The other Southern heritage: remembering slavery in Georgia

On a scorching summer morning, seven South Carolina troopers marched toward the Confederate battle flag waving over the statehouse grounds in Columbia.

Two hundred miles and a state away in the North Georgia Mountains, two women, one black, one white, climbed massive stone steps and crossed a threshold into a rough-hewn cabin. The history that birthed that flag enveloped them.

To their right stood a stacked-stone hearth. Light from the open door cast a dim glow on the wooden floors.

All their lives the two women have heard talk of Southern heritage. But ever since a white kid young enough to be their grandson wrapped himself in the memory of the battle flag and snuffed out nine black lives in a Charleston church, it seemed the talk had turned to a screech. Legacy and racism. Pride and hate. Heritage and slavery.

And so, as the South Carolina troopers lowered the battle flag, rolled it into a tidy coil and tied it with string, the two women stood together in the cabin in the Sautee Nacoochee valley and marveled at what they’d done. Working together over the course of 15 years they had saved this speck of antebellum history and heritage. It is one of the last surviving slave dwellings in Georgia.

“There are still those that think, ‘Oh well, that’s crazy putting all that into that slave cabin,’” said Andy Allen, 65.

A mix of astonishment and pity crossed her round face, brown as a fresh pecan. Across the room her friend Caroline Crittenden, 65, nodded. Her blue eyes took in the room around her.

“The descendants of the owner of this cabin and those slaves have a deep affection for one another,” said Crittenden. “I think that may be unique. But it in no way excuses or compensates for 400 years of human bondage. Slavery was unconscionable and a dark part of our nation’s history.”

Prosperity built on slavery

Here is Crittenden’s history. Crittenden was born just outside Charleston, a descendant of the Ball family, one of the largest slave-owners in South Carolina. For two centuries thousands of slaves — and generations of black sharecroppers after them — farmed golden rice that made the Balls wealthy.

Crittenden married and moved to this White County hamlet in the Sautee Nacoochee valley near Helen. Her husband’s family, the Williams, arrived there in 1822 from North Carolina. For the next century, scores of slaves and sharecroppers made her husband’s ancestors prosperous. Unlike slaves on the Low Country Coast or Georgia’s fertile middle, Appalachian slaves farmed neither rice nor cotton. They logged timber, harvested corn and cast rust-red bricks from foothill soil. To this day a feat of their masonry stands in the center of Cleveland, Ga.: the old White County courthouse. Williams’ slaves were among its builders.

Allen grew up nearby in Bean Creek. It’s a tiny black community of tidy homes, dirt roads, old wells and a Missionary Baptist church founded before the first shots were fired in the Civil War.

For generations the ancestors of Bean Creek logged timber, harvested corn and made bricks. Yet no one in Allen’s family ever talked about the institution that bound her people to the land. The clues were there but no one ever called it what it was, at least to Allen’s memory.

“We really wasn’t told they was slaves,” Allen said. “They just ‘had a job’ and they was ‘working’ for the Williams family.”

‘Everybody just called it the cabin’

Before the cabin, Crittenden and Allen knew each other in passing; a smile at the post office, a greeting at the grocery store. Allen drove a school bus. Crittenden had taught at-risk youth. Not long after they met, wells in Bean Creek began turning up contaminated. Allen’s was among them. Crittenden started advocating for the residents to get county-supplied water. A friendship blossomed between the women.

Then one day Crittenden told Allen about a creaky shack off Ga. 17. Cantilevered over a steep green hill, the shanty was long abandoned, and little more than a storage shed for Crittenden’s cousin in-law, Jim Johnston. It was on his property, close to his own house built more than a century ago. The last people to stay there had been his great aunt and great uncle, decades ago. They’d added on a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom to the original one-room structure.

In the ensuing years the additions had rotted and tumbled down the hill. It seemed the earth might reclaim what was left.

“Everybody just called it the cabin,” Johnston said.

Yet, Crittenden found the remains curious. It wasn’t exactly a family secret that the Williams family had owned people. It took a researcher from the University of Georgia to figure out just how deeply the family was involved in the trade. Just before the Civil War, Johnston’s great, great grandfather, E.P. Williams, and his brother, Charles, owned more than 40. At the time, at least 120 enslaved people lived in White County. With the flags of secession flying in late 1863, another Williams brother, who lived in Charleston, sent several of his slaves to White County, said 87-year-old Elizabeth Williams Etheridge. A keeper of family records and lore, she is a Williams descendant and former professor of history at Longwood University in Virginia.

The slaves toiled in the Williams’ businesses and home.

But generations later, no one in the family talked about it openly.

On a Charleston street: ‘I felt the humiliation’

When Crittenden was young, it wasn’t considered polite to talk about slavery. That didn’t stop her grandfather at story time. She can still recall the fanciful tales he spun of the old days when there was order, when masters were benevolent to their slaves.

Walking up King Street with her grandfather in downtown Charleston one afternoon, the African-American foreman of her grandfather’s construction company happened to approach.

The foreman greeted them, tipped his hat and stepped off the sidewalk to let them pass. It was a show of deference to whites long expected of blacks in the segregated South.

“He asked me how I was doing and I answered, ‘Yes, sir, I’m fine,’” Crittenden recalled. “Well, my grandfather berated me about calling his foreman ‘sir’ and berated his foreman. I felt the humiliation his foreman must have felt. It just sat on my heart.

“Then I learned more about my family’s ties to slavery and the deep involvement. I felt a personal responsibility and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Crittenden said.

In the dilapidated cabin clinging to the knoll, she saw an opportunity. She prodded her husband’s relatives about its origins. Finally, it was time to talk in the open.

Emails flew between the family’s oldest members, including Etheridge. Though there was some disagreement as to how many had lived in the cabin, there was agreement on this: it had been built by and for slaves of E.P. Williams.

Crittenden asked Allen whether she thought it should be preserved or left to crumble.

Allen went to see for herself.

Crimes that nobody talked about

“My, my,” Allen said, “people lived in this.”

So many bodies once crammed into 448 square feet of space. Allen tried to imagine what it looked like 160 years ago. An original paned window was still intact. In a slave’s cabin it would have seemed a luxury. Allen noticed the paneling and the large hearth. These “upgrades” spoke less to the station of the occupants and perhaps more to the wealth of E.P. Williams.

Maybe they weren’t living that bad, Allen remembers thinking.

If people in the Williams family didn’t talk about owning slaves, almost no one in Bean Creek talked about their ancestors who’d been owned. Slights of the immediate past seared their memories. Allen was among the first to integrate White County High School in 1965. Later, as a school bus driver she went on to integrate the public school bus service. As the district’s only black driver she was allowed to pick up only black children. Black parents and a few white ones complained about the obvious segregation. Finally, the school system relented and integrated bus service. It was 1989.

About the only person to talk about segregation’s deep roots was an elderly friend of Allen’s. The woman’s grandmother had been enslaved in White County. Stories of whippings, rapes of slave women by their owners, being taught to never look a white person in the eyes, those were the oral testimonies the friend’s grandmother had passed down to her. The friend passed them on to Allen.

So Allen looked once more at the cabin and reconsidered. The glass window and wooden floors didn’t amount to much when she thought about the people who’d lived there. They’d been owned.

She agreed to help save the place.

Meanwhile, just down the road …

Crittenden’s mother-in-law, a descendant of E.P. Williams, gave the first gift of $29,000. As each year rolled by, “the descendants of E.P. were very generous,” Crittenden said. Johnston donated the cabin in 2002. After two moves it came to rest at its present home at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in Sautee, also home to the Folk Pottery Museum of North Georgia.

It took close to $200,000 in private gifts and public grants to save the quarter. Each shingle was hand split. Each chimney stone removed, numbered and restacked in its original position. Federal preservation guidelines required it. Among the artisans and architects Crittenden assembled was Johnston, a contractor by trade. He donated his time and labor. Allen served as an adviser and brought in others from Bean Creek. They called themselves “The Heritage Team.” Allen’s elderly friend, who told her stories of slavery, was not among them. She gave a donation. Knowing the history was one thing. Walking into it would have been too much.

Every step in the restoration yielded a discovery, either from family records or the cabin itself. An 1844 bill of sale to Albert Williams, E.P.’s brother, for a 2-year-old boy named, Jim. Jim’s worth: $125. A sharecroppers’ agreement signed with an X by former slaves after the war. A button from a Union soldier’s uniform.

For the most part complete, the “African-American Heritage Site” looks as it might have 160 years ago. Visitors have been black and white.

Some people say “never forget” when they speak of the Civil War. The cabin is a reminder of why it was fought.

“If we don’t know where we come from we’ll never get where we’re going,” Allen said.

At home, not far from the cabin Allen keeps a picture as a reminder of who she comes from. In it a man and two women stand outside a log cabin. All three are smartly dressed in the style of the early 1900s. The younger woman and man are Allen’s grandparents. The older woman is Allen’s great-grandmother, Mary Ann Nicely. She was born into slavery. The Williams family had owned her.

With the battle flag in swift descent in South Carolina, Crittenden and Allen got ready to leave the cabin that July morning.

Yet, just 13 miles south of Sautee, it rose. All around a shiny black trailer about the size of the cabin, an assortment of Confederate battle flags stood sentry along U.S. 129 outside Cleveland. Large, small and in between, all were for sale and aloft in the breeze.

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