By Angela Reinhardt
Racial relations have dominated headlines the last year: Ferguson; the Baltimore riots; the Walter Scott shooting and others, culminating with the massacre of nine black worshipers in South Carolina.
This most recent and most tragic of the incidents again thrusts race into the forefront of our conversations, but the story brought along the Confederate Flag - a symbol some align with heritage and others with hate.
I was born and raised in Georgia, but I’ve seen the Stars and Bars more in the last week than I have in my entire life. This includes the one my dad - who was neither a racist nor especially proud of his southern heritage - hung for years over our sofa for the sole purpose of filling vacant wall space.
Fourth of July was the first day I noticed overt displays of the Confederate Flag in town. The next day my husband and I watched Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and I was reminded of an important and relevant piece of Pickens County history, a tolerant one we should remember if racial issues between blacks and whites continue to dominate national conversations.
King delivers those immortal lines about equality to over 250,000 people at the National Mall, beneath the gaze of the Lincoln Monument. As we watched I remembered the statue was constructed from marble mined in Pickens quarries. Then I remembered stories about Pickens’ unusual racial tolerance throughout history and thought how fitting it was the marble came from a place known for acceptance.
Unlike the armchair Civil War historians that have popped up over the last month I don’t claim to be an expert on the finer points of Confederate Flag history, but I do have access to Progress archives. In 2011 we ran a series about black residents in Pickens from the Civil War forward. Through her extensive research and interviews, Dr. Kathleen Thompson discovered a generally positive relationship between blacks and whites here. [The series is available on pickensprogress.com, under the news heading.]
In her intro she writes: “In the last 16 months of research, I have come to realize that the history of race relations in Pickens County is one of tolerance and cooperation. An unwillingness to resort to violence here in Pickens was often in contrast to the hatred and hostility of other communities. This heritage is truly worth understanding with pride.”
Even though I wasn’t raised in Pickens, this county’s history does make me proud.
Dr. Thompson goes on to write about Pickens' non-violent integration in schools, and then on to a piece of history I didn’t know about as I watched the King speech - the fact that black and whites both worked at the Georgia Marble Company in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Colonel Sam Tate bought Georgia Marble in 1905 and by the 1930s had built it up to over 1,000 employees, 15 percent of whom were black. He recruited black workers from other areas in Georgia and provided housing and rations. Black refugees from Forsyth fled to Pickens for higher wages and better living conditions. It's thought Col. Tate's care of and concern for the black community here influenced everyone else.
Reading this I realized not only did the Lincoln Monument marble come from a county known for being racially tolerant, the very hands that mined the marble were those of black and whites working side by side.
A few weeks ago I was at my grandmother’s in Savannah and coverage of the church shooting was on CNN. I was talking to my aunt, not paying attention.
“Why do they have to keep on with this?” grandma asked.
“Keep on with what?” I said.
“All this with the blacks and the whites.”
Grandma, who has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember much about five minutes ago, still loves to talk about her childhood. She told me about being a girl in the cotton fields in south Georgia.
“I was there picking cotton and tobacco right along with them, and I played with them,” she told me. “Color didn’t matter because we were all poor. We all worked our tails off.”
We need more people like my grandmother, who to this day loves everyone and values decency in people over color. Other than government buildings - where they should obviously be removed - I don’t care who flies the Confederate Flag, but I do know we don’t need more division in this country.
I hope at the end of the day, whether the flag is flying high in a truck bed or folded and tucked away neatly in the attic, we can remember this county's stunning racial history and continue tolerance well into the future.