Bottom Row: Karen Benson, Lynette Bridges; Middle row: Bill Cagle, Kathy Thompson; Top Row: Thelma (Bay) Cagle, Justin Davis
By Bill Cagle, Thelma Cagle, Karen Benson, Lynette Bridges, Justin Davis, Andrea Johnson
On June 7, 2020, a Black Lives Matter protest to raise awareness about racial inequality was held on Main Street in Jasper. Protesters chanted “black lives matter,” “no peace/no justice,” “I can’t breathe” and waved signs reading “stop apartheid in the USA,” “reinstate Kaepernick,” and “it could be my kids.” Speakers using a megaphone faced a large gathering of supporters on the courthouse lawn. Some spoke of their experiences as a black person living in a predominantly white community. Some shared experiences their relatives had handed down about segregation practices in Pickens County prior to 1966. Others declared their support for their black friends and expressed contrition for their white privilege.
The peaceful protest was the impetus for Bill Cagle, president of the Pickens Historical Society, calling on long time black Pickens residents Lynette Bridges, Karen Benson, Andrea Johnson, and Justin Davis to join him and his wife, Thelma, in a series of open discussions about race relations in Pickens County. The regular meetings were most weeks beginning in June and still continuing on Sunday afternoons at the Old Jail on Main Street. Sometimes others joined in the conversations, such as Katie Cagle, a graduate student in clinical mental health/family counseling, and Nathan Cagle, an undergraduate chemistry major. Pickens County business owner and resident Dawn Slater, mother to bi-racial children, joined the conversation via speaker phone.
Participation from random out-of-town visitors was welcomed. Frank and lively discussions ensued, and meaningful bonds were forged. Early in the discussions it was agreed that remembering the community’s history was necessary for framing current events and envisioning a vibrant future.
In 2011, the Pickens Progress published a series of articles on the history of race relations in Pickens County authored by Dr. Kathleen Thompson. After researching documents and conducting interviews with Black and White Pickens County residents, Thompson was surprised by her findings. Regarding race relations, Pickens County has numerous examples of choosing a more tolerant path compared to other Georgia counties. Pickens County’s unique history of race relations is worth retelling. Some excerpts from Thompson’s articles will be reprinted to provide understanding and context for current events affecting Pickens County and the nation. Links to all articles will be provided at pickensprogress.com. According to a 1902 report in the Atlanta Constitution Black residents in Pickens County experienced racially motivated attacks. The account told of a gang of whitecappers threatening to rid Pickens County of its Black families. The Georgia Marble Company was a large employer for Blacks and Whites in the Tate community. In fact, Blacks accounted for 15% of its workforce. Georgia Marble Company’s leadership encouraged workers to protect their Black friends from promised violence. The company provided weapons and necessary means for defense. While a church in the Black community was burned, the church was rebuilt by the marble company. In surrounding counties Blacks were terrorized and forced to leave. Pickens County became a refuge for fleeing Black families.
“The sentiment of the better class of white people in Pickens County is opposed to the violence visited upon the negroes. ‘No reason can be ascribed for the acts of lawlessness except malicious mischief, as the negroes are in the main quiet, law-abiding citizens who live peacefully in their homes and some of them have been working in these quarries for fifteen years.’ “
The Atlanta Constitution 26 March 1902
(an excerpt from Thompson’s article Black History in Pickens County: Part 4 Racial Violence in North Georgia 1900-1930 )
A second story about racially motivated harassment and violence dates to a later period, sometime in the 1930s, and was related to me (Thompson) by Coach Roy Cowart. Roy grew up in Ball Ground where his father ran a sawmill. His Dad, Harold Cowart, was acquainted with, and a friend of a sawmill worker by the name of Velpo Smith. Velpo had moved to Georgia from Alabama. The two families lived near each other on the road to Nelson in Cherokee County. Problems started developing with threats by local rabble rousers that they would run all of the Black residents out of Ball Ground. Dynamiting homes was one of the planned acts of violence that Harold Cowart heard about. Concerned about Velpo, he went to him and advised that he move out of Ball Ground. In fact, shortly after the warning Black homes were damaged by dynamite.
That advice was taken by Velpo Smith who quickly moved to Jasper. His name is familiar to many older residents here in Pickens County. Velpo was the “Go to” man for the Black community. If there were problems or news needing to be gotten out Velpo would be contacted and he would get the word to Jasper’s Black residents and the Black leadership in Tate.
Next week, the peaceful implementation of integration in Pickens County will be reviewed.