This blog is dedicated to the African American men and women of Laurens County, Georgia, whose oustanding contributions to their communities, state and nation are unrivaled by any other community of its size. Additionally, there are stories of African-American men and women from surrounding counties in East Central Georgia.
Imagene Stewart had many battles to fight. She came armed with a life long cache of compassion. Her morale was high. Surrounded by the mighty fortress of God, she fought against the mortal enemies of time and apathy. Where she felt pain, she healed it. Where she sensed loneliness, she comforted it. Where she saw an American flag, she saluted it. She proved the point that you can proudly hold the American flag real high with one hand and reach way down with the other to held a friend in need.
Born Imagene Bigham in Dublin, Georgia on September 23, 1942, Imagene learned the foundation of her life from her parents, Rev. J.C. Bigham and Mattie Watkins Bigham, who married in Laurens County, Georgia on November 28, 1941. Imagene married Lucius Johnson on August 11, 1958. After her marriage to Lucius "L.C." Johnson ended, she lived in public housing in H.T. Jones Village with her mother, and her two sons, Michael Tyrone Johnson and Jeffrey Lorenzo Johnson. She worked a domestic servant just like her mother. Imagene learned all too well of the injustices of life in the country in the fifties and early sixties. She participated in many civil rights marches in Dublin with the Bates sisters.
It was in 1963 when she began to prepare for the battles to come. She traveled to Washington, D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a member of the Georgia delegation on the March on Washington. She stayed in Washington and was an active member of the the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Recently, she told a reporter for The Pentagram, " I came here to fight racial injustice. I thought that white people were against me, but I realized that there were blacks against me too."
As more and more veterans of the Vietnam War came home, she realized that many of them had no home to come home to. In 1972, she opened a shelter for homeless veterans. " It seemed like some people forgot the Vietnam veterans," said Rev. Stewart, an ordained Baptist minister. She continued, " Those people gave us the freedoms we enjoy everyday. They are the life-line of this country."
Stewart, a harsh critic of the Veterans Administration for its seemingly uncaring treatment of homeless and helpless veterans and their families, refused to accept donations from the federal government. "Veterans are discarded by the military. The country does nothing for its homeless veterans," she said. She accused many other similar shelter operators of bilking the government of funds without really caring for the veterans. Following the success of her six-family center on P Street in Washington, D.C., she opened a ten-family shelter in the Suitland section of the city.
In her twenty room House of Imagene, she provided bunk beds for twenty five people.
There were occasions when veterans came in with the grandchildren, who have been left in their custody by neglective parents. Rev. Stewart welcomed them all with open arms. For more than three decades, she served meals on Thanksgiving Day to the homeless. Thanksgiving Day 2003, when her shelter served three thousand meals, was the last time her shelter served the homeless on Thanksgiving. When her health and her age began to fail her, Stewart kept on giving of all of her self that she could.
Imagene married Albert Stewart, a veteran of the Korean War. Both of her sons served in the military. Imagene told the reporter from the Pentagram, " I always wanted to be a soldier, but in those days the military rarely accepted teenage mothers." She keeps close to the military as much as she can. She visits the wounded and maimed soldiers who are being sent from Iraq to Walter Reed Hospital. "They are babies, 18- and 19-year-olds without arms and legs. What are they going to do when they try to pick up their lives?" she wonders. She has served as Chaplain of the Tuskegee Airman Civil Air Patrol at Andrews Air Force Base.
Mrs. Stewart served as the National Vice President of the Eastern Division of the American Legion Auxiliary from 2000 to 2001. She served as president of her local legion auxiliary as well as on the executive board of D.C. Veterans & Auxiliaries Council Veterans Against Drugs. She has been a member of the U.S. Air Force Mother''s Club, American War Mothers and Amvets Auxiliary. In addressing the convention of the American Legion in 2001, she commented on the suggestion that blacks pledge allegiance to Africa and not the American flag, she brought forth a thunderous standing ovation when she told the gathering of veterans, "Well, honey, I ain''t never been to Africa. . . I was born in the United States of America, very proudly." She has been named by the National President of the Legion Auxiliary as "An Angel in Action" for her decades of showing mercy to homeless veterans.
Stewart was consecrated presiding Bishop of the African American Women's Clergy Association during a Women's History Month celebration March 2, 1996 at the Chapel of Hope, Shilo Baptist Church. She is a pastor of the Greater Pearly Gate Full Gospel Baptist Church, Bishop Stewart was the first African-American minister elected National Chaplain to the American Legion Auxiliary.
Bishop Stewart was awarded numerous accolades for her community service. In 1991, she was commended by President Bush for efforts in meeting the needs of homeless veterans. The next year, she was awarded the prestigious " Living the Dream Award" for her service to battered women. Oh yes, the House of Imagene takes in victims of domestic violence in the D.C. Area. Are you surprised? In 2000, she was awarded a Leadership Award by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. She has been commended by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has provided his own support of homeless veterans in Washington. On Feb. 8, 2004, she was awarded a community service award by Fort Myer, which Bishop Stewart calls a "thankless job, but somebody has to do it." In her spare time, Bishop Stewart hosted a Sunday morning radio talk show on WOL 1450 AM in Washington, D.C., where she was known to her listeners as "The Georgia Peach."
For decades, Bishop Stewart was a leading advocate for a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from desecration. Despite the fact that most states have asked the Congress to adopt such an amendment, the Congress has failed to act. She served on the board of the Citizens Flag Alliance and urged her listeners to speak out in favor of the amendment to protect the flag.
While Imagene had long been an advocate for the rights of her people, she didn't consider herself an African-American. "Some people tell me my allegiance should be to Africa," she told the Pentagram reporter. "I'm from the USA. I'm an American," she proudly proclaimed. She is often criticized for her support of President George W. Bush, but that doesn't mean she isn't an advocate for social rights. She always has been there to defend and promote the rights of all persons. She has adopted a policy of "love one, love all." She supports President Bush for his strong stance in protecting the freedoms which we enjoy today.
The Rev. Imagene Stewart died in the spring of 2012.
Sam Ford of ABC news in Washington was eternally moved by what he saw in Imagene. "I first met her nearly 30 years ago when I moved to Washington and came to her House of Imagene shelter to do a story on helping the needy at Thanksgiving. I'll never forget her words in the interview. She said she moved to DC from Dublin, Georgia and that she herself had been homeless at one point, sleeping on benches in Lincoln Park. And she told "God and two or three other people" that if she ever got on her feet she was going to help others. And she did. She ran a house for battered women," Ford recalled of his dear friend.
This is the story of Imagene Bigham Stewart, the compassionate warrior, the little black girl from Dublin, Georgia who went to Washington and spent the best years of her lives making a difference in the country she so proudly loved.
Sometimes it is hard to believe and at the same time so easy to realize that out of the one thousand or so African American men, collectively known as "The Tuskegee Airmen," at least three of those legendary flying men have called Laurens County home. Laurens County is known far and wide across the state for the inordinate amount of her citizens who have meritoriously contributed to the service of our state and our nation. The stories of our three Tuskegee Airmen are a prime example.
You may already know the story of Major Herndon "Don" Cummings. Major Cummings, a native of northwestern Laurens County, was assigned to duty as a bomber pilot to train for the anticipated bombing campaign during the thought to be necessary invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945. Cummings was among the one hundred or so African American pilots who were arrested for trying to integrate a "white" officers club at Freeman Field, Indiana just days before the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Freed by new president, Harry Truman, Cummings went on to a successful flying career after the war. His last moment in the limelight came as he sat with other Tuskegee Airmen on the platform during the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. Cummings died during a hospital stay in the winter of 2010-11.
You probably don't know the story of Col. John Whitehead, a young West Virginia born man, who was raised in Dublin, Georgia in his early youth and who became known as "Mr. Death." Whitehead is often credited with being the first African-American test pilot in the United States Air Force. His story will come later.
But, now, I want to tell you the story of Marion Rodgers. Surprisingly there is little written material available online, mainly a biography prepared by Commemorative Air Force in its Red Tail project, from which he is quoted herein.
"I was born in Detroit on September 23, 1921 and raised to about age eight in Dublin, Georgia, by my mother. We moved to Roselle, NY in 1929 to live with cousins along with my older Brother, Raymond, who raised me from then until after high school. The school system was great. I worked a short while and continued to run track with a team that frequented meets at Madison Square Garden, in Manhattan," Rodgers told an interviewer.
"Some running a huge auto repair garage nearby restored a damaged biplane. I was there many days to observe and finally, after weeks, it flew. I was hooked. The big problem was minorities had no place in aviation," spoke Rodgers of his interest in aviation.
Marion was hooked. He would make his way to airports, where he would stake out a prime stop to watch planes as they landed and took off.
When Marion Rodgers learned to his surprise that the United States Army Air Force would be accepting applications for flight school from African Americans, he took the test. Not surprisingly, the near genius easily passed all of this entrance tests.
Not immediately accepted into flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama, Rodgers was first assigned to an anti-aircraft artillery unit and the served a short term as a radio operator.
"Then I got called, not to Tuskegee, but to Keesler Field, along with 200 other backlogged aviation Cadet-Selectees for basic training again. Finally we went to Tuskegee, the institute, as students. Finally, in May 1943, I'm sent to Pre-Flight Training at Tuskegee Army Air Field and what an experience that was," Rodgers exclaimed!
But all was not goodness and light. Flight training was both physically and mentally rigorous.
"We went to ground school every day for military customs, leadership, discipline, navigation, aeronautics, radio code, fuel management, weather, aircraft recognition, mathematics, physical fitness, etc.," remembered Rodgers.
Rodgers trained at Moten Field before returning to Tuskegee where he flew the Vultee BT-131 for the requisite 80 flight hours. Promoted to the much more powerful AT-6, Marion earned his 2nd Lieutenant wings.
"I made it, somehow, and was very proud. It was a segregated program. All the instructors in Basic and Advanced Training were white, but most were fair and conscientious. A few should have been somewhere else," recalled Rodgers of his early days in flight school.
After flying the P-40, P-39 and P-47, Marion was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, the famous unit eternally known as the "Red Tails."
"In 69 combat missions I flew 370 hours. We flew escort for B-17s and B-24s with occasional strafing and reconnaissance missions. We never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft and I don't know how we herded hundreds of them into well-protected targets in Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Linz, Salsburg, Stuttgart, Regensburg and Berlin," recounted the former fighter pilot.
His most exciting missions were strafing missions in Southern France, Rumania, Hungary, and Germany, destroying aircraft, locomotives, ammo and fuel dumps, box cars, trucks, and even radar stations. Flying at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour, the P-51s were the fastest thing in the sky.
Rodgers wrote of an August 12, 1944 mission in Southern France, by the 332nd Fighter Group. "It was my first strafing mission. We went into the target area at 15,000 feet. I was the number four man in the lead flight. Our leader brought us over the target, which were radar stations near the coast. Then he rolled his plane over on its back and went down on the target in almost a vertical dive. I had been nervous up to this time but when I started my dive it all left me. Now my attention was centered on bringing my ship out of the dive because it had gathered tremendous speed and the ground was rushing toward me. I still hadn't located the target. I was slightly to the right of the ship ahead of me and I saw him veer off to the right rather sharply, but I followed the other ships ahead of me while still pushing my own ship through a near split S."
"As my ship leveled out about 50 feet above the ground, I had a glimpse of something that looked very much like the picture we had seen of radar stations. I had a chance to hold my trigger down for two seconds, then zigzagged out to sea on the deck. "When I returned to the base, I found out that our flight of eight had lost two ships, one of them being the ship that had veered to my right. I had no vision of the flak," the Colonel concluded.
After the war, Rodgers was eventually promoted to command the 99th Fighter Squadron "The Red Tails" at Lockbourne Air Base. In 1948, the Air Force was integrated under orders from President Harry S. Truman. Col. Rodgers, a twenty-two-year veteran of the Air Force and a 17-year Civil Service worker, spent one year working for NASA as a program manager on the mission of Apollo 13. In technical circles, Rodgers was prominent in the development of electronics and communications procedures with NORAD.
Following his retirement in 1983, Rodgers became known for his exceedingly generous contributions of his time to public organizations in his hometown. He also attended as many events honoring the Tuskegee Airmen whenever and wherever he could. In his spare time, Rodgers spent many fun times with his wife Suzanne and engaging in his favorite hobby as an amateur radio operator.
So there you have it, a short look at the life of a remarkable man - one of us, a flying man of Tuskegee.
She didn't have to see God or Jesus to know that they were there beside her every day.
She did not need to see the wonders of God's world, the red radiant twilights, flowing fields of fragrant flowers, lush green pine forests or our spacious crystal blue skies.
She knew they were there and could only imagine their glorious splendor.
For more than ninety years, Fleeta played the piano although she couldn't see the keys.
In fact, Fleeta Mitchell could not see any thing at all. She was blind.
Blind from birth, it didn't take long for Fleeta to discover that there was something special in store for her life.
Born on February 28, 1913, one hundred years ago today, to Rev. John and Queen Nichols, of Cadwell, Georgia, Fleeta Mitchell began playing the piano at the age of five. Her parents moved to Rome, Georgia, where her father worked as a farm laborer.
Fleeta Mitchell (courtesy of Art Rosenbaum)
Fleeta, then eight years old, was lucky enough to be enrolled in the Georgia Academy for the Blind. It was there where she was introduced to other blind persons, some of whom shared her gift of music. In particular, Fleeta became friends with William Samuel McTell, known as "Blind Willie" McTell by his legions of admirers as one of Georgia's most talented blues artists.
"I used to love to hear my daddy play a harp. But I'm going to tell the truth. I used to play blues. I played the blues at dances," Fleeta told the Athens Banner Herald. It was in the School for the Blind where she met Nathaniel Mitchell, who was also blind. Fleeta fell in love and the couple talked about getting married. Fleeta recalled it was her husband, who wanted her to give up singing in the blues.
"He didn't want no wife playing the blues. I loved that sweet old thing,'' Fleeta reminisced to an Athens reporter about her husband to whom she was married for 57 years.
"His people didn't want me because I couldn't see. At school I learned cooking. They taught sewing and how to clean up, make up beds,'' she said.
"His mother had a fit when he wrote and told her he was going to bring his wife. She told him, `You can come, but leave her there.' Now wasn't that crazy? I was so hurt and didn't want to come,'' Fleeta continued.
"I'm from Dublin, Georgia, a place called Cadwell. I was born blind. I've never seen in my life,'' Fleeta Mitchell told Wayne Ford of the Athens Banner Herald in a 2002 interview.
"She came out of the old style of singing and playing by ear, but (in school) she learned some classical and more formal music, which she integrated into what she played. She played with deep feeling and had a great style, but she never followed the path of trying to make recordings as some of the people who were as talented as she. She wanted to use her talent for her faith and for the church. She is a powerful singer and very personable. She has a very large repertoire of songs, very old spirituals, gospel and more recent songs,'' said Art Rosenbaum, who began recording Fleeta singing back in the 1970s.
Rosenbaum, an art professor at the University of Georgia, developed a passion for collecting the rapidly disappearing folk and gospel songs of the South. A talented visual artist himself, Rosenbaum often paints pictures of his musical subjects, including several of Fleeta Mitchell.
Rosenbaum went on to win a Grammy Award in 2008 for his compilation of folk, country and gospel music, "Art of Field Recording Volume 1" as Best Historical Album. Rosenbaum's son, Neil, has recently produced a video, "Sing My Troubles By," which features Fleeta's music along with many other artists from Georgia.
"Sadly, the old-timers are leaving us," the elder Rosenbaum lamented.
In the last years of their lives, Fleeta and Nathaniel Mitchell appeared in churches and music festivals in North Georgia.
For nearly a half century, the Mitchells called St. John's Holiness Church as their home church, although Fleeta was raised in a Methodist family and Nathaniel in a Baptist one.
In the latter years of her life, Fleeta, known to all as "Sister Mitchell" or "Mother Mitchell" struck up a friendship with her dearest friend ,Willie Mae Eberhart, who took in the couple when they reached that point in life when they couldn't take care of themselves.
Everywhere she went, people loved her," said Eberhart, (above with Mitchell, @ Online Athens) who enjoyed her years with the Mitchells.
Fleeta Mitchell passed among the angels on March 7, 2011. She was buried in the cemetery of her church, New Bethlehem Baptist Church outside of Athens.
"She was a wonderful woman, a good friend and a powerful singer and musician and one of the most generous, giving people I've ever met,'' Rosenbaum remembered of his old friend. And on this day, he is glad that Fleeta is being remembered in her home county on the 100th anniversary of her birth.
For nearly a century, Fleeta Mitchell sang the praises of God's Amazing Grace in the pitch black darkness of her world. Fleeta once was blind. Now, as she sits at the keys in God's heaven, she sees all of the glory of his kingdom which she only saw inside her earthly soul.
To see and hear Fleeta Mitchell sing, check out her hauntingly beautiful and inspiring, "The Mumblin Word" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2UDcuAViL8. A 1984 version of "Up Above My Head" and "Brother, You Ought To Have Been There," can be found at http://vimeo.com/20970179. To learn more about Fleeta go to: http://www.singmytroublesby.com/
THE FIRST PUBLIC SPEECH OF
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
On April 17, 1944 the Colored Elks Clubs of Georgia held their state convention at First A.B. Church in Dublin. The event was hosted by the Norman G. McCall Elks Lodge of Dublin. The Georgia Elks clubs each sponsored a high school student in a statewide oratory contest. The winner of the contest was from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. In his speech, the fifteen-year-old student, who would enter Morehouse College in the fall, spoke on the topic of "The Negro and the Constitution."
The young man called for the better health and education of his people. He spoke of Christianity and the Golden Rule. He urged fair play and free opportunities at home, the same as we were fighting for in Europe and Asia. He suggested that if Negroes were given the franchise, "they will be vigilant and defend, even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies." Little did the audience realize what they were witnessing.
In a compiled autobiography, the young man recalls that the reading of this essay was his first public political speech. The young man spent the next twenty four years of his life fighting for the constitutional rights of the people of his race. By now, I know you have guessed who he was. The young man, who came to Dublin sixty nine years ago, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is Martin Luther King's speech:
"My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, [America] will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom," said the young King. "And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!"
Negroes were first brought to America in 1620 when England legalized slavery both in England and the colonies and America; the institution grew and thrived for about 150 years upon the backs of these black men. The empire of King Cotton was built and the southland maintained a status of life and hospitality distinctly its own and not anywhere else.
On January 1, 1863 the proclamation emancipating the slaves which had been decreed by President Lincoln in September took effect--millions of Negroes faced a rising sun of a new day begun. Did they have habits of thrift or principles of honesty and integrity? Only a few! For their teachings and duties had been but two activities--love of Master, right or wrong, good or bad, and loyalty to work. What was to be the place for such men in the reconstruction of the south?
America gave its full pledge of freedom seventy-five years ago. Slavery has been a strange paradox in a nation founded on the principles that all men are created free and equal. Finally after tumult and war, the nation in 1865 took a new stand--freedom for all people. The new order was backed by amendments to the national constitution making it the fundamental law that thenceforth there should be no discrimination anywhere in the "land of the free" on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar. Look at a few of the paradoxes that mark daily life in America. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in the Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the supreme court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of "America" and "Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen" rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on thee sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, eveen after it has declared her to be its best citizen.
So, with their right hand they raise to high places the great who have dark skins, and with their left, they slap us down to keep us in "our places." "Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment."
We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines--obey no Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. We cannot come to full prosperity with one great group so ill-delayed that it cannot buy goods. So as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.
Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that "if freedom is good for any it is good for all," that we may conquer southern armies by the sword, but it is another thing to conquer southern hate, that if the franchise is given to Negroes, they will be vigilant and defend even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies.
The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff. Already closer understanding links Saxon and Freedman in mutual sympathy.
America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!
Photograph at the top is @ Scott B. Thompson, Sr. It was taken on April 15, 2012 of Joey Howard of Dublin as he recited Dr. Martin Luther King's speech at First African Baptist Church, Dublin, Georgia.
On this 4th of July, we once again celebrate our independence, our patriotism and the overabundance of blessings which have been bestowed upon us by those who have gone before us. Belinda "Brenda" Higdon Pinckney is not your archetypical general. Missing is the gruff exterior we see on television and the movies. She is not a fifty- plus- year- old white male soldier. There is no "gung ho" in her heart, except for the causes she believes so strongly in. When she dons her dress blue uniform, there is a heart of gold behind the mass of commendations, ribbons and stars. Though her shoulders are not broad, thousands and thousands of the family members of the soldiers of the Army know that when they need to lay their head on them, General Pinckney will be there to comfort them. Belinda Higdon Pinckney, one of only a few African-American female general officers in the United States Army, acknowledges the blessings she has. Her mission is to share those blessings and to make life better for those coming behind.
Belinda "Brenda" Higdon Pinckney was born in Dublin, Georgia in 1954. Her parents, Homer and Lucy Higdon, cared about their children and did their best to provide all they could for their six children, even if it meant working two jobs. Though they had little education themselves, the Higdons were determined that their children would receive the best education they could. Belinda attended kindergarten at Howard Chapel Methodist Church not too far from her home in Katie Dudley Village neighborhood of the Dublin Housing Authority. As she looks back to the days she spent in Katie Dudley, she fondly remembered that if she or any other of her siblings and playmates did something they weren't supposed to be doing, they would first get a whipping by a concerned neighbor and then return home for a second stern, but loving, whipping. She applauds those in her community who helped keep the kids "on the straight and narrow."
General Pinckney credits her success in the military to the foundations of her education she received in Dublin. She attended Washington Street Elementary School. "We were challenged to do our best," Pinckney said. "Mrs. Brinson was one of my favorite teachers. She was like a mother to many of us. We were put into groups, A,B,C and D. You didn't want to be in the D group," she continued. She was in the A group and remained in the same classes with a core group of classmates for nearly ten years. Among the teachers General Pinckney remembered the most were Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Crews, Bonnese Brower, Ernest Wade, Martha Myers and her principal, Charles W. Manning, Sr.
A member of the Finance Corps, the General credits Mrs. Myers for giving her the basic foundations of understanding, and actually loving math. It was that love of math that led her into the Finance Corps. Today, she is the only minority Finance Corps Officer in the history of the United States Army to be commissioned as a general officer. Brenda's life changed dramatically in the summer of 1970. In an effort to promote harmony between the races, Federal courts ordered that Dublin High School and Oconee High School be merged. Brenda and hundreds of her classmates and friends were ripped away from their beloved Oconee High School. It was the only school they had ever known. Bused or transported all the way across town, Brenda and the other students at Oconee had a difficult time in the transition. There were scared and naturally, just angry. As I look back on those days from the other side of the tracks, these students were the trailblazers of their day.
It was these students who entered a new world and made it easier for those who came from behind. It was one of the darkest days in the history of Dublin High School. An early morning pep rally was going on in the front of the school. Suddenly a rock, reported a chunk of concrete left lying by a forgetful contractor, appeared to come from where the black students were standing. It struck a white cheerleader and then as they say, "all Hell broke loose." All students in the school were sent home. The football game went on that night, but without the band. Many of the black students were put on buses and sent back home. As Belinda boarded the bus, a bee crawled under her bright yellow clothes and stung her, prompting her to say "even the insects are against us." When I talked to the General for the first time, I told her that I was there that dark day and that we have overcome most of those differences which so bitterly divided us thirty seven years ago. She smiled.
Brenda transferred to East Laurens High School where she graduated with honors in 1972. Belinda attended Clark College in Atlanta and studied medical technology. She failed to realize that in her senior year she would have to transfer to Emory University to complete her degree. Her tuition costs were going to double. She did transfer to the Medical College of Georgia, but when she was only twelve credit hours shy of a degree, circumstances led to her quitting college. "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," reasoned General Pinckney. Frustrated and disappointed at how she was forced out of school, Belinda promised herself that she would never quit anything ever again.
A career in the military was an early apparent option. Her oldest brother was an Army paratrooper and Vietnam veteran and her next brother, a Marine and also a Vietnam veteran. Her older sister joined the Navy. So Brenda, looking for something more out of life, enlisted as a private first class in the Army in 1976. Older than most other members of her rank, Private Higdon was quickly put into leadership positions. "The Army exposed me to reality early in my life and made me feel good," said Pinckney who believed she could make the army a career. It wasn't long before Private Higdon looked around at the non-commissioned officers and how they handled soldiers. She said to herself, " I can do that."
So she enlisted in Officer Candidate School in 1978 and graduated the following year. It was then, more than two decades ago, that she began her goal to look after soldiers, the regular men and women of the Army. The transition from an enlisted soldier to an officer was a daunting task. Pinckney relied on the lessons she learned in school to guide her through the difficult tasks ahead. She sought out role models to learn from, much like she had at Washington Street and Oconee High schools. The army placed her in a position to advance, but like her parents, the young officer wasn't looking for any handouts. Determined and highly independent, Pinckney took advantage of every opportunity to advance up the chain of command.
"Initially, it was hard for me to transition from being an enlisted soldier to an officer because, first of all, I only had two-plus years in the military as a PFC and specialist. Secondly, other than my training in OCS, no one had really sat me down and talked to me about 'officer ship.' The expectations are much greater. I was no longer only responsible for my actions, but for the welfare of my subordinates, too," Pinckney said. General Pinckney has demonstrated her ability to succeed at all levels. Early in her life, Bonnese Thomas McLain, one of her favorite teachers, noticed something special in Brenda. "Brenda and a small group of kids would meet me around 7:00 a.m. nearly every morning wanting to make the extra effort to learn more math," Mrs. McLain said.
After she entered the army, Belinda Pinckney continued to strive toward educational excellence. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration at the University of Maryland, a Master of Public Administration degree in Financial Management at Golden State University, and a Master of Science degree in National Resource Strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
During her long and successful military career, General Pinckney has served as a Congressional Appropriations Officer, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller); Principal Deputy Director/Army Element Commander, Defense Finance and Accounting Service; Brigade Commander, 266th Finance Command and US Army Europe Staff Finance and Accounting Officer, Heidelberg, Germany; Battalion Commander, Training Support Battalion; Soldier Support Institute, Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Military Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management and Comptroller); Budget Analyst, Technology Management Office, Office of the Chief of Staff; and Company Commander, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 266th Finance Command.
In September 2004, Colonel Belinda Pinckney was nominated by the Army to become a general. She was the first woman in the history of the Army Finance Corps to be promoted to a general officer and the first ever person to be nominated from the comptroller field. Her first major assignment was as the Deputy Director, Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which is the largest finance and accounting operation in the world, paying more than 5. 9 million people, processing 12.3 million invoices and disbursing more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars in congressional appropriations.
General Pinckney's military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, two Legion of Merit medals, six Meritorious Service Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals, the Office of the Secretary of Defense Staff Badge and the General Staff Identification Badge. As the general begins her thirty second year in the military, she is as committed as ever to set the bar for all military women to come.
In 2001, Pinckney was the first African-American woman to be inducted in the Officer Candidate School's Hall of Fame. She is one of only two African American generals and one of only a dozen or so female generals in the United States Army. "We need to continue to tell the stories, so that every generation will know and learn from these stories because we as a country are not particularly proud of some of this history,"she noted; "We do not want to repeat the bad history, and we want to tell the stories of the good history."
An advocate of women's rights, General Pinckney acknowledges the outstanding accomplishments of women in the military saying "Many contributions of women have gone unrecognized, the stories of their struggles and triumphs remain untold" General Pinckney recognizes the importance of their accomplishments but also realizes the tendency to take them for granted. She believes it is important to pass along the stories so that succeeding generations will know and grow from them.
As the first woman to head the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, General Pinckney has many sleepless nights. She sees no soon end to the war and worries constantly about the families of the soldiers serving in the Middle East and around the world. She often visits with wounded soldiers and their families in Washington's Walter Reed Hospital. The General seeks to make life easier for the families with the limited resources she has at her disposal.
Just thirty-six hours after she addressed a reunion of her fellow alumni of Oconee High School, General Pinckney boarded a plane bound for Houston, Texas and another funeral, another day of comforting the anguished with dignity and honor, all the time knowing that she is serving her nation proudly and setting an example for women and minority officers in the future. With a legacy of education, leadership and old-fashioned values she learned in the schools, churches and homes of Dublin and Laurens County, General Belinda "Brenda" Higdon Pinckney is bound for greater things to come in her Army career. It is with great honor that I, on behalf of all of the people of Laurens County and the United States of America, salute our very own hometown hero for a job well done as she seeks to better the lives of her soldiers and their families.
Frances could remember the days when she wasn't free. Some seven decades after she received her freedom, she sat down in her home on Bridge Street in Athens with Sadie B. Hornsby to relate her memories of the days when she lived in one room log cabin with a stick and mud chimney. Frances never forgot the day she was free to go were ever she wanted to, when she wanted to. This is her story, in her own words, a woman's story of slavery as she saw it. They are her words, written long ago in interpretation of her own simple dialect.
"I was born way off down in Twiggs County 'bout a mile from the town of Jeffersonville. My Pa and Ma was Otto and Sarah Rutherford," Frances recalled. There were nine children and parents living in a meager hut they called their home. "Our bedsteads was made out of rough planks and poles and some of 'em was nailed to de sides of de cabins," Frances remembered. The mattresses were stuffed with wheat straw while it was in season. "When dat was used up us got grass from de fields. Most any kind of hay was counted good 'nough to put in a slave's mattress," Mrs. Willingham said. "Dey let us mix some cotton wid de hay our pillows," she added.
In her four years of slavery, Frances was somewhat exempt from toiling in the fields. "Us chillun never done much but play 'round de house and yards wid de white chillun. I warn't but four years old when dey made us free," she reminisced.
Frances could still remember her grandmothers and aunts. "I remember once Grandma Suck, she wes my Ma's mammy, come to our house and stayed one or two days wid us. Daddy's Ma was named Puss." Both of her grandmothers were field hands, but her mother worked in the house carding and spinning threads. Her aunt Phoebe weaved the threads onto cloth and her Polly sewed the cloth into threads.
As a child, Frances never had any money. "Nobody never give slave chillun no money in dem times. I never had none 'til atter us had done been give our freedom." But, she did see the money that her master Elisha Jones had. " I used to see Old Marster countin' of it, but de slaves never did git none of dat money. "
Frances spoke somewhat highly of her master. " Our Old Marster was a pow'ful rich man, and he sho' b'lieved in givin' us plenty to eat. It warn't nothin' fine, but it was good plain eatin' what filled you up and kept you well. Dere was cornbread and meat, greens of all sorts, 'taters, roas'en-ears and more other kinds of veg'tables dan I could call up all day. Marster had one big old gyarden whar he kept most evything a-growin' 'cept cabbages and 'matoes. He said dem things warn't fittin' for nobody to eat."
Jones trusted Otto enough to let him go hunting on his won. One delicacy in Frances' family was possum. Her family had to cook everything in an open fireplace. I've seen Ma clean many a 'possum in hot ashes. Den she scalded him and tuk out his innards. She par-boiled and den baked him and when she fetched him to de table wide a heap of sweet 'taters 'round him on de dish, dat was sho' somepin good to eat," Mrs. Willingham fondly recalled.
As a child slave, her clothes were at least decent. In summer, the girl slaves wore homespun dresses, with full skirts sewed tight to fit their waists and fastened down on their backs with buttons made out of cows and rams horns. "Our white petticoat slips and pantalettes was made on bodices. In winter us wore balmorals what had three stripes 'round de bottom, and over dem us had on long sleeved ap'ons what was long as de balmorals. Slave gals' pantalettes warn't ruffled and tucked and trimmed up wid lace and 'broidery lak Miss Polly's chilluns' was," Frances concluded.
The adult slaves on the Jones' plantation wore rough brogan. Frances and the other children wore the hand me down shoes that the Jones children had outgrown. "Dey called 'em Jackson shoes, 'cause dey was made wid a extra wide piece of leather sewed on de outside so as when you knocked your ankles 'gainst one another, it wouldn't wear no holes in your shoes. Our Sunday shoes warn't no different from what us wore evvyday," Frances said.
Elisha and Mary Jones were wealthy by most standards. In the year before the Civil War began, Jones owned $20,000 worth of real estate and $36,500.00 of personal property including slightly more than fifty slaves.
"Marse Lish Jones and his wife--she was Miss Polly--was our Marster and Mist'ess. Dey sho' did love to be good to us. Dey had five chillun of deir own, two gals and three boys. Dey was: Mary, Anna Della, Steve, John, and Bob. 'Bout deir house! Oh, Missus, dat was somepin to see for sho'.
Frances remembered the Jones's plantation house near the Town of Marion, then the capital of Twiggs County. "It was a big old fine two-story frame house wid a porch 'cross de front and 'round both sides. Dere was five rooms on de fust floor and three upstairs. It sho' did look grand a-settin' back dar in dat big old oak grove," the old slave woman looked back.
Mrs. Willingham vividly recalled her old master, "Old Master had a overseer but he never had no carriage driver 'cause he loved to drive for himself so good." Willingham said that she never saw her master do anything except drive his carriage, walk a little and eat all that he wanted to because he was rich man and didn't have to do anything. She recalled that the plantation was very large and although she couldn't remember just how many slaves lived and worked there, she did remark, "Dat old plantation was plumb full of 'em."
Field work was hard. ""Our overseer got all de slaves up 'fore break of day and dey had to be done et deir breakfast and in de field when de sun rise up," Willingham remembered. The slaves would work all day past twilight before they came back to their quarters to eat supper and rest.
Whippings on the Jones place were somewhat rare, at least Frances never saw one. She did remember the dime when she climbed on top of the porch of the big house and flapped her arms and crowed like a rooster. " Dey told me to come on down, but I wouldn't mind nobody and kept on a-crowin' and a-flappin', so dey whupped me down," Willingham remarked.
Frances and the other slaves, although a few miles from the nearest battle at Griswoldville, saw the war coming to an end. Although she was barely four years old, she told her interviewers, "Mercy me! I'se seed plenty of dem yankees a-gwine and comin'. Dey come to our Marster's house and stole his good mules. Dey tuk what dey wanted of his meat, chickens, lard and syrup and den poured de rest of de syrup out on de ground.," Mrs. Willingham remembered.
Free from all the helpless despair of seemingly eternal bondage, Frances Willingham was no better off than she was before she was granted her freedom. She had little that she could truly call her own. Slaves had their freedom, but had little choice of where to go and how to scratch out a living. Many of the things the former slaves had provided for them were now gone or beyond the reach of their somewhat less than meager incomes would allow. Although legally free, many of the slaves remained on the plantations and continued to see their former masters as still their masters.
Education was almost nonexistent in those days for black children. "I ain't never been to school a day in my life, 'cause when I was little, black children weren't allowed to read and write," she remembered.
Going to church was different too. Before the war, slaves and their masters worshiped in the same church. After the war, congregations were ironically segregated. "Colored folks had their own church in a settlement called John the Baptist," Willingham remembered in recalling that she and the other children loved going to baptisms. "Day took dem converts to a hole in de crick what day had got ready for dat purpose. De preacher went fust, and den he called for de converts to come on in and have deir sins washed away," she said.
Funerals were primitive as well. Willingham explained that Elijah Jones had set apart a burying ground for his slaves adjoining his own family's cemetery. "Us didn't know nothin' 'bout no fun'rals. When one of de slaves died, dey was put in unpainted home-made coffins and tuk to de graveyard whar de grave had done been dug. Dey put 'em in dar and kivvered 'em up and dat was all dey done 'bout it," Willingham recalled.
Frances reminisced about a single wedding on her master's plantation. She never forgot the day when Miss Polly gave her one of little Miss Mary's dresses to wear to the wedding. "Only dey never had no real weddin'. Dey was jus' married in de yard by de colored preacher and dat was all dere was to it," she recollected.
Frances Willingham fondly recalled Christmas times in her youth. She remembered going to bed early because she and the other children were afraid that Santa Claus wouldn't come to see them. "Us carried our stockin's up to de big house to hang 'em up. Next mornin' us found 'em full of all sorts of good things, 'cept oranges. I never seed nary a orange 'til I was a big gal," she reminisced.
Food was plentiful in holiday times. "Miss Polly had fresh meat, cake, syrup puddin' and plenty of good sweet butter what she 'lowanced out to her slaves at Christmas. Old Marster, he made syrup by de barrel. Plenty of apples and nuts and groundpeas was raised right dar on de plantation. In de Christmas, de only work slaves done was jus' piddlin' 'round de house and yards, cuttin' wood, rakin' leaves, lookin' atter de stock, waitin' on de white folks and little chores lak dat," she remembered. Hard work resumed on the day after New Year's Day.
Medical care, although primitive at best, was available, if only on a limited basis. Of those days, Willingham recalled, "White folks was mighty good and kind when deir slaves got sick. Old Marster sont for Dr. 'Pree (DuPree) and when he couldn't git him, he got Dr. Brown. He made us swallow bitter tastin' powders what he had done mixed up in water. Miss Polly made us drink tea made out of Jerusalem oak weeds. She biled dem weeds and sweetened de tea wid syrup. Dat was good for stomach trouble, and us wore elder roots strung 'round our necks to keep off ailments," Mrs. Frances remarked.
The women of Frances Willingham's day had little rest, even after leaving the fields. She recalled that when the slaves came in from the field, the women cleaned the houses after they eat and washed clothes early in the morning so that they would be dry for the next day. She remembered that the grown men would eat, sit around and talk to other men and then go to bed.
Saturday nights were a time to frolic. Quitting time came around three or four o'clock in the afternoon. "Sadday nights de young folks got together to have deir fun. Dey danced, frolicked, drunk likker, and de lak of dat. Old Marster warn't too hard on 'em no time, but he jus' let 'em have dat night to frolic. On Sunday he give dem what wanted 'em passes to go to church and visit 'round," she reminisced.
Jones allowed his workers little rest from the time crops were planted until they were harvested. "My master did allow us slaves to have cornshuckin's, cornshellin's, cotton pickin's, and quiltin's," said Mrs. Willingham. Jones's groves of pecan, chestnut, walnuts and other trees were lucrative . When all the nuts were gathered, Jones sold them to the rich people in the cities. Afterwards, he gave his slaves a big feast with plenty to drink. After a long celebration, Jones allowed the slaves a few days to recover before resuming their grueling duties.
In her final years, Frances Willingham reflected on her freedom, "Me, I's so' glad Mr. Lincoln sot us free." She believed that if she was still a slave, that she work just the same, sick or not. "Now I don't have to ax nobody what I kin do. Dat's why I's glad I's free," Willingham concluded.
After leaving the Jones plantation, Frances moved to Putnam County, Georgia, where she married Green Willingham, of neighboring Jasper County. "I didn't have no weddin'. Ma jus' cooked a chicken for us, and I was married in a white dress. De waist had ruffles 'round de neck and sleeves," she said as she looked back to her wedding day.
Frances Willingham lived a long life. She worked hard to provide for her seven boys and ten girls. Then as she got older she did all she could to look after her 19 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren.
In this month of March when we celebrate Women's History Month, let us look back and reflect on all the Frances Willinghams of the world, who toiled and worked with little rest to provide for their families as best as they could.
When Leonard and Albert Rozar spent the days of their youth working on their father's farm in the Burgamy District of northwestern Laurens County, they never dreamed that they would spend decades serving as stewards and mess attendants aboard submarines and in other positions in the United States Navy.
The Rozars grew up in a time when the number of black sailors serving aboard sailing ships was systematically restricted and when the number of black submariners was even more limited. All of that began to change in the years leading up to the beginning of World War II.
It was in those days before modern, nuclear powered submarines patrolled the waters of the oceans of the world when these two Laurens County brothers, "Big Rozar" and "Little Rozar" became pioneers of sorts. The Rozars set the standard for longevity of a duo of brothers with each serving for three decades in the United States Navy.
In his definitive work, Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1940-1975, Glynn A. Knoblock interviewed scores of African-American sailors who served aboard submarines. Two of those sailors whom Knoblock interviewed were Leonard and Albert Rozar, of Laurens County, Georgia.
Leonard Cicero Rozar, (LEFT) the second son of Monroe Griffin Rozar and Mattie Rozar, was born on the second day of July 1917. After the fall crop of 1939 was harvested and the winds of war began to howl out of Europe, Leonard Rozar traveled to Macon in the week after Thanksgiving to enlist in the Navy of the United States. Rozar was quoted as saying "No army for me. I'd heard devious things about them."
Rozar reported for duty at Norfolk. After undergoing the usual military training exercises, Leonard was assigned to duty as Mess Attendant, Third Class. Black sailors had historically been relegated to menial duty as cooks, stewards, and laundrymen for the crew and officers aboard submarines. Nearly all of the other submarine crewmen were white. Ironically by serving in close quarters with other stewards and white crewmen, these cooks and servants developed closer bonds with their crew mates.
Rozar left for duty in Pearl Harbor on the day after Easter in 1940. His first assignment was aboard the U.S.S. Plunger and later the U.S.S. Pollack, on which he served for the remainder of the year. Rozar joined, as a Mess Attendant 1st Class, the crew of the newly commissioned, U.S.S. Tuna, on the second day of 1941. A year later, the Tuna set out for Pearl Harbor, a month after the Japanese attack on the island base. Rozar's boat set out to patrol the waters of the East China Sea until it was assigned to the waters around New Guinea later in the year, 1942.
"I was a qualified sound man aboard (the Tuna), and my battle station was in the forward battery. I was on the standby sound gear, and also in the control room, ready to pull the demolition plug if needed," Rozar recalled.
Just days before Christmas, Leonard transferred to the U.S.S. Saury, on which he would serve until the last day of 1944. During his two years aboard the Saury, the sub saw little action except bad weather and broken equipment. Rozar recalled that he enjoyed being aboard the Saury. It was years later when he discovered that fellow Steward's Mate 1st Class, William Henry Cosby, was the father of actor Bill Cosby.
Rozar was promoted to Steward First Class and transferred to the U.S.S. Sailfish, which basically sat out the rest of the war in the Pacific, working instead as a training boat off the Atlantic coast of the United States.
Over the remainder of his 30-year career, Leonard Rozar served aboard the Sailfish, the Flying Fish, and the Chopper, before moving to New London, Connecticut in 1962. Rozar ended his career by serving as a Chief in Athens, Georgia, not far from home, and finally with a 20-month tour aboard the Cruiser Little Rock, an assignment which he did not care to have. In 1969, after three decades in the United States Navy, Leonard Rozar retired as a Senior Chief Petty Officer, the second highest enlisted grade in the Navy.
Leonard Cicero Rozar died on March 31, 2008 in San Diego, California.
Albert Rozar, (LEFT) the third son of Monroe Griffin and Mattie Rozar, was born in 1919. A highly gifted athlete in high school, Albert followed in his brother's footsteps when he joined the Navy on August 14, 1941. After attending boot camp at Norfolk and machine gun school at Mare Island, Albert Rozar reported for duty at Pearl Harbor. On December 11, 1941, as a late addition to the crew of the U.S.S. Gudgeon, Albert Rozar rode aboard the boat in the first war patrol of a U.S. submarine in World War II.
A transfer to the Pargo gave Albert Rozar more opportunities to come out of the galley for duty as telephone operator in the forward battery and when on the deck, the opportunity to man the 40mm guns. On his first patrol aboard the Pargo in the late fall of 1943, Rozar's boat was a part of only the second wolfpack operation by U.S. submarines. He remained aboard the Pargo, which sunk six ships, until the fall of 1944.
After leaving the Pargo, Albert Rozar was assigned to the staff of Commodore Charles "Weary" Wilkins on Midway. When the war was over, Albert was transferred to New London, Connecticut. In 1946, Albert reported for duty aboard the U.S.S. Segundo. Another year meant another assignment. In 1947, Rozar served aboard the U.S.S. Greenfish, which was one of the first submarines to receive personnel via helicopter from an aircraft carrier.
During the 1950s, Albert served aboard the Cobbler, the Shark, and the Orion. He equaled his brother's tenure in 1971, retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer.
The careers of Leonard and Albert Rozar spanned five different decades, three wars, and totaled sixty years of service in the United States Navy. They saw the roles of African-American sailors aboard submarines go from mess attendants and stewards aboard untested, relatively primitive submarines to respected positions as Senior Chief Petty officers and commissioned officers in the modern nuclear navy.