By Dr. Kathleen Thompson
This article is the fifth in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research including archives and library investigation, interviews of local residents and searches of early newspapers. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Led or misled by their leadership, cities and communities make choices. In the following historical narrative the choice was between hate and tolerance. This is the story of two communities, each taking a different path, each with differing outcomes.
Cumming, Ga. (1902-1912)
Hidden in the bottom of his parents’ wagon, eight-year-old Olin Collins was terrified and had been since the troubles started weeks ago. Whitecappers and Klansmen had vowed to drive out every Negro family in Forsyth County. They had burned houses and shot into homes during the reign of terror. At night Olin and his brother Clarence laid under quilts, eyes wide open, waiting, worried and frightened.
His mother and father loved their home. They had a chicken house and hens who laid eggs, and it was Olin’s job to collect the eggs. The farm was a nice place and none of them wanted to leave. They were a peaceable family, troubling no one. Then, late at night, shots were fired into a neighbor’s home. Days later another friend’s house was dynamited and set afire. Nightly his parents fretted over what to do. Nightly he and Clarence lay in bed, close enough to the kitchen that if they strained they could hear their parent’s worried discussions. Finally George and Katie Collins felt they had no choice. For the sake of their children they had to leave, not in a few days, but tomorrow.
That morning Papa told Olin and Clarence to collect their clothes and a few toys. Mama tied the items in a blanket and placed it in the bottom of their wagon. George and Katherine chose a few pieces of furniture and necessities, all that they could put on the wagon and still make a speedy exit. No time or chance to sell the house. The horses were hitched and they began the most terrifying journey of Olin’s whole life.
Olin and Clarence lay down in the bottom of the wagon. Before they were hidden Papa said, “Now boys, no matter what, don’t make a sound. Y’all hear, not a sound, no matter what happens to us.” “Yes Papa,” they returned, wondering if they could do that should trouble come. Then Mama pulled the blanket over them and Papa began piling furniture atop. Olin knew he would never see their house again.
Heading out they took a road west. The boys could hear the muffled voices of their parents. “Please George hurry up, make the horses go faster,” Katie would implore. “I’m going as fast as I can,” George Collins replied, fear evident to Olin from the tone of his daddy’s voice. When they arrived in Cherokee County they were refugees, people without a home or jobs. They were not alone. A newspaper account from that year described refugee camps along the road between Cumming and Gainesville. On all of the roads leading out of Cumming Black refugee families camped in groups for protection. Dazed and shocked they were unsure of what to do next.
Things did get better. George Collins was hired as Colonel Sam Tate’s chauffeur. It is not known how they met, if Sam Tate met and hired George or George came to Tate and applied for a job. Either way, the family moved to Tate and lived in a company house built for them not far from the Pink Marble Mansion. Olin would grow up safely in Tate where he eventually became chauffeur to Luke Tate and later ran “The Stand,” a community store in Smoky Hollow.
The searing memory of fleeing Cumming never left Olin Collins. It was so painful he was unable to describe the events to his children. When all but one of his children were in college, married or had moved away, a reporter from the Pickens Progress called on him. He asked Olin Collins to tell the story of their troubles in Forsyth County. Fear and pain made that impossible. “I can’t,” he replied. But when the reporter left he told the story, only once, to daughter Emma Julia Collins and never spoke of it again. Emma Julia Collins Washington still remembers the day her father shared his story. “I cried when he told me.”
The results of the censuses from1910 and 1920 show the extent of the forced removal of blacks from Forsyth County. The 1910 census reported that Forsyth County had a total population of 10,839 residents; and of these residents 1,098 were black, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the county’s population. In the 1920 census, a total of 30 blacks were reported to reside in Forsyth County. That accounted for less than .3 percent of the total population. By 1930 the number was 17. The Collins family and others who fled to Pickens County never went back.
What happened to the property of families like the Collins who lost their homes? Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin traced land deeds and tax rolls back to 1912. “He found proof that the majority of the property owned by the banished African Americans was never sold, but instead taken by their white neighbors. Called adverse possession, this process is partly statutory and partly common law and involves the legal acquisition of a title to a property without having to pay for it. In the case of the land in Forsyth County, white residents simply held the property belonging to black residents following their banishment. In the state of Georgia, the period of adverse possession is seven years. After this period of time, whites legally owned the land.” www.pbs.org
By Contrast, Tate, Ga.
A report in the Atlanta Constitution indicates that in 1902 Pickens County experienced attacks on their Black residents (see accompanying article). These racially motivated crimes provoked a very different response from the leadership of the Georgia Marble Company whose workforce was 15 percent Black. Tate was not incorporated and lacked a mayor or police chief. The Marble Company and Colonel Sam Tate were responsible for all aspects of safety for the town, thus their response was the “official” one.
It is clear in the accompanying article in the Atlanta Constitution (1902) that the leadership of the Tate community chose a different course, one in which the protection of their Black residents was paramount. Based on the dates and church records, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church may have been the church that was burned. This would have been the two-story building that preceded the current building. The Marble Company provided a replacement for the destroyed building.
The story of Colonel Sam’s response to racial attacks is best described in Stephen Griffith’s Book (see accompanying article). Not only did Sam Tate decry the attacks, but he provided a way to protect the Black families of Tate. In no uncertain terms he stood up to injustice. The outcome was quite different than in other Georgia communities of the time that experienced racial unrest. The mob of Whitecappers from Dawson County never arrived and Tate continued to be a place where Black people could live and work.
No Black citizens were forced to leave Tate, moreover refugees from the violence in Cumming were taken in. Willie Mae Weaver recalled that several refugee families fled from Cumming to Tate. “They didn’t have relatives here, they were just getting away. They got jobs at the marble quarries and stayed. None of those families are left now, they have drifted away.” Roderick Moore of Jasper explained that his Aunt Lillie Mae and Uncle John Knox fled from Cumming and came to Jasper where they had family.
Racial Attacks Spread
The first third of the 20th Century in North Georgia were traumatic ones for Black citizens, punctuated by period of violence and Black displacement. Atlanta Constitution Dec. 8, 1915, Two More Blazes in Cherokee County Add to Reign of Fear, Canton, GA., – “Today’s fires bring the total number of conflagrations in Cherokee within the past three days to nine. Believing there is a campaign to drive them from the county, the Negroes of this section are in a panic and many have left for other communities.” In Cobb County, the Gainesville News reported on Oct. 16, 1912, that notices were posted reading “Hurry up Niggers and leve this town if you don’t leve you will wish you hadder got out.” At the end of December 1912, under a headline that read “Georgia In Terror Of Night Riders,” The New York Times reported that “an organized effort is being made to drive every negro out of North Georgia counties.”
Jasper and Ball Ground
There is an account of heroism that was told to me by Rev. Charles Walker during a visit at his home in 2009. Unfortunately, I failed to ask him the date of the events or how he knew the story. Rev. Walker related the story during a conversation about the events in Cumming in 1912, so I assumed the narrative dated from that time.
Since his passing I have tried with no success to locate someone who could corroborate the story. With this in mind I will share his story. If anyone has heard about the events from a source other than Rev. Walker or has any other information, please contact me via e-mail or phone.
Racial unrest spread from Forsyth County and became a problem in Canton and Ball Ground. Not only were Whitecappers harassing their local Black residents, but some wanted to “cleanse” adjacent communities of their Black population. A group of vigilantes and Klan members were organizing a night run to Jasper where they would run the towns Black residents attempt to intimidate.
Word of the plans reached Jasper and terrified local Black families. Jasper’s Black population was considerably smaller than that of Tate, consisting of only four or five families. Several of the families worked for or knew Mrs. Julia Roach Howell. She lived on Main Street next to today’s Pickens Progress offices. After she was widowed she lived in the house on Main Street alone for 45 years. To help her she employed several Black workers. After her death the Howell home was torn down and replaced by today’s parking lot.
Julia Howell is said to have chosen to shelter the frightened Black families in her home. Moreover, she sent a message to the angry mob that was forming in Ball Ground. The message was simple, direct and firm. “If you want to harm our Black families you will have to come here and shoot me first.” You see, Mrs. Julia Howell was White and the vigilantes were not going to harm an elderly, prominent widow.
A second story about racially motivated harassment and violence dates to a later period, sometime in the 1930s, and was related to me 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.
Choices made by individuals and communities in Pickens County have shaped the character of the place. In Forsyth County, the Collins family met violence and hatred. At Tate they were able to lead a peaceful, productive and respected life. Why? Because Colonel Sam Tate made a choice and his community stood by him. Harold Cowart chose to warn Velpo Smith. In Jasper Velpo filled a leadership role as a well known and respected man. No community is without hatred or misdeeds. Even so, Pickens County residents can be proud of the choices made by those who lived here during difficult times.
U.S. Census Bureau, 1910. Reports by States, With Statistics for Counties, Cities and Other Civil Divisions: Alabama-Montana, Vol. II, Washington DC, 1913.
U.S. Census Bureau, 1920. Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States, Vol. III, Washington DC, 1922.
James D. Williams, “The Long, Sad Road to Cumming, Georgia,” Crisis Magazine. March (1987): 12-21.
Robert S. Davis, The Story of the Georgia Marble Dynasty, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Fall 2005
Elliot Jaspin, Buried in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, Perseus Book Group, NY, 2009, Forsyth County, Chapter 7: 1912
Text from: The Many Facets of Tate by Stephen Griffeth, 1998, Wolfe Publishing, Pages 186-187
(Mr. Griffith has passed away, but I spoke to his sister. She said he was a close friend of Col. Sam and that when Sam was an older man, Steve often visited with hours of conversation ensuing. So this would be an account given by Sam to Steve Griffeth.)
On one occasion, Dawson and Forsyth counties became very violent toward the black people. Several black people were lynched and their schools, churches and homes were burned. Soon you could not find a black person anywhere near these areas.
There were black people in Pickens County. In fact, many were employed by The Georgia Marble Company. There were signs posted on the premises of the company, stating that all blacks people must be gone within 24 hours. They did not leave, and many are still here today. They are still here because Colonel Sam said they could stay.
Colonel Sam called his workmen (1,030) together and showed them the signs that had been posted and then talked with them. He spoke very softly and said: “I want to say to you men that when the black people leave Pickens County, I will be going with them because they are law-abiding, humble, inoffensive and hard-working citizens of our community. The black people have done nothing to harm anyone and their lives and their freedom is as sacred to them as it is to the white person. They shall not be driven from their homes and their jobs. I want each white who is here to stand by me in protecting our friends. And if any of you agree with the mob, I want you to say so and prepare to leave Tate immediately. I expect you my friends, neighbors and workmen to keep your eyes an ears open and let me know what is going on.”
That afternoon, the citizens of Tate learned that the mob was organizing and expected to enter Pickens County through what is known as the “shut-in.” This is where Long Swamp Creek flows between two mountains which are very close together, located just above Nelson. “Give me a hundred pounds of dynamite and I’ll fill the pass of minced meat when they come,” said one man. He received the dynamite.
It was reported that the mob had sympathizers in Pickens County. But with two dozen military rifles and a hand-picked group of men, the citizens could not stop the uprising. The rifles arrived from Atlanta but neither the dynamite or rifles were used. Sam Tate’s word was enough. His word had been the law for about twenty years in his domain were about five thousand folk looked for help and guidance and his words were always quietly spoken. This is the story of a benevolent despot who showed the people he cared for them and would protect them.
Negroes Are Frightened, Atlanta Constitution, page 7, March 26, 1902
Lawlessness in Tate, Ga, Causes Citizen Uneasiness
Efforts to Stop Trouble
Oscar Bane Tells What Has Been Done to Suppress Whitecap Outbreak
The residents of Tate, Ga, Have been very much agitated of late over repeated acts of lawlessness that have been perpetrated on the Negroes of that community. Many good laborers have been driven away from the town and the marble companies have had trouble in holding others to there work. Oscar F. Bane president of the Georgia Marble Company was in Atlanta yesterday on business. Upon being asked by representative of The Constitution concerning the trouble and what steps were being taken to suppress it he said:
“We all deprecate the recent violence and will join Dr George B. Tate and Colonel Sam Tate in their effort to break up the gang of whitecappers that have lately been terrorizing the Negroes of our community. It is probable that an organized and determined effort will be put on foot shortly with the view of subduing the mob of mischief-makers.
“A few days ago a Negro church was burned in Tate, as was also the Negro school house, and when the novelty of public destruction had worn away the mob put dynamite under several Negro cabins and tried to blow them up. Many of the colored population in our section are very much alarmed and many are afraid to venture out after nightfall, many having recently been rocked by crowds of white men and boys
“Negroes employed in the rubbing beds and as truck men at the marble quarries have become so wrought up they threaten to leave the community. The Georgia Marble Company, Blue Ridge Marble Company, George B. Sickles & Co., the Marble Hill Quarry Company and the Southern Marble Company have been put to no little inconvenience on account of the paralysis that has struck their negro laborers, and are anxious to break up the gang of white cappers and put a stop to the outlawry. It is probable that a reward will be offered for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the recent violence. 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 lives peacefully in their homes and some of them have been working in there quarries for fifteen years. They in Atlanta doing work so that white men would form, so this does not account violence inflicted upon them.”