From early on, Liberty County was at the center of the civil rights movement in Georgia. It was the first Georgia county in modern times to register more African Americans to vote than it did white voters, and the Dorchester Academy in Midway is one of only 12 locations in the South and three in Georgia included on the recently announced Civil Rights Trail.
Some of that history is still very much alive.
I had an opportunity to sit down with a cadre of African American elders, each of whom was filled with cautionary tales from their parents and grandparents as well as personal stories and memories of survival.
What resonated from the interviews is a collective memory of racial injustice and human resilience.
Mamie Stevens Clay, 96
Born in 1922, Mamie Stevens Clay was a teacher for many years in the Liberty County School System. She grew up during the Great Depression era in a rural black community south of Dorchester Academy called Claybank. She shared her recollections of the state of black education in the decades preceding the civil rights movement.
“Up until Liberty Elementary and Liberty High School were built, in black communities like Claybank, Wayland and others all across Liberty County, we had our own schools and our own teachers. And we had to walk to school on dirt roads sometimes as many as seven or eight miles one way. If it rained and the creek overflowed, my father would carry us and other children in the community to school in his wagon. School buses came much later,” Clay said.
Henry Otis Stevens, 89
At the age of 18, veteran Henry O. “Sarge” Stevens voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in Fort Lee, Virginia. He served the United States Army for 18 months in the Philippines. With only a grade school education, he took this route because jobs were extremely scarce in Liberty County.
“I joined because there was nothing here for me to do here,” Stevens said. “Other people from Liberty County joined the Army including my brother Oliver Nathaniel Stevens. When I returned I saw that just because the war had ended did not mean that white people’s attitude toward black people had ended.
“Everybody had a place and life was pretty good (free of violence) if you stayed in your place,” Stevens said. “Black people couldn’t go in the front doors of restaurants. They had to go in the back door. It didn’t feel good, but we had to do it anyway. White people felt they always had to be first and black people were second class. Back in those days we had to walk to school and the whites would ride school buses or get a ride.
“My father owned a lot of acres of land. The electric company took my daddy’s land from him because he did not have the plat. Daddy got the land from his father Harry Stevens. Black people had land back in them days,” he said.
Laura Bell Caswell, 86
A restaurant service worker in her adult years, Caswell remembers a great deal from her childhood:
“All of this happened before there was a I-95,” she said. “I attended the school that was there before Moose Hill School in Midway until the seventh grade and then I had to stop going because my daddy was sick. After he passed, I worked a while at Coastal Best Restaurant for about two years. Then I worked at Ida Mae and Joe’s Truck Stop on Highway 17. There was no Interstate 95 then. In restaurants, whites could sit down and eat or go anywhere they wanted to eat in the front. But, black people they had to go to the back to buy their food or they could sit in the kitchen and eat.”
She does not recall those days fondly.
“It was horrible before the civil rights period. White people during those times were mean to blacks,” she said. “And they didn’t have to do anything to them to receive mean and nasty treatment. When the ‘100’ returned to Fort Stewart from overseas, they went to a restaurant in Hinesville. They were told to go in the back to eat because some of them were black. They would’ve blowed up the place if they didn’t get any service. One day an Army captain was in the restaurant when that happened and he told them to serve the black soldiers. He told them to come in and eat and the restaurant let them eat,” she said.
Up next: more recollections of how life was for African Americans before the Civil Rights movement.
Glass-Hill is a scholar, author and public historian, known for her research on the life of Liberty County’s native daughter Susie Baker King Taylor.