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ON JANUARY 20, 2020, some 300 residents of the city of Macon-Bibb County, rose early to attend the annual 7:30 a.m. breakfast to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was the breakfast’s 30th anniversary and many of the faces — 30 years older, wiser, grayer and balding — were the same who attended the first breakfast in 1990, four years after the first observance of the national holiday honoring Dr. King.
The breakfast is interdenominational and non-political, although most local politicians regularly attend — and most importantly — the breakfast draws a racially mixed crowd: something you don’t see often in Macon. However, the march that followed, originating from four points in the city and converging downtown at the Government Center, showed little diversity among the 1,000 or so marchers. They arrive beating drums and singing Civil Rights era songs, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round, turn me ’round. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round. I’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’, marchin’ into freedom land.”
The events of the day celebrating King’s life and legacy depict, in sharp relief, the core of Macon-Bibb County. Like many small Southern cities, race has vexed anyone who has tried to resolve this most complicated of issues. The races, mostly black and white, play nice with each other because each plays in their own separate and unequal sandbox.
The city of Macon had humble origins. It began as a small military outpost perched high on a hill overlooking the Ocmulgee (Uck-mul-gee) River. Though European settlers were new to the area in the 1800s, Native Americans inhabited the lush, game-filled forests, for 13,000 years before their arrival. Macon is now the center of a wider area referred to as Middle Georgia: an eight-county area with 420,000 people, while Macon-Bibb County’s contribution to that number is 154,000.
Location, location, location
Location has always been Macon’s blessing — eighteen miles northwest of the geographic center of the state of Georgia. A river runs through it as well as Interstates 75, 475 and 16. A 960-acre Norfolk Southern rail yard also calls Macon home, bolstering the city’s central location.
Fifteen miles south of Macon, built on land donated by Bibb County, lies the state’s largest industrial complex: Warner Robins Air Force Base. The 7,000-acre complex employs 23,000 civilian and military personnel, with an annual payroll of $1.43 billion. The base pumps an additional $492.7 million into the area with local construction, contracts and procurement. Another $1.2 billion in local jobs are directly attributable to the base.
The city the base calls home, Warner Robins, is the new kid on the block. In 1942, Macon was already 119 years old when the small farm town of Wellston was transformed into the city of Warner Robins. Even with the ballooning of Warner Robins’ population to 74,000, Macon remains the cultural center of Middle Georgia.
Having such a large employer in the area is a blessing — until it isn’t. Whenever voices in Washington, D.C. start discussing military cutbacks, Middle Georgia gets nervous. While the Base Realignment and Closure process is nothing new, where other communities caught colds when their bases were shuttered, if that were to happen in Middle Georgia, a fatal case of economic pneumonia would occur.
A walk downtown
With every turn of the head in Macon, warm breezes of history fill the senses – from historic homes like Hay House, built in 1855, that featured a natural ventilation system long before the White House got similar relief from summer’s heat and humidity — to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park where the Mississippians constructed huge burial mounds.
From atop the largest of these, the Great Temple Mound, fifty feet above the already high elevation of the area, you can see several church steeples across the river. Macon believes it has more churches per capita than any other city in the state, more than 200 are registered in the county.
Those churches are an example of the different sandboxes the communities play in. Up a slight hill from the Government Center the two steeples of First Baptist Church of Christ (1887) look south down Poplar Street and serve a predominantly white congregation. Facing east, sits the majestic Saint Joseph Catholic Church (1841), its two steeples rising 200 feet toward heaven, its congregation also largely white. Black Catholics attend Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church (1888), located in the Pleasant Hill Community – a mile away. Turning down New Street, with its double steeples facing south, is First Baptist Church, yes, another one, but this is a black congregation that was organized more than a quarter century before the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation, its brave former pastor’s names engraved on the front steps’ risers.
In the next block, named Cotton Avenue because it was the route bales of cotton traveled to the river for transport, sits Steward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (1865). Across the street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited another black church, Tremont Temple Missionary Baptist Church (1897), but it was demolished and replaced with a “Dunkin’ Donuts.” There was an effort to save the structure; there is a very active Historical Society, sometimes referred to as the hysterical society, but its efforts were too little, too late. Also torn down in the same block was the unoccupied home of Charles H. Douglass (1870–1940) a wealthy African American who owned several businesses, but his wealth brought a Ku Klux Klan bounty on his head.
Just one block west from these churches is another reason Macon is the center of Middle Georgia: Navicent Health operates its largest facility, The Medical Center, with 637 beds. The sprawling complex is the county’s largest employer and is one of only five Level I Trauma Centers in the state. But news coverage of this large economic engine has all but disappeared. In December 2018, the hospital announced a strategic alliance with North Carolina’s Atrium Health, a much larger system. The newspaper, The Telegraph, in spite of being given early access to Navicent’s CEO, only covered the merger with collaborating news operations and little local flavor – not the extensive coverage the subject deserved. And that’s not all the news that’s gone lacking — county commission meetings, school board meetings even sports coverage — have dwindled from the printed pages of The Telegraph (formerly The Macon Telegraph) and its digital site. The three-story newspaper building that once housed more than 400 employees with its own private elevator for the publisher has been sold. The parent company, McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy protection February 12.
A checkered history
History dominates the relationships of Macon’s people and that history created the sandboxes. Public schools didn’t integrate until 1970 — 16 years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision — and it was far from an easy transition. Not only were blacks and whites sitting in the same classrooms for the first time but, at least for the white students, boys and girls too. The six formerly all-white high schools and the two black high schools, merged.
School integration ushered in white flight. In 2016 there were 18 private schools in the county with a combined enrollment of 4,304 students. As of January 2020, the public school system had 21,752 students, down from 23,835 last year. The public school district is 77 percent African American, 13.3 percent white and another 9.5 percent Hispanic, Asian or multi-race. The student population in the system has the highest rate of poverty in the nation according to the district, and the system is a 100 percent free and reduced lunch. The white student population has dropped by almost 1,400 students from 2019 to 2020. Where did they go?
While the private schools have been around for decades, there are now three charter schools that operate in the county, only one, Hutchings College and Career Academy, is under the direction of the local school board. The other two are state supervised with a combined student population of 2,203. One school, Cirrus Academy, is 100 percent African American and the other, Academy for Classical Education, which started out as a public charter, before joining the state system last year, is 72 percent white.
Macon is also the center for higher education with Wesleyan College, the first institute of higher learning for women in the world, to Mercer University, Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. Mercer University, then a Baptist-affiliated school, pulled itself out of the segregated sandbox in 1963 when it admitted Sam Oni, a Christian convert from Ghana. Oni’s experiences at Mercer was indicative of race relation in Macon at the time.
In the fall of 1963, Tattnall Square Baptist Church, founded in 1891 and located on the Mercer campus, refused to allow Oni into its worship service. Church deacons stopped him at the door, but he refused to leave, police were called. The saga really began that summer when the church’s pastor, Thomas J. Holmes and assistants Doug Johnson and Jack Jones, attempted to use the Gospel to show their congregation of 2,000 that not accepting all who wanted to know Christ wasn’t Christian. Two Upward Bound students (a Mercer program designed to prepare local high school students, mainly African American, for college-level work) attended a service. In response the church voted to bar “Negroes” from attending. The very morning Oni attempted to enter the sanctuary, the church had voted to dismiss all three of its pastors. The incident drew national attention and was depicted in the book “Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960’s Southern School” by Will D. Campbell. The church was forced to leave campus and move to the northern suburbs where it still exists today and remains predominately white.
Other areas of division
Though the intown area of the city is full of stately historic homes and the adjacent downtown — that in 2012 was barely awake — is now brimming with more than 50 restaurants and almost 900 toney lofts, just a few blocks away, blighted areas are difficult to ignore. The county has been unable to stem the flow of shabby, boarded up, or neglected properties. A 2017 blight survey identified 3,700 unoccupied structures, mainly in the urban core populated by African Americans. The poverty rate of Macon-Bibb citizens stands at 25.7 percent, almost 40,000 of the county’s population.
Macon-Bibb County is blue amidst a surrounding sea of red. In the 2016 presidential election Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Macon-Bibb with 59 percent of the vote, whereas Republican Donald Trump carried all the contiguous counties by 59 percent or more. There will be more areas of stress this election season, but initially, that stress will not come from national politics. Macon-Bibb will be voting to elect its first new mayor since 2008 in May, and of the announced candidates, one of the strongest is African American. Black voters have a 12,108 registered voter advantage over white voters with other races numbering 9,548. However, in the 2018 midterm election, voter turnout for the entire county was a dismal 25.6 percent.
As the saying goes, “follow the money” and this election season is no exception. The three major white candidates for mayor have $377,135 in their campaign accounts, the major black candidate, $41,859. The sandboxes are set.
Next week, Chapter Three: Red streets v. blue streets in McKeesport, PA
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.