Community unites to save historic building
Published 12:46 pm Sunday, June 17, 2018
Facility to house Civil Rights, Family History Center
AMERICUS — In 2007, veterans of the Americus-Sumter County Civil Rights Movement (1962-66) met at Barnum Funeral Home on Poplar Street to begin dialogue on how best to preserve the legacy of one of the most significant social movements of its era. The funeral home was considered ground zero for the Americus movement, as it took the lead in providing a sanctuary for civil rights activists to meet, eat, sleep, plan and conduct movement activity. Owners John and Mabel Barnum used their resources to provide bail for hundreds of Americus youths who were being arrested and jailed in Americus, Leesburg, and Dawson, Georgia. Often noted by civil rights activists and scholars, Americus is the only place where both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of SCLC, and John Lewis of SNCC, heads of two major civil rights organizations, were both jailed. Former SNCC chairman, now Congressman John Lewis, referenced the Americus Movement during his speech at the historic March on Washington in 1963. It was here in Americus that two major legal victories that impacted the entire southern civil rights movement were decided in federal court, in what is now the Municipal Building on Lamar Street.
For several years now, the Americus-Sumter County Movement Committee Inc. (ASCMC) has been collecting documentation on the Americus Civil Rights Movement. Those documents include papers related to movement activities, letters, diaries, jail records, photographs, field reports and oral history recordings of former activists and community leaders. Recently, the ASCMC and the City Federation of Colored Women’s Club, owners of the building formerly known as The Colored Hospital, agreed to partner to preserve and rehabilitate the historic building. The facility will then house the Americus-Sumter Civil Rights and Family History Center, which will include the Colored Hospital Museum. Recognized by the Georgia Historical Registry, and recently added to the Americus Downtown Historic District, the building is located at 133 J.R. Campbell St., bordered by Jackson Street and Cotton Avenue.
The Colored Hospital was established in 1923, by Dr. W. Stuart Prather, a white physician from Harlem, Georgia, near Augusta, who operated the Prather Clinic across the street from the First Presbyterian Church. A progressive for his time, Prather was a visionary who recognized the need for adequate medical care for African Americans, who often had to rely on home remedies because they were denied care at white medical facilities in Sumter County and throughout the south. Under these egregious conditions, African Americans suffered greatly which prompted Prather to purchase the property from the Coffey Estate, an Irish family who owned the property prior to the civil war. Prather then galvanized local blacks and whites to raise funds to construct and operate the hospital. Key players in engaging the African American community to assist were men and women like businessman and hospital finance chairman, W.R Burleigh; and Sam Weston, chairman of the Americus Negro Business League; Mabel Barnum, hospital financial secretary; The Phyllis Wheatley Civic Club for Colored Women; and E.D. Reddick of Staley High School. From 1923 to 1953, the Colored Hospital was the only medical facility in Georgia where African Americans could practice and serve people of color. During that time, the hospital was associated with 33 medical doctors of color, two dentists, two pharmacists, six registered nurses, 18 nursing professionals, and a nursing and midwifery school. Dr. R.H. Moore, a Howard University graduate and resident physician, led the operation of the hospital, while lead nurse, Magnolia Renfroe held the position of superintendent. The hospital was aptly managed by Mrs. W.H.C. (“Miss Lillie”) Dudley, whose two grandsons were local physicians. 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 during the horrendous Jim Crow era of discrimination and second class citizenship.
When the hospital ceased operation in 1953, the City Federation of Colored Women’s Club purchased and assumed 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 by volunteers to teach African Americans how to prepare for and pass, the unconstitutional literacy tests, required to be eligible to vote. A library was also established by local activists with thousands of books donated from around the country. The library served black students who were denied access to the local public library.
Efforts are currently underway to acquire state and national historic designation status for the building which is structurally sound, but is in need of immediate repairs and upgrades. These upgrades will comply with approved guidelines for the preservation of historic structures. Recently, the ASCMC initiated a GoFundMe campaign to address areas of building improvements such as painting, flooring, lighting, heating/air, bathroom and kitchen upgrades and handicapped access. These much-needed improvements will allow the ASCMC to establish a footprint and make way for a permanent collection gallery for civil rights, colored hospital memorabilia/artifacts, and African American family history. An additional gallery will exhibit and promote the work of local and regional artists, combined with multi-purpose rooms for classes and additional oral history recordings. Local artists, writers, and educators will be encouraged to conduct youth centered discussions and 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 forums that focus on civil and human rights, conflict resolution, reconciliation, and healing. Most importantly, the Center will continue collaborative programming with local civic and business organizations, Georgia Southwestern State University, South Georgia Technical College, The Sumter Historic trust, Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, local NAACP/GAAAP Chapter, Sumter County Board of Education, and local area high schools.
The GoFundMe campaign is an initiative jointly sponsored by the Federated Women’s Club and the ASCMC Inc. to hopefully galvanize the Americus community to contribute to the cause of saving a historic structure that has served them for decades. Patrons are urged to contribute online at (https://www.gofundme.com/historic-building-rehab). Checks and money orders should be addressed to: ASCMC Inc., 1219 Lafayette St., Americus GA 31719, or ASCMRC Inc., P.O. Box 1383, Americus GA 31709. The ASCMC is a 501©3 organization. For additional information, call (229) 928-0019 or (404) 781-5459
— Sam Mahone/chairman, ASCMC Inc.