Over the years, Marietta’s historic black neighborhoods saw struggle and triumph as residents strove to overcome hardship and achieve their dreams.
The history of Marietta’s black neighborhoods is the topic of a series of lectures at the Marietta Museum of History by local historian Michael Thomas. Thomas, a Marietta native and senior manager for a software company, said he wants to help preserve the history of his hometown. His father was the first African American to serve on the Marietta Housing Authority, and his mother, Juanita Thomas, remains active in school and civic activities.
Thomas said he is winding down his professional career and hopes to focus more on his passions, which include photography as well as African American history.
“I have always been interested in African American history, but particularly Marietta because of the many troubling stories I read about in other local cities around race relations but did not experience in Marietta,” he said. “We had a Black Awareness Group that was led by Felecca Wilson Taylor that taught us about African American history and we met at Lemon Street Elementary School and that was the foundation of my interest in African American history,” he said.
Thomas said black residents from the old days were relatively happy in Marietta compared to other Southern towns, but he said things were not ideal, and people still had to struggle against discrimination.
Among the most prominent of Marietta’s black neighborhoods were Liberia, located east of the Square along Lawrence Street; Baptist Town in the city’s north, named for its many churches, bounded by Page, Montgomery, Cherokee and Cole streets; Holland Town in the south, between Roswell Street and Atlanta Street; Louisville to the west in the Wright-Reynolds Street area, and Happy Flat, a smaller black neighborhood on Orange Street.
In his thesis, “Modernization and its Impact upon Marietta, Georgia’s Black Neighborhoods,” historian Alan McClarnand said postwar settlement patterns in Marietta matched those in other cities.
“Black enclaves formed around the city center, where whites either sold them land or allowed blacks to rent,” McClarnand said. “Black churches were built in every black neighborhood. Those places became important in the development of organizational strategies. It was a place where blacks could typically meet and discuss topics without interference.”
McClarnand said a Marietta city directory from 1883 lists jobs performed by black residents including carpenters, masons, waiters, cooks, nurses and servants. The vast majority of African Americans in Marietta became laborers or skilled workers, but a significant number started their own businesses, McClarnand said.
Among these were black hairstylists, some of whom catered exclusively to whites, as well as black-owned billiards halls, restaurants, grocery stores and drug stores.
One black-owned grocery store on Marietta Square, owned by a man named Frank Rogers, was said to earn between $40 and $50 a week around the 1880s. McClarnand said Rogers’ store was unlike other black businesses in that it was in plain sight of the busy downtown. Rogers also ran an ice cream shop and was said to have been involved with the Republican Party.
One of the most successful black business owners was Augustus Sylvester “Shine” Fowler, known to some as “the mayor of Lawrence Street.”
McClarnand said Fowler is reputed to have owned a funeral home, taxi fleet, poolroom, a bar and several rental homes in a district of Marietta called “Little Harlem,” the nickname for the black business section on Lawrence Street.
A notable African American farming community could be found just outside the city limits near where Dobbins Air Reserve Base is now. It was called Jonesville, and freed African Americans started a church there in 1864, soon after the arrival of Union troops. Black and white people grew crops there between 1864 and 1940, either as owners or sharecroppers.
By 1940, nearly half of the families in Jonesville owned their homes.
McClarnand said home ownership was a dream for many African American families, and some managed to attain that dream despite a lack of formal education.
Lawyer Stokes only had a second grade education, but he was able to own a home and put both of his daughters through high school by running a tailoring business. One daughter, Louise, started her own beauty shop, while the other daughter, Annie, worked as a domestic.
McClarnand said records show black Mariettans who grew up in the early 20th century were much more likely to have gotten a primary or, in some cases, secondary education than their parents. That became easier in the 1920s with the opening of Marietta’s first black high school.
Longtime Zion Baptist Church member Elsie Stovall remembered that original schoolhouse in a 1986 interview with Kennesaw State University history professor Tom Scott.
“Well, before the brick building the first high school was originated in Baptist Town at the corner of Harold and Johnson,” she said. “It was an old abandoned church building, just about to fall down; but during the time that we didn’t have a high school, there were a lot of kids just not getting a high school education. They just had to get a job if they could.”
That school was replaced by Perkinson High School, which later changed names to the Lemon Street High School, Stovall said.
But McClarnand said a high school education was not a free pass to the middle class.
“Young white women from upper and middle class neighborhoods, with high school educations, often worked as stenographers, secretaries or clerks,” he said. “Black women, with the same or even higher levels of education, most often worked as maids, cooks or were unemployed.”
Because black people were often stuck in lower-pay jobs and were not allowed to move to nicer parts of town, black neighborhoods tended to fall by the wayside. Electricity and plumbing were not in many homes, and the areas became known for high crime rates.
“When you look at certain areas and say they’re slums, they’re this and that, think about the fact that people wanted homes, but they were not able to make enough money to keep their homes up, and that was the least of their worries,” Thomas said. “They’re just trying to live, and the areas became deteriorated, and then they called them slums. It wasn’t by choice. People want nice things.”
Around the 1930s, with the advent of the New Deal, Marietta and other cities started to consider public housing.
The government created guidelines for loans or loan guarantees on behalf of local public entities to pay for housing construction. When a new housing project was approved, a local authority had to raise 10% of the cost while the federal government supplied the rest with a low-interest 60-year loan, Thomas said.
The first housing project built in America was Techwood Homes in Atlanta, also known as the Flats, built in 1935.
Two years later, the Marietta Housing Authority was formed to help the city qualify for federal funds. Holland Town, an integrated neighborhood south of the Square was chosen as the first location. That was the beginning of the end for many of Marietta’s black neighborhoods.
Holland Town was the first in Marietta to go. It was replaced by Clay Homes, a project for white people named for U.S. Sen. Alexander Clay of Marietta, whose statue can be found on the Marietta Square, and Fort Hill, a project for black people with fewer facilities.
Vann Worthy, a former resident of Lyman Homes northeast of downtown, said for some, living in the projects was an improvement.
“It was nicer to live, believe it or not, in the projects,” she said. “Not everybody lived there because they wanted to, but because it was segregation and because it was what it was, where we lived in Lyman Homes was actually pretty nice. People kept up homes, grew flowers, they treated it like they owned the property, even though we were renting.”
But the process of removing people from their homes was not easy or amenable for everyone, Thomas said. When it came time for the Bell Bomber plant to move in, Jonesville residents were forced out.
“It was not an easy process, and many people lost their homes, and very few records (exist) of if they were paid properly for it,” he said. “There is still an area close to Dobbins where the cemetery of the African Community is still located.”
Thomas’ lectures continue Nov. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the museum. Admission is free for members and $5 for non-members.