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 in the State of Georgia. 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/