Kathy Lohr, NPR
Johnny Waits (left) started the effort to establish a Flat Rock archive. He's pictured next to the Rev. T.A. Bryant in front of the historic home that now houses records, maps and other documents dating back to 1822.
Johnny Waits (left) started the effort to establish a Flat Rock archive. He's pictured next to the Rev. T.A. Bryant in front of the historic home that now houses records, maps and other documents dating back to 1822. Kathy Lohr, NPR
Courtesy Flat Rock Archives
Spencer Bryant, the Rev. T.A. Bryant's grandfather, was chairman of the board of trustees of the Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church. Bryant was born into slavery in 1863. He is also actor and comedian Chris Tucker's great-great grandfather.
Spencer Bryant was chairman of the board of trustees of the Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church. He is shown above, seated in the middle of a crowd, in an undated photo. He was born into slavery in 1863. He is the Rev. T.A. Bryant's grandfather. He is also actor and comedian Chris Tucker's great-great grandfather. Courtesy Flat Rock Archives
Courtesy Flat Rock Archives
Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church, photographed in 1916, was the first African-American church in what's now DeKalb County, dating back to 1870. It was founded by freed slaves.
Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church, photographed in 1916, was the first African-American church in what's now DeKalb County, dating back to 1870. It was founded by freed slaves. Courtesy Flat Rock Archives
Unmapped, But Not Forgotten
The town of Flat Rock, Ga., predates the Civil War. It appeared on maps in the early 1800s but was removed after the Civil War. See a map of Flat Rock from 1839.
Kathy Lohr, NPR
The grave of Andrew Waits, who was born a slave but died a free man in 1905 in Flat Rock, Ga. Two of his brothers and one sister are also buried here.
The grave of Andrew Waits, who was born a slave but died a free man in 1905 in Flat Rock, Ga. Two of his brothers and one sister are also buried here. Kathy Lohr, NPR
Kathy Lohr, NPR
There are 250 graves at the Flat Rock-Robinson slave cemetery, which was established before the Civil War. Many graves are unmarked and some headstones have fallen over.
There are 250 graves at the Flat Rock-Robinson slave cemetery, which was established before the Civil War. Many graves are unmarked and some headstones have fallen over. Kathy Lohr, NPR
While many African-American communities in the South dissolved after the Civil War, the residents of Flat Rock, Ga., clung to the land of their ancestors. Today, the town is working to preserve its history as a rare, surviving example of the black experience.
Flat Rock, just east of Atlanta, was established in antebellum times. It appeared on maps in the early 1800s but was removed after the Civil War. Still, it survived.
Activists recently dedicated an archives center and they're working to clean up and restore a slave cemetery, where many of the community's first residents are buried.
The oldest map that documents the community of Flat Rock dates back to 1822. Inside the Flat Rock archive, maps and other faded historic records are spread out over wooden tables, and old photos hang on the walls.
Johnny Waits began the effort to collect the items in the late 1970s, and proudly shows them off.
"The last time we appeared on any map was 1865," he says. "After that, we wasn't on any maps anymore."
The once-rural community is now part of DeKalb County. It was carved out of neighboring Henry County, but Flat Rock was never incorporated. Flat Rock was home to the first black and white churches in the area. The Rev. T.A. Bryant donated his father's historic home so the community could establish an archive in it.
"I was born here in this room and I grew up here. I had three sisters and one brother," says Bryant, who is 85. He remembers what it was like working on the farm his father owned in the 1920s.
Mainly it was hard work, he says with a laugh.
"We always had chores to do," according to Bryant. "Get up in the morning. You had to milk the cows, feed the hogs, feed the horses, the mules or whatever you had, feed the cattle. Mother always fed the chickens herself and gathered the eggs."
He went to a nearby school sometimes, but Bryant says that when he was needed to help out in the fields, he'd stay home and work. Bryant's father grew cotton, corn, wheat, oats and specialty items such as watermelon and cantaloupe to sell in town.
A Stake in the Land
Bryant's father, also named T.A. Bryant, likely did the most to preserve this community when he bought 45 acres of land for $600. The elder Bryant then sold off small pieces to his relatives and other blacks who were willing to remain in the South, when so many migrated North in search of better jobs and better lives.
Bryant says a lot of his father's cousins left for New York, Detroit and Cleveland, but many others stayed because of the land.
"I don't think [my father] realized the impact. You know, we was here and we stayed here," Bryant says, adding, "Very few black communities ... stayed in the community where they came out of slavery."
The archive is important to families who lived here, to document their history and their struggle to make it in the South. In the recent public television documentary African-American Lives, Henry Louis Gates talks to comedian and actor Chris Tucker, who traced his roots back to Flat Rock and Bryant.
In the interview, Gates acknowledges that the founders of Flat Rock wanted to keep it alive.
"[Bryant] was trying to give them a stake in the South, a reason to stay, 'cause they were not going to own property in Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cincinnati, in Philadelphia or New York," Gates says.
Tucker responds, "That's deep to think like that. That's something I'll never forget."
By keeping Flat Rock from moving to the North, the elder Bryant kept the town together, Gates says.
The town had its own one–room, segregated school house. The archive has some of its records, including a very old roster and grade book. The school closed in 1948, when another segregated school was opened six miles away.
There's a photo taken in 1916 of the original Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church. Records show the church dates back to 1870, when it was founded by freed slaves, who also established the nearby cemetery.
Where Ancestors Lie
The cemetery is hidden from the road, nestled atop a steep hillside inside a fairly new, upscale African-American subdivision.
Expensive homes surround and obscure the three-acre plot where more than 250 of Flat Rock's first black inhabitants are buried. Johnny Waits points to a sunken spot in the ground and to some small, gray headstones with no markings.
"This is our great-grandmother's grave right here, Eliza Waits, that was born a slave. There's no headstone," Waits says.
All of Eliza's children are buried here, too. Waits also identifies the grave of his great uncle, Andrew Waits, who was born into slavery and died in 1905.
Before the subdivision was built, Waits says folks here used to clean the cemetery every year. That's how he says he knows who's buried here — the knowledge has been passed down through the generations.
Now the cemetery can be accessed only by walking a long distance or by getting permission from a homeowner. Waits says that's why the property is so overgrown with trees, brush and thick leaves.
"We're trying to preserve this cemetery," Waits says. "We're trying to get a fence around it. We're trying to take all the underbrush out from it. And those who don't have a headstone, we want to get them, finally, a headstone."
They'd also like to get an archeologist to locate all the graves and help preserve them. It's been a challenge to document the experience of African Americans, because there are so few records that date back to slavery. Most that do exist are not official records but rather those kept in Bibles, churches and basements.
Preserving Antebellum Communities
Clarissa Myrick-Harris is vice president of One World Archives, a nonprofit group working to preserve African-American history.
"To have a community — a living, breathing community — that has roots that go back before the Civil War is indeed a rare find," she says.
Myrick-Harris says we can document what went on in these antebellum African-American communities and learn about "their day-to-day lives, about relationships between the people of the African-American community and surrounding white communities."
Using DNA tests to trace black families back to their African roots is important, but Myrick-Harris says so many are still missing chunks of their American history. Johnny Waits in Flat Rock says he hopes he can get the funding to create a national archive here and change that.
"In 50 years, I want people to come in and, say, put their name in [a database] and all of sudden, there's their family history," Waits says.
He envisions that pictures and maps would be available so that people would be able to find out about their past.
"Because a lot of black people can't even go back to one slave — a lot of people can't even go back to their great-grandparents," Waits says.
He says it would be a shame for communities like Flat Rock to let their history die after so many generations worked to call it home.