeeding. From getting the education that we want. For exploring the world like we would love to explore.”

Smith told her children and grandchildren about the experience, but said to truly appreciate what it was like, “you would have to live, go through it to appreciate it.”

After graduating from Gainesville High School 1966 alongside Smith, Hutchens said her father took her aside and explained the changing world.

“I’ll never forget,” Hutchens said. “He said ‘Linda, things are changing. You are going to have to compete on a different level. So you need to go further, reach out.’ In other words he was telling me that I would have more options in getting an education. I would no longer be confined to all-black institutions. I would have an option of attending and have choices of a wider variety of schools.”

Her father also had a unique way to motivating his five children to continue their education. She laughed and said he helped his sons get the “dirtiest, nastiest jobs” of hanging live chickens at a poultry plant.

“He told them this is what you’re going to be doing the rest of your life if you don’t get to school,” Hutchens said.

Hutchens ultimately attended Gainesville Community College and the University of Georgia. She worked as a reading teacher in the Gainesville City School System for 30 years before retiring.

Smith learned quickly after graduation the importance of education.

“At the time I graduated it was a matter of having a job,” said Smith, who briefly worked in the poultry industry. “I thought ‘Well, that’s where the black people worked.’ It was the only place you could make halfway decent money.”

After one day and one hour, Smith decided the job did not suit her. Smith apologized to the supervisor for quitting. He responded with a “very bad comment.”

She left that day and applied for a job at a telephone company. She worked there for several years.

“I wish I could go back and let him know, ‘You know, I’m not a lazy person. It just that wasn’t for me,’” Smith said.

She eventually found her calling as the “bookmobile lady” for the library. She retired from the library in 2008 after a nearly 30-year career.

Both women laughed about how their careers brought them full circle back to their earliest passions: stories and history. Neither felt writing a book was her destiny. But when the opportunity arose both women knew they should take it.

The authors admit their lives are busy since retirement and don’t know if they’ll write another book. They’re waiting on young people to get inspired and help them. They hope their efforts will encourage others to take an interest in history and see how their lives were bettered by the struggles and successes of those who came before.

The knowledge of what happened in the past and the changes they have seen in their own lifetimes have given the women a unique perspective on their lives.

“You have to keep the faith, walk the walk and at the end of the rainbow I can just say I’ve been blessed,” Smith said. “I’ve really been blessed..”

“We both have,” Hutchens added. “In other words, we wouldn’t take anything for our journey.”


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