See Black History in Pickens County. Multi-Part Series from 2011
By Bill Cagle, Thelma Cagle, Karen Benson, Lynette Bridges, Justin Davis, Andrea Johnson
Rapid population growth, the economy, and over reliance on social media present new challenges for nurturing peaceful race relations in Pickens County. In this final article about race relations, we will explore how population growth, the economy, and social media are influencers in the community. We will cite some examples from the past that can instruct future actions.
In 1970 Pickens County’s population was 9,620. This was four years after school integration was achieved. A predominantly White county with Appalachian heritage, Pickens County had a Black population as high as 8.2% in 1930. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 2.3%, with the Hispanic population recorded at 2.8%. In 2017 the county’s population was 30,343, which included the Black population [sum of Black, and Two or More Races (non-Hispanic)] at 815 or 2.68%, according to DataUSA.
Pickens County’s population doubled from 1990 to 2010. The percentage of the Hispanic population increased, the percentage of the Black and White population decreased. The 2020 Census will be published around April 2021. The challenge for Pickens County, is to assimilate a rapidly changing population. Reflecting on the county’s history of race relations, to learn and work together have been the keys to success. From Pickens County Schools to HeadStart to Pickens Tech (now Chattahoochee Technical College), the expectation of inclusion was set—perhaps, not always met. In the early years of integration, these institutions made a concerted effort to lead the way, through inclusive hiring practices. Black teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, and maintenance workers were employed, at times to the chagrin of neighboring counties.
Currently there are fewer Black instructors in Pickens County than in the past. Of the Black instructors in the county, when asked about their experiences as Black instructors serving in educational institutions in Pickens County, the instructors have had mostly positive responses. Some instructors have had their own children participate in sports, music, and academic programs from pre-school through high school, and even through Chattahoochee Tech. The grown children of one of the instructors also gave mostly positive responses about being in classes.
As the population continues to grow and become more diverse, an area of improvement would be recruiting people of color in education. Col. Sam Tate selected the finest teachers for Tate School and Tri-City (the Black school). The county’s leadership should continue actively recruiting the best and brightest instructors to help the county navigate issues that may arise as differing cultures merge. (We are respecting the privacy of the instructors by intentionally being vague.)
While the population grew, the percentage of Black people declined from the 1940’s through 2010. It could be concluded that some Black families left Pickens County, because they wanted a more diverse or more tolerant community. Economic changes in the county contributed to some Blacks relocating. Pickens County’s economy relied heavily on the marble industry in the early 1900’s. A striking percentage of the labor force was Black. Starting in the 1940’s, Georgia Marble Company began a series of ownership changes, which continued with the eventual selling of the company. In the 70’s, the marble industry embraced technological advancements, requiring less manpower. By the early 90’s, the marble industry would hire a fraction of the employees it had once supported.
Another economic blow to Pickens County was the loss of HD Lee Company, Pickens Footwear, along with some smaller sewing plants. When these companies downsized or left the community, both Black and White families, were forced to relocate.
There continued to be a few places of employment for Black people in the county. Roper Hospital and the Tate Clinic served Pickens County for many years. Edward Pitts, Zelma Barrow, and Aaron McHan served at Roper Hospital. While Tate Clinic employed Lillian Bridges (Lynette Bridges’ mother) and Essie Mae Roach as cooks. Many citizens, Black and White, found better paying work outside the county.
The healthcare industry is promising. Piedmont Mountainside Hospital, along with an expanded range of specialty clinics, provides employment opportunities close to home for citizens of Pickens County. These integrated workplaces serve the community, economically and socially.
While our group agreed that economic development is a hot issue for a rapidly growing county, so is the use of social media. For many Pickens County residents, their only knowledge of or experience with the BLM demonstration in Jasper, was through social media. Their support for or disdain for the protest was fueled, in large part, by what was posted on Facebook or Twitter. Arguably some citizens’ knowledge of what happens in the county relies heavily on social media, with little facetime in civic organizations or government offices. This applies to the young and old.
For the past 3 months, our group has discussed race relations in Pickens County—face to face. We recognized that many young people have had no opportunity to learn about Pickens County’s race relations history, and that each generation has its own experience of the county. We recognized that we are lifelong residents and our perception of the county is different from those who have recently moved to the county. But we all concluded that the cell phone is a contributing factor to how race relations are perceived in Pickens County, and in the nation, as well. Through our face-to-face, honest, and respectful discussions, we have developed greater respect and deeper understanding for each other. We are disturbed by the pictures of US cities in turmoil. We are repulsed by videos of Black and White people being disrespectful and violent toward one another.
We know Pickens County can make improvements. We are committed to being a part of those improvements. In our discussion at the Old Jail on Sunday afternoon, we said we thought Pickens County has something pretty special going on. We want to build on the good stuff, and not lose what we have. We left each other with plans to have lunch at The Last Catch, and shared thoughts about collaborating for a community music event.
Learn more about the history of race relations in Pickens County at https://www.pickensprogressonline.com/2015/news/black-history-in-pickens-county.