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Johnny Vardeman: Public housing and the legacy of a preacher
Green Hunter

Some Gainesville homes were still without electricity and used kerosene for both heating and lighting in the late 1940s when the idea for a public housing project began to take shape.

The demolition of Atlanta Street Apartments, a federal housing complex on Gainesville’s E.E. Butler Parkway, brings to mind the beginnings of the Gainesville Housing Authority and low-rent public housing.

Jim Chapman of the housing authority traced the beginnings of the agency and its first housing initiative.

Bill Rogers was mayor in 1949 and challenged the city to replace unsafe and unsanitary housing, mostly on Gainesville’s southside. Rogers named the housing authority’s first members: Charles Hardy, Dr. Clarence Butler, Carl Romberg Sr., Henry Washington and John W. Jacobs.

The authority planned for an ambitious 700 housing units, but the number was slashed to 200 for lack of funds. Some feared the first apartments wouldn’t be filled, but 1,326 applications were filed. Applicants could have no more than $2,200 in income, and they would have to move out if the family’s combined income reached $2,750.

The city got a $70,000 loan from the federal government to plan the complexes, which eventually cost $2 million. In addition to the Atlanta Street apartments, Melrose Homes were built on Davis Street off what is now Queen City Parkway. Both complexes began filling in 1952.

The Atlanta Street apartments originally were known as Green Hunter Homes in memory of a minister who started and served numerous churches in the area. Gainesville’s Junior Service League, as it was called then, established Green Hunter Nursery to serve children in the area.

The Rev. Hunter was born in 1853 south of Jefferson. His family were slaves of Starkie Hunter, whom Hunter described in his autobiography as “a good, kind-hearted and noble man, who owned quite a number of slaves and never was known to mistreat one of them.” However, Hunter’s mother Polly was sold separately from him when he was 6 years old. He stayed with Starkie Hunter’s nephew William Hunter 16 years until the Civil War ended.

Green Hunter moved to Atlanta, where he became interested in the ministry. He was ordained and took charge of a series of churches, organizing new churches in Jackson County and elsewhere. In Jackson County, whenever he started churches, he bought bells for them.

At age 19, he married Lottie Moon, and they had nine boys and three girls. They moved to Hall County, and he continued to plant new churches, among them Pleasant Hill, Cross Plain, Timber Ridge, St. John Baptist, Wahoo, Friendship Baptist and Mount Zion Baptist in Toccoa, Liberty Hill in Banks County and others in Lavonia, Rock Hill in Hall and Lumpkin counties, and one in Lavonia.

Hunter wrote numerous hymns and served 25 years as moderator of the Northwestern Baptist Association, an organization of mostly black churches. The association under his leadership established a school on the site where First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Drive stands today.

The school cost $1,200 to build in 1911 and served the black community until the public Fair Street School succeeded it.

In his memoirs, Hunter wrote how it was during slave times: “I can remember well when colored people were sold like cattle. Wherever white people had a goodly number of Negroes and died without making a will, all of the Negroes were sold. They would carry them to their respective county seats and sell them before the courthouse door, putting them on a block. ... Three-month-old babies were put on the block and sold. ... Sometimes the children would be sold from their mothers.

“I remember when my mother was sold from me when I was 5 years old. My sister was sold also, and I have not seen her since. When we were freed, my mother returned, and I lived with her.”

Hunter also told the story of a black slave named Ned who preached in churches against the will of his owner. When the owner learned his slave was preaching, he tied him to a log and began to beat him. The slave and his wife began to pray, and the slave owner was stricken and fell to the ground. Recovering enough to speak, he called Ned to him, wrote “you are free” on a paper and said he’d never own him again.

Hunter wrote, “Ned got his freedom by preaching the Gospel ere (before) emancipation.” The Rev. Hunter died in 1941.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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