- Historic Sites
IN THE 1870S, WEALTH FROM THE NORTH TRANSFORMED THOMASVILLE, GEORGIA
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
The Historical Society, occupying a 1923 Colonial Revival house in the heart of town, tells Thomasville’s whole extravagant history, from the earliest days of log-cabin habitation to the amazing excesses of life on the hunting plantations (for example, Millpond, built in 1903, had a ground floor covering 38,000 square feet), with a nod to more recent celebrity visitors like Jacqueline Kennedy and the ubiquitous Duke of Windsor. And several exhibits feature Thomasville’s black population.
Southwest Georgia held an unusual concentration of large slaveholders. Of the county’s 4,500 whites, just 400 owned 6,200 slaves. At the Civil War’s end most of the freed slaves continued to work on the plantations, finding themselves somewhat better off than many of those who had quit the area. They benefited not only from the flow of money but also from a sophisticated new outlook brought by the wealthy outsiders.
A fascinating tour of Thomasville’s African-American community, with all its ironies and internal contradictions, was started several years ago by Jack Hadley, who grew up in Thomasville and whose forebears have a long history there. After a career with the Air Force, he came back home, as so many native sons and daughters do, and he worked as a letter carrier for twelve years. Then he retired again, but not really, since he spends long hours documenting and collecting black history, with a focus on the Thomasville area. “It’s my calling,” he says.
Several years ago he waged a campaign to name the town’s new post office for a local hero, Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, who in 1877 became West Point’s first black graduate. It is the first post office in Georgia named for an AfricanAmerican, and Hadley is still working to get his hero on a postage stamp. Flipper’s reputation fell under a cloud in 1881 when he was falsely accused of embezzling government funds, and until his death in 1940 he fought unsuccessfully to clear his name. More recently, Ray McColl, a young historian, and other local supporters took up the cause, leading the Army to give Lt. Flipper an honorable discharge in 1976. Soon afterward, his body was brought from an unmarked grave in Atlanta to Thomasville and reburied with military honors in Old Magnolia Cemetery. In a final vindication, President Clinton issued Lt. Flipper a full pardon in 1999. “This is a day of affirmation,” Clinton said. “It teaches us that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause.”
Henry Flipper’s gravesite, along with a room dedicated to him in the local library and his brother’s house, are on Hadley’s tour. So is the site of his alma mater, Douglass High School, built in 1902. In 1973, several years after schools in Thomasville became fully integrated, the building was torn down to make room for a middle school. Hadley and Willie Johnson, his fellow guide on the tour, are passionate about Douglass. “When I first got there, I thought I’d come to a city,” Hadley remembers. “I wanted to put something up on the campus so that generations and generations will say there was a school here for blacks.” He points to an impressive granite monument; he and other alumni raised $8,000 for it to replace the previous memorial he dismisses as “a little brick thing.”
THOMASVILLE’S URBANE LEGACY HAS BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN SHAPING THE TOWN'S SUCCESS DOWN TO THE PRESENT TIME.
Hadley was born and raised at Pebble Hill, where his father was a chauffeur for 53 years. Johnson calls Pebble Hill “the Cadillac of plantations,” and he and Hadley speak fondly of the place’s mistress, Elizabeth Ireland Poe, known to all as Miss Pansy. “She was a different person—she had an interest in the people—she was benevolent,” Hadley says. Taking on yet another project, he has taped interviews with the black servants of Pebble Hill and other plantations and published his and their memories in a book titled African-American Life on the Southern Hunting Plantation . It’s an intriguing volume, colored with mellow reminiscence. “It was a good life,” one woman says. Another remembers, “Miss Pansy didn’t like to see your kids go barefeet … we had sandals provided for us and sun hats, and she just really cared for us.”
It may be hard for an outsider to read this without a lifted eyebrow, but there’s nothing meek or soft about Jack Hadley. He has spent years uncovering black history with energy and pride, starting in 1979 at a base in Germany when he was angry at the lack of attention paid to what was then Black History Week. Titus Brown, the book’s coauthor and a professor at Florida A&M, tried to explain some of the complexities to me: “African-Americans in Thomasville mostly enjoyed a social equality in terms of economic advancement and land and home ownership,” he says. “On the plantation, they were protected from the worst of Jim Crow.”
Not entirely, of course. In 1955 the activist preacher Andrew Young’s first parish consisted of two Congregational churches, one in Thomasville and one in the countryside. “Thomasville engaged in a gentler form of segregation,” he writes in his autobiography, ”… but it was no less real.” Young recalls that although a few blacks had always voted there, when he started a registration drive the Klan showed up in town. “The black elders … went to the white business community leaders and, in effect, told them, ‘If you let these Klansmen come into our community and harass us you can forget about us shopping at your businesses.…’” It worked.