Black Bartow County

Earlier this summer I visited the Bartow History Museum, located in Bartow County’s first postbellum courthouse on East Church Street in Cartersville, right beside the Western & Atlantic train tracks and now overshadowed by a bridge built to span the tracks. Its exhibits are well done. Currently, on the main floor, is a photo gallery of different musical groups from the county, and a feature exhibition about the county’s notable women, in honor of the ratification of the nineteenth amendment one hundred years ago this month. Upstairs, in the Dellinger Family Exhibition Gallery, is a permanent display taking the visitor through the history of the area, starting with the Mississippian Indians who built the Etowah Mounds, through Cherokee removal, white settlement, the Civil War, local industry, commerce, and agriculture, the county’s participation in the World Wars, and the current scene. As I say, it is very well done – except that I couldn’t help but notice that the whole thing gives short shrift to Bartow’s African-American community. 

Slavery is briefly mentioned on a single panel in the antebellum section…

…and on the way in, in a photo montage entitled “A Sense of Place,” one finds a group photograph of some members of the “Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, Mission Road, 1954,” clearly an African-American congregation. And that’s pretty much it.*

I think that Bartow’s Black history deserves more attention than this. Although plantation slavery was not as common in north Georgia as it was in the Black Belt, as the panel above states, by 1840 there were some 2000 slaves in the county, out of a total population of 9340. I have discovered that slaves were occasionally sold on the courthouse steps in Cassville, the original county seat.** What was it like for these people? What happened to them when Sherman came though on the Atlanta Campaign, armed with the Emancipation Proclamation? How did they deal with this newfound freedom – and with the imposition of Jim Crow once Reconstruction was called off? How did Bartow County experience the Civil Rights movement, and what is the situation of Bartow’s Black population today? These are all stories that ought to be told.

Fortunately, they are getting some attention in other ways. The Etowah Valley Historical Society sponsors an African-American History Initiative, which was responsible for the sculpture Pathways to Freedom, on display in front of Cartersville City Hall. And the Cartersville-Bartow Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (in alliance with the Cartersville Downtown Development Authority) has helped create an African American Heritage Trail in the county. An abridged description of the trail may be found on the Bureau’s website, and the full version may be found in a pamphlet available at the Bartow History Museum and elsewhere (and downloadable as a pdf). A shout-out to Reinhardt’s Pam Wilson for her contributions to this. 

The pamphlet is quite well done (by my friend Lara Jeanneret of Lara J Designs, as it happens, whose work I highly recommend). It features an introduction and historical timeline, and details some nineteen historically significant sites throughout Bartow County, eleven of which are in Cartersville. Some of these I have already seen and blogged about this summer, such as the Pathways to Freedom sculpture, the covered bridge in Euharlee (built by Washington King, son of freedman Horace King), the Black Pioneers’ Cemetery in Euharlee (rediscovered and saved from development in 2002), and the gravesite of Michelle Obama’s three-greats grandmother Melvinia Shields in Kingston. Some of the pamphlet’s other sites are somewhat amorphous, like “2. The Clothing Trades” (active on East Church Street in Cartersville) or “7. African American Real Estate Developers” (active on West Main Street). But others are more concrete, and in my last act of local exploration this summer I determined to see some of them. One was quite by accident: I was eating lunch in Ross’s Diner when I read, in the “3. Segregation” section of the Heritage Trail pamphlet:

Both of Cartersville’s historic courthouses had segregated balconies where African Americans were required to sit. The Grand Theatre had a separate entrance for black movie patrons, which led to a segregated seating section. At both Ross’s Diner and 4-Way Lunch, one can still see the separate entrances designated for African American diners, who also were required to sit at segregated counters at the rear of the buildings adjacent to the kitchen areas.

I asked the manager if this was true, and she admitted it was, and directed me outside and to the rear of the building, as if I was going to use the toilet.

Ross’s Diner, front entrance on Wall Street.

Ross’s Diner, rear entrance off the side alley.

The room that one enters from this door is easy to imagine as a secondary dining area; it is now storage, with the main kitchen to the right. The toilet is in a closet off this room. (I assume that Ross’s Diner didn’t always offer toilet facilities, or else the “white” toilets, wherever they may have been, were decommissioned at some point. The races couldn’t possibly have shared toilets.)

After Ross’s, I walked north on Erwin Street to see “9. Vinnie’s Cabin,” which is located behind a fine nineteenth century house, currently occupied by Strands Hair Salon. 

The main house, believed to have been the first one built in Cartersville, was the “townhome” property of Elijah Murphy Field and Cornelia Maxey Harrison Field,*** whose main residence was on a large plantation on Pumpkinvine Creek, worked by slaves. Obviously their townhome would have needed some staff as well, and cabins out back, one of which still stands, would have been where these people lived. The abolition of slavery did not mean that such social relations entirely disappeared, however, and the cabin takes its name from Vinnie Salter Johnson, a Black woman who was born into slavery in 1855 but who was subsequently employed as a cook by the Field family. She lived with her son in what used to be the slave cabin until she made enough money to be able to rent her own home on nearby Bartow St. I do not know at what point the cabin ceased to be occupied by any Field family employees, or why it survived to the present, but I am glad that it did. It is good to retain such mementoes of the past, as uncomfortable as they might make us now. 

An even more important reminder of the old days (and, perhaps, a more positive one) is “12. The Summer Hill Heritage Foundation” on Aubrey Street. Summer Hill is a historically Black neighborhood, and Summer Hill School was the Black school for Cartersville. The school dates from 1889 and taught students from first through sixth grade; a new wooden structure was built for it in 1922, which was replaced by an even larger brick structure in 1956, by which time Summer Hill School offered high school instruction and fielded sports teams. With the fall of segregation in 1968, the school was closed, but the building (as a community center) and sports facilities (a gym, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and a swimming pool) remain in use. Apparently there is a small museum in the complex, but unfortunately the whole place was closed on account of the plague. 

The disused concrete bleachers of Blue Devil Stadium, hand-built by parents in the community. 

“He who thinks can conquer” statue on the grounds. 

A little further up the street, one encounters “13. Masonic Lodge,” a disused building that at one point functioned as the meeting place for a so-called Prince Hall Lodge. In 1775, Prince Hall and fourteen other free Black men, having been rejected for membership in a colonial Masonic lodge, were initiated by British soldiers into the Grand Lodge of Ireland, and later received recognition as African Lodge No. 1. (Such consideration, it seems, did not convince Hall to support the British during the Revolutionary War.) Out of this act eventually grew an independent branch of Freemasonry for African-American men that spread throughout the North, and then into the South following the Civil War. Like other fraternal organizations, Prince Hall lodges offered fellowship for members and allowed the pooling of resources for charitable work, and were thus an important pillar of the African-American community. Cartersville’s Prince Hall Lodge, designated Mount Zion Lodge #6, was founded in 1896. The pamphlet claims that it is “one of the oldest continually active African American lodges in the state,” although I can find no evidence on the Internet that it still exists, and it clearly does not use this building anymore. In its day it ran the Benevolent Brotherhood Society, into which community members made contributions and could draw on in times of emergency. 

Freemasonry is not as popular as it once was although the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia does seem to be a going concern – with or without the Cartersville chapter. 

But perhaps the most significant African-American site in all of Bartow County is “17. Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center” in Cassville. Noble Hill School (also called Cassville Colored School) was constructed in 1923 with help from the Rosenwald Fund. I had never heard of this before, but it was quite important in its day. Like the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who built all those libraries, Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears, Roebuck and Co., in partnership with Booker T. Washington, used his wealth for the greater good by helping to fund the construction of schools, many of them for Black children in the segregated South. Rosenwald grants were always matching grants, and it should be noted that only 33% of the cost of the Noble Hill school building came from the Fund; 47% was raised by the local community, with the remainder coming from the Bartow Board of Education. The building featured two rooms, one for first through third grade, the other for fourth through seventh grade – and large windows to take advantage of the natural light, as it was not wired for electricity. The school closed in 1955 when many of Bartow County’s Black schools were amalgamated to form Bartow Elementary School (I do not know where this building was located, or what has become of it since the end of segregation). 

From a display at Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center.

After standing empty for a number of years, the Rosenwald building was resurrected in the 1980s as the site of the Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center, a museum dedicated to the former school and to African-American history in Bartow County. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

Webster Wheeler. noblehillwheeler.org

The “Wheeler” in the institution’s title is the surname of the family most closely associated with Noble Hill: Webster Wheeler (1871-1943) was the school’s main builder; Bethel Wheeler was Webster’s son and assistant; Bertha Wheeler was Bethel’s wife who owned the building and donated it for use as a museum; and Susie Weems Wheeler (1917-2007) was the wife of Webster’s son Daniel, who was an early graduate of the school and who served as the driving force behind the establishment of the museum. 

Dr. Susie Wheeler. “Women of Bartow County” exhibit, Bartow History Museum, 2020.

Susie Wheeler had an accomplished career. She received a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College and eventually an Ed.D. from Atlanta (now Clark Atlanta) University. She taught in Bartow County and later acted as a Jeanes supervisor, that is, a superintendent of Black schools, for Bartow, Gordon, and Polk Counties. She finished her career as curriculum director for the (now integrated) Bartow County Board of Education, and received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2007. She was also a world traveler and 62-year member of Delta Sigma Theta

Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center is also closed on account of the virus, but I was fortunate to be given a private tour by museum curator Valerie Coleman. Some items on display:

This quilt, which received an honorable mention at the Atlanta Quilt Festival, records people who were important to Noble Hill, including Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington on the bottom left, and Webster, Bertha, Bethel, and Susie Wheeler above them. The color picture at the top (underneath the “g” and the “H”) is of another notable local figure: Robert Benham (b. 1946) a native of Cartersville and the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia (1989-2020, with a term as Chief Justice 1995-2001). Justice Benham did not attend Noble Hill, but did graduate from Summer Hill in 1963, and was recruited by Susie Wheeler as a trustee of the Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center. In this capacity he arranged for a session of the Supreme Court of Georgia at the Center in 1992!

Justice Robert Benham and other members of the Supreme Court of Georgia at Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center, 1992.

Dr. W.R. Moore.

The Center also possesses the medical books, photos, and certificates of Dr. William Riley Moore (1881-1954), the first African-American doctor in Cartersville. Dr. Moore came to town from Florida (from the city of Bartow, as it happens) in 1910 and established a practice for himself above Gassett’s Grocery (site 5 on the Heritage Trail) in the African-American business district on West Main Street. He later moved his office to Summer Hill and practiced there until his death in 1954. He delivered almost all the Black babies born in Cartersville (and a few white ones too, although this is not something that he could publicly acknowledge). He was also an important community leader and was instrumental in establishing the Faith Cabin Library in Cartersville for the use of African-Americans. Both he and his landlord John Gassett are buried in the Black section of Oak Hill Cemetery (which, surprisingly, is not a site on the Heritage Trail).

Photo: C.P. McAbee.

My final stop on the Heritage Trail was “16. St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church,” also in Cassville. Like the Prince Hall Masons, the AME Church has its origins in the social prejudices of northern whites against Black people. Tired of the restrictions placed on him, the Black Methodist minister Richard Allen founded the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia in 1794, catering to the free Black population of that city. Other ministers followed his example, and in 1816 he organized the AME Church as an independent denomination, with himself as first bishop. The AME Church spread throughout the South following the Civil War, ministering to freedmen. An AME congregation was organized in Cassville in the late 1860s; the local Presbyterians bequeathed to it their church building, as they were all relocating to Cartersville, the new county seat.† 

Unfortunately this historic congregation has essentially died out, and the church building is disused and not in the best repair (the photo of the interior was provided by my friend Christopher McAbee, who has done research on St. James). There are other active AME congregations in Bartow County, however, and other Black churches (mostly Baptist). It would be nice if some appropriate use could be found for this building – and for the Summer Hill Masonic Hall, for that matter.

But, some will wonder, why do we need to focus on “African-American History” at all? Why all the fuss about people who possess some arbitrary physical attribute that ought to be as trivial as having freckles or being left-handed? This is a natural attitude for people who grew up in mostly-white communities but who have been programmed against racism by everything in their culture. If “we’re all the same underneath,” as they’ve been taught from birth, then why do we pay so much attention to what’s on the surface? Why do we celebrate Black achievements so vociferously, in a way that we don’t for other discrete categories of human?

The answer, of course, is that for the longest time white people believed that we weren’t all the same underneath. My theory is that Early Modern Europeans always had a slightly guilty conscience about slavery – so they invented racism in order to justify it, and thereby made it worse. Slavery is bad, they thought, but it’s not as bad to enslave morally inferior people, clearly marked by their dark skin – in fact, it might even be good for them! Thus, predictably, just because one gets rid of the slavery, doesn’t mean that one gets rid of the racism. Even white Americans in places that had abolished Black slavery in the eighteenth century, and who invaded the Confederacy in order to end the practice, saw no reason to accept free Blacks as social equals. The “races” generally did not mix, and if there was ever a question of the distribution of resources, it was white people who got the lion’s share, if not the whole thing. (If Black people did not like this dispensation, they could always go “back” to Africa. Whites were never enjoined to go “back” to Europe.)

And if this is how Northerners thought, how much more so did Southerners, who in an act of aggression displacement blamed their former slaves for the devastation wrought upon the South by the North, and once they regained control of their states instituted a panoply of laws known by the collective name of “Jim Crow.” Such laws were largely animated by the principle of segregation, the notion that Black people and white people should occupy completely different social spaces, with this division enforced in various formal and informal ways. As this blog post has indicated, during the Jim Crow era in Georgia, Black people and white people had separate: 

• neighborhoods and commercial areas
• schools
• colleges and universities
• churches
• fraternal organizations
• (areas in) cemeteries
• seating areas in restaurants, theaters, and courtrooms
• professional service providers 

One can think of any number of other areas where segregation was applied:

sports leagues
• recreational facilities like swimming pools and even state parks (e.g. “10. George Washington Carver State Park for Negroes” on Lake Allatoona)
• hotels
• prisons
• public toilets and drinking fountains

And so on. In fairness, sometimes such things were found far beyond the states of the former Confederacy. (But I’ve always distrusted the cliché that “in the North, it doesn’t matter how big you get as long as you don’t get too close, but in the South, it doesn’t matter how close you get as long as you don’t get too big.” What was segregation if not an attempt at keeping people from getting too close?)

The fundamental justification for segregation is that the “races” really are different from each other, really are like oil and water, and for everyone’s sake ought to be kept apart from each other. And the longer segregation went on, the more self-justifying it became. For not only did people look different, with social separation they had evolved different cultures, with different ways of speaking, different ways of interacting, different bodies of background knowledge, and so on. In this way are the races really more than “skin deep” in the United States – phenotype is generally a marker of culture as well. 

So what is wrong with segregation then? What’s wrong with you hanging out with your people, and I hanging out with mine? We self-segregate along such lines all the time, as any observation of the school cafeteria will indicate. What’s the big deal? Well, the answer is that there is a big difference between doing something because you want to, and doing something because you have to. Much more important, however, is the whole issue of power. White people were in command of all levels of government, and whether by law or social custom, segregation was their project, implemented for their (supposed) benefit. During Jim Crow the races were kept apart – with Black people firmly “beneath” white people in any number of ways. As is apparent by now, the separate facilities for Black people were always crappier than those for whites. It’s not white people who had to use the side entrance to Ross’s Diner and eat in the windowless back room, out of public view. It’s not the white schools that received cast-off textbooks from Black schools. Perhaps most important, it is not white people who had to fear vigilante justice from Black mobs, acting in the knowledge that no jury would convict them. On some abstract level “separate but equal” is a tenable proposition, but in reality it never worked that way. (If nothing else, Black people did not get to vote for Black representatives to a Black legislature, passing legislation binding only on Black people.) Thus did the United States Supreme Court rightly reject it in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). 

And yet… for all its faults, segregation did allow Black people to be in control of their own institutions. Shelby Steele has written about this, personally recalling the camaraderie that existed among African-Americans in the face of institutionalized white racism. Was something important lost when Summer Hill closed its doors and its students sent to Cartersville High? Perhaps, and it is interesting to note how some segregation-era organizations live on. The Negro leagues might no longer be with us, but Black churches, fraternities, and HBCUs certainly are – and are clearly valued as such by their members. For if “African-American” is a culture, then African-Americans should be able to have their own spaces where their own culture prevails, even as segregation is legally and morally forbidden otherwise. And forbidden for a good reason – people might generally want to hang out with people “like them,” but it’s nice to have the option not to, and it is this compulsory aspect of segregation that is so depressing, a blanket statement that cross-racial amity is simply impossible. It’s also just inefficient: imagine having to spend all that effort policing this boundary, and having to provide two of everything. 

I applaud the Cartersville-Bartow Convention and Visitors’ Bureau for creating the Heritage Trail – and I’m pleased to note that the Georgia Downtown Association agrees with me. I have discovered that the Georgia Historical Society has actually replaced the Georgia Historical Commission as the body responsible for the erection of new historical markers, with the specific mandate of correcting some of the biases of the past. I certainly believe that many of the items in the Heritage Trail pamphlet deserve to be memorialized publicly in metal (not just with QR codes). Summer Hill School is surely as important as the precise locations of the troops of Johnston, Hardee, and Polk at 5 P.M. on May 19, 1864. 

* Although in fairness I should note that several African-American women, including Susie Wheeler and Louise Young Harris (pastor of Queen Chapel in Kingston), are included in the temporary Women of Bartow exhibit on the first floor.

** See the section on Cassville in Lisa Russell’s Lost Towns of North Georgia (2016).

*** According to the pamphlet, 118 N. Erwin St. was commandeered in 1864 for use as a post office by Mrs. Field’s cousin, Union Army Colonel Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. Such an action infuriated Mrs. Field and she refused to welcome Harrison into her home ever again… even after he became the 23rd president of the United States!

† The Presbyterian/AME church building was one of only a few to survive the burning of Cassville on November 5, 1864.