In one of my earliest vivid memories, I was four years old and crying my eyes out. It was August 1991, and I was in Lumpkin, Stewart County, Georgia.
The occasion was the funeral of my maternal great-grandmother, Charlie Ellen Rutherford (nee Cullen) and I was terrified.
“Am I going to die?” I wailed, as grown ups comforted me and handed me tissues at her casket. I found it strange – no one had given me tissues for tears before.
Dark clouds, lightning, and distant rumbles of thunder threatened outside of the small Green Grove Baptist Church on Old Euphala Road, five miles from the center of Lumpkin.
Before this first confrontation with mortality, storms had been my biggest fear. On that afternoon, the weather was an afterthought.
To make things scarier, I remembered saying hello to my 97 year-old Grandma Charlie only weeks before, in Connecticut, where she lived in a nursing home not far from her daughter, my great Aunt Mamie “Chick” Rutherford.
Shortly after that visit, we attended the 1991 family reunion, the first that Grandma Charlie would miss. She passed away during that reunion, and her body was flown to Green Grove Baptist Church, where this funeral was held.
For several months, I asked when and where the next funeral – not family reunion – would be, as the two trips down South had mixed up my vocabulary.
In the twenty-five years since, only funerals and family reunions have brought me back to Lumpkin, Georgia – and only twice. A funeral in 2013, and a family reunion this past July.
On this last visit, I went with a fuller understanding of the history – thanks not just to maturity, but to a recently published book – A Grateful People – by Willie Marie Parker (born 1922). It details the history of Lumpkin’s Green Grove community, where she grew up.
My mother’s father, Wardell “Rudy” Rutherford (1922-1979), was born to Charlie (1894-1991) and Felton Rutherford (1890-1980). Rudy, who would one day be inducted into the Black Radio Hall of Fame, grew up attending Green Grove Baptist Church with his eight siblings.
Before then, during slavery, Stewart County, Georgia – which was carved from part of Randolph County in 1830 – was essentially a cotton factory. In 1850 it was one of the largest in the state.
Only ninety years earlier, Cheek Indians became minorities in the state – though indigenous groups still had, and won, skirmishes against settlers in Stewart County into the mid-1830s.
The first census of Stewart County was in 1840, and counted 12,933 people. In 1850, Stewart County reached its peak, with 16,027 residents – 7,373 of which were enslaved. By 1860, at the tail end of slavery, the population declined to 13,422 with 5,534 slaves due to a re-drawing of the borders.
After the Civil War and slavery’s abolition, many free Blacks in the Deep South – including eventually my great grandparents Charlie and Felton – worked as sharecroppers. After increasing to almost 16,000 in 1900, by 1920, the population had steadily declined to 12,089 – but with Black people constituting half the population, and doing similar work in the fields.
Most sharecroppers broke even, at best, by the end of the harvests. Though land ownership carried a strong emotional value to former slaves and their descendants, very few earned enough to buy property.
Over-farming and the Great (Black) Migration to the industrial North eventually cut Stewart County’s population drastically, down to the around 6,000, where it stands today. For perspective, its 465 square miles are roughly four times the land area of Union County, NJ. Stewart County remains around half Black, as it has been since slavery, and is now a full quarter Latino.
But long before this mass exodus, it was Grandma Charlie’s maternal grandfather who established the Green Grove Community in Lumpkin.
Perry Hudson, a former slave fathered by a white man, co-founded Green Grove in 1886 with two other men, Lewis Cherry and Isaac Shorter. It was given its name because the grass seemed to stay green all year long. The church served as the center of the community.
As you may expect, Green Grove – a community mainly of sharecroppers – didn’t prosper financially. In the words of Willie Marie Parker,
There was no help from anyone outside of the Green Grove Community. There were no bankers, no lawyers, and no persons occupying positions of authority in the majority community who were part of Green Grove. Consequently, there were no means available to these men whereby their economic standing count be enhanced.
By 1898, a community school was operated from the church. Willie Marie Parker, again,
In the short term, the purpose of black school was to provide the masses of ex-slaves with basic literary skills plus the rudiments of citizenship training for participation in a democratic society. The long-range goals included the intellectual and moral development of a responsible leadership class that would organize the masses and lead them to freedom and equality.
Being educated and literate has an important cultural significance to the founders of Green Grove, and, as you can see, they pursued these goals in opposition to the economic and ideological interest of the planter-dominated South.
In 1860, Black Americans had a 5% literacy rate which increased to 30% in 1880 and to 70% by 1910, thanks in large part to community schools like Green Grove.
Green Grove Baptist Church was destroyed in 1919 by a tornado, and then in 1924 by a fire. Classes were held in another church while the community regrouped. Perhaps because it was considered bad luck to rebuild on the same spot, leaders decided to relocate to its current location at Old Euphala Road soon after. Service is still there held twice per month.
Then, in 1937, an opportunity arose. The Wesley School for white students would be closing its doors, and offered to sell its one-room schoolhouse to the Green Grove Community. They jumped at the proposal.
My great grandfather, Felton Rutherford – raised by his grandfather, an ex-slave – was instrumental in relocating and rebuilding the one room school house, piece by piece, with other men in the community. Several of his children would go on to attend Green Grove School, and his daughter Flossie taught there. Sammie G. Hudson, Grandma Charlie’s cousin, served as the school’s principal from 1936 until its closure in 1958.
In July, Mamie “Aunt Chick” Rutherford (born 1932), the only surviving child of Charlie and Felton, accompanied a dozen of us to the Green Grove School following a family reunion. The school is now on the National Historic Registry.
On the way to Lumpkin, Aunt Chick told me stories. Her grandparents, their two house fires – and what that meant, in the country, with no fire department. She explained how her grandparents met, and her great grandparents’ rejection of the union. She told me about colorism around the turn of the century, and how close-knit the community was.
I had my recorder, so I’ll always have the stories Aunt Chick told me that day – and the whole experience only pushed me to record more family and community history.
As we approach 2020, we often don’t realize people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s know stories from such bygone eras, even before their own births. Most don’t write a book, like Willie Marie Porter, but with recording devices in all of our pockets, we can document this history on our own.
This Black History Month, I encourage everyone to explore our rich history. It’s all around you.