Americus Civil Rights Center to be located at historic Colored Hospital building on J.R. Campbell Street

Published 2:15 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Historic building served as training facility for African-American  physicians

AMERICUS — For several years now, the Americus-Sumter County Movement Committee Inc. (ASCMS) has been collecting documentation of the Americus Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Those documents include papers related to movement activities, letters, jail records, photographs, field reports from activists, and continuing oral history recordings of former activists and community leaders. An additional part of that documentation is to identify and create a Historic Trail of noted civil rights places and activities, such as the infamous Leesburg and Terrell County stockades, that held youthful Americus protestors captive. Recent discussions between the ASCMC and the City Federation of Colored Women, have led to an agreement to house the Americus Civil Rights and Family History Center at their facility on J.R. Campbell Street. Formerly named Wild Street, the street was re-named in honor of the Reverend Campbell, then pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E., who became the second president of the Americus-Sumter County Movement, following Deacon Lonnie Evans of New Pineville Baptist.
The Americus Movement was one of the most significant social movements of its era. It is often referenced by noted civil rights activists and scholars because of the extended length of its engagement. The Americus arrests were noted for having the highest number of juveniles, ages 12 to 15, incarcerated, and overall, the Americus protestors, young and older, were jailed for longer periods than their counterparts in other cities such as Albany, Selma, and Birmingham. The massive daily protests of the Americus Movement led to two of the most important civil rights legal victories of the southern civil rights movement being decided in federal court in the Americus Municipal Building on Lamar Street. The impact of these two high-profile cases, coupled with daily street protests, helped to break the resistance of the southern filibuster and push the Voting Rights Act out of Congress. Both of these legal victories were instrumental in facilitating passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and a year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chairman, now Congressman John Lewis, referenced the Americus Movement during his speech at the historic March on Washington in 1963. It is worth noting as well, that Americus was the only place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of SCLC, and John Lewis of SNCC, heads of two major civil rights organizations, were both jailed.
The Colored Hospital was established in 1923, by Dr. W. Stuart Prather, to provide health and medical care to African Americans in Americus and Sumter County. At the time, it was the only medical facility where black medical professionals could practice and serve people of color. The hospital operated from 1923 to 1953, and was associated with 33 medical doctors of color, two dentists, two pharmacists, six registered nurses, 18 nursing professionals, and a nursing and midwifery school. History notes that neither New York, Chicago, or Atlanta, produced these numbers of trained professionals, despite enjoying major populations of people of color. The facility was not only a vital lifeline for a poor and marginalized African-American community, it was a stabilizing institution that unified and sustained them in the midst of the horrendous Jim Crow era of discrimination and second-class citizenship. When the facility ceased operation in 1953, it was the City Federation of Colored Women who stepped in to care for the treasured building and developed community social services and after-school programming for Americus youth. During the Americus Civil Rights Movement, the building became one of two “Freedom Centers” for planning and implementing movement strategy. Adult literacy classes were conducted to teach African Americans how to prepare and pass the unconstitutional literacy tests, required to be eligible to vote. Local activists, like Theresa Mansfield, Lena Turner, and Gloria and Jewel Wise, organized a library of over 5,000 books that were donated by friends and schools in the northern states who had heard of the lack of public library access by African Americans in Americus.
A few years ago, the Colored Hospital was placed on the Georgia Historic Registry through the efforts of local genealogist, Willie Cooper, and the City Federation of Colored Women. A move is currently underway by the ASCMC to simultaneously acquire national historic recognition and begin immediate repairs and upgrades of the building with the help of local citizens. Additional funds for rehabilitation will be sought via the National Park Service, which is currently accepting grant applications for the rehabilitation of historic buildings that played significant roles in the civil rights movement. These much needed improvements will make way for a permanent collection gallery for civil rights and African-American family history in Americus and Sumter County. An additional gallery will be provided to exhibit and promote the work of local area artists, combined with multi-purpose rooms for classes and additional oral history recordings. Local artists, writers, and teachers will be encouraged to conduct youth centered discussions, accompanied by book readings and art workshops. Summer activities will include an annual Children’s Village with creative programming designed to uplift, educate, and empower Americus youth to aspire to become leaders of their generation. Other initiatives will include an annual Film Festival and public speaker forums that focus on civil and human rights, conflict resolution, reconciliation, and healing. It is indeed an ambitious agenda, but one the ASCMC is confident the Americus community will embrace and support. Most importantly, it is essential that the Civil Rights Center seek and continue collaborative programming with local institutions like Georgia Southwestern State University, South Georgia Technical College, Sumter County Board of Education, and local area high schools.
Americus is uniquely positioned to host a Civil Rights Center in the midst of an already amazing number of institutions with global connections. Given its size, there is no other city in the country that boasts an array of organizations like Habitat for Humanity, The Fuller Center, and Café Campesino-Fair Trade Coffee. All of these have contributed to the growth of the city and constitute a vital link in introducing new and exciting avenues to expanded tourism initiatives. The ASCMC hopes to build on this legacy with the addition of a civil rights center that speaks to the history and aspirations of African Americans who constitute over half of the population of Americus and Sumter County.
“We believe as well, that a vibrant, active and engaging Community Center can be the catalyst that spurs growth and new businesses in the underdeveloped northern corridor of downtown Americus that includes historic Cotton Avenue and Jackson Street,” said Sam Mahone, chair, Americus-Sumter County Movement Inc.