MACON'S HISTORY IS FRAUGHT WITH TALES OF TERROR AND TRIUMPH FOR ITS ENSLAVED AND FREE BLACK PEOPLE
Macon, Georgia, has long been a center of Georgian culture—a Deep South town firmly rooted in the hard, red earth of the state's geographic heart.
Established in 1823, Macon has been the stage for political and social dramas since its founding, from before the Civil War to Civil Rights. Life was hard for everyone in the frontier town, but for none so much as the enslaved Africans and their descendants, who by 1860 had nearly matched the population of their white owners. Some were more fortunate
than others, such as those owned by one Bibb County farmer who contracted with a Macon physician to treat his servants and also with his overseer to never mistreat them, and required that they have good clothes and shoes at any expense. Joseph Bond, who lived in the mansion now called Woodruff House on Coleman Hill, dismissed his overseer after learning that the man had mistreated one of Bond's slaves, and was soon after murdered by the disgruntled former employee.
But even the most fortunate of Macon's enslaved peoples struggled under the weight of the unknown: their lives and safety were constantly in danger because of their lack of the basic human right to freedom. William and Ellen Craft rebelled against their servitude by escaping from Macon in 1860. Ellen, the daughter of a slave woman and a white attorney, masqueraded as a young white man and purchased tickets for herself and her husband, as her slave, to take a series of trains and steamer ships from Macon to Philadelphia. After they arrived safely in the North, they settled in Boston until the Fugitive Slave Law drove them to escape once again to England where they educated themselves and campaigned against American tolerance of slavery. After the Civil War, the Crafts returned to Georgia and opened a trade school for black people.
Several black churches in Macon succeeded in establishing themselves even amid the slaveholding and Reconstruction climates. First Baptist Church on Cotton Avenue was established just a few years after the city's founding as a church where blacks and whites would worship together. In 1835, 25 years prior to emancipation, black church members broke away from the original church and began organizing alternative services. Although the church was subject to the administration of the white pastor, the black members had the power to include or exclude members and they saw fit and in 1845, the land and the church building were ceded to the black members, and the white congregation moved to a new location.
During this same period, Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church became its own entity. Prior to 1838, slaves belonging to white members of the congregation were considered members of the Presbyterian Church. In that year, the members of the church became so great in number, that it was decided that one of the black members of the congregation would be allowed to instruct the other black members in matters of spirituality. The following year, the black congregation had grown so much that it was announced they would have a separate building for worship on Fourth Street, paid for by the white congregation. In 1869, the lot at 939 Washington Avenue was purchased for $1000 and the church was moved and renamed.
In 1865, Steward Chapel AME Church was established. It burned in 1869 and the congregation moved to several locations around the city until its present location on Forsyth Street could be secured by pastor Dr. Steward, who donated two years salary to the construction, and took a job as a cashier at the Freedman's Bank. In July of 1954, educator Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, former President of Morehouse College, gave a speech on the importance of the Supreme Court decision in the Brown vs. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education case (which led to the desegregation of public schools). Also that year, civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune was brought to the chapel as the Women's Day speaker and on September 19, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his only major speech in Macon at Steward Chapel. Over 600 people stood in a downpour to hear Dr. King's sermon, "There is No East and No West."
Even before the end of the Civil War there were several free black entrepreneurs in Macon, including Solomon Humphries, known at the time to locals as "Free Sol." Humphries was freed by Maj. John Humphries and encouraged to find his fortune, and in 1824 he opened one of the first mercantile stores in the new city even though he was required by law to have a guardian and had no legal rights. He employed whites as clerks in his store, and later purchased freedom for his father and his wife.
Of all of Macon's black entrepreneurs, none is so famous as Charles Douglass. Douglass was born in Macon's Unionville neighborhood in 1870, and was saddled with the care of his two younger sisters as a young man when their parents died unexpectedly. He worked several jobs at once until his sisters were both married, at which time he left town in search of better work and returned with some money saved. He invested in a bicycle repair and rental shop, then leased and ran the Ocmulgee Park Theatre for a while before selling the lease and using the profits to purchase the Colonial Hotel which was at the time the only black-run business on Broadway. In 1911, he opened an expansion of the hotel which included a theater, restaurant, liquor store, billiard parlor and soda fountain, all exclusively for blacks. The Douglass Theatre became a center of music and entertainment for blacks in central Georgia, featuring such famous musicians as Cab Calloway, Ma Rainey and Duke Ellington, and later when WIBB disc jockey Hamp "King Bee" Swain hosted his "Teenage Party" radio shows there, offering exposure to local upstarts such as Otis Redding, James Brown and Little Richard. The theater closed in 1972 but was restored and reopened in 1997, and now once again serves as a center of music and entertainment for all races and cultures. Sadly, Douglass’ mansion on Forsyth Street fell into serious disrepair and was demolished in 2016.
African American artists also had the opportunity to perform at Ann's Tic Toc Room, just up the street from the Douglass Theatre. The restaurant and night club was opened by Anne Howard in the mid-1940s, and according to Little Richard, "opened the door for a lot of black people." Penniman washed dishes at the Greyhound bus station during the day, and then would make his way down Broadway to the Tic Toc Room when his shift was ended. He would work in the kitchen, then perform for 45 minutes to an hour, and then go back to the kitchen. Little Richard's hit "Miss Anne" was about the proprietress of the Tic Toc Room who gave him the opportunity to perform when there were few opportunities to be had. The club was closed in the 70s and sat vacant for many years until it was remodeled into an upscale restaurant and lounge by an Atlanta restauranteur, and today a plaque has been placed outside of the Tic Toc to pay homage to its roots as a Macon institution which provided a springboard for one of Macon's most famous natives.
Another famous Macon eatery is the H&H Restaurant. The restaurant was opened by Louise Hudson and her aunt Inez Hill in 1969, and moved from Hayes and Third Streets to Cotton Avenue, and then finally to its present location at 807 Forsyth Street. At the height of racial tension, few whites would venture into the historically black restaurant, until members of the yet-to-be-famous Allman Brothers Band wandered in, hungry and poor. "Mama" Louise bonded with the band and would feed them on credit. Eventually, the band would take her on tour with them as their caterer and friend, and told their friends about the Mama Louise's cooking, and other musicians would stop at the H&H while on tour. When Oprah taped an episode of her popular daytime show in Macon in 2007, she stopped at the famous restaurant to meet Mama Louise and Mama Inez, attracting a crowd of 300 to the small storefront.
Today, Macon's African American history and culture are celebrated at the Tubman African American Museum. Housing art and artifacts from throughout the city's life, the museum celebrates the journey of black Georgians from Africa to America, and is the largest such museum in the southeast. Since its founding in 1981, the Tubman Museum has focused its energy on creating educational programming and events to enrich the community. One of its major annual events is the Pan African Festival, a celebration of all aspects of African culture in America, including A Weekend In The Park, A Taste of Soul, The Children's Village, the Pan African Film Festival, and many more events. Having collected more artifacts and artwork than it can house in its Walnut Street location, the Tubman Museum has embarked on the construction of a beautiful 49,000-square foot new building in Macon's museum district at Cherry Street Plaza.
Adjacent to the new Tubman Museum building are the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. The Sports Hall is the country's largest state sports museum, and honors athletes from Georgia, including some from Macon, such as Jeff Malone, who is still Mississippi State University's all-time leading scorer and is best known from his time playing for the Washington Bullets. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame was established in 1979 to honor musicians hailing from The Peach State. Macon has long been a musical center in Georgia, and several Hall of Fame inductees are from its home city, including Hamp "King Bee" Swain, Little Richard, Lena Horne, and Otis Redding. The museum also offers the Otis Redding Singer/Songwriter Camp for children, which is a five-day workshop for teens between the ages of 13 and 17 with aspirations of becoming musicians or songwriters, and teaches them not only about vocals, songwriting and instrumentation, but also includes a primer on Georgia musicians with performances and Q&A sessions.
Since Macon's founding, black and white have lived together, walked its streets side-by-side, and although it hasn't been an easy journey, it has been a journey made together. Like many other towns in the South, Macon has had its share of heartache, but today, it thrives as a mid-sized mecca for soul food and soul music, lazy afternoons on a front porch where the strains of Otis Redding and Little Richard can be heard through an open window, and there's always a friendly face and a good hot meal at the Nu-Way Weiner Stand on Cotton Avenue or the H&H Restaurant on Forsyth Street. If you want to enjoy the comforts of all the best that Georgia has to offer, plan to spend a day or a few in Macon, Georgia: the Song and Soul of the South.