Antebellum Town a Record of Black Experience 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.
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Antebellum Town a Record of Black Experience

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Antebellum Town a Record of Black Experience

Antebellum Town a Record of Black Experience

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

An African-American community established before the Civil War is trying to preserve its history. Flat Rock, just east of Atlanta, disappeared from maps during reconstruction, but the community survived. Activists recently dedicated an archive there. Now, they're working to restore a slave cemetery where many of the community's first residents are buried.

From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The oldest map that documents the community of Flat Rock dates back to 1822.

JOHNNY WAITS: Here's another map showing Flat Rock. This one right here is 1822. This one is 1839. This one is 1830.

LOHR: Maps and other faded historic records are spread out all over wooden tables, and old photos hang on the walls inside the Flat Rock archive.

Johnny Waits began the effort to collect the items in the late '70s, and proudly shows them off.

WAITS: That's Flat Rock there. And the last time we appeared on any map was 1865. After that, we wasn't on any maps anymore.

LOHR: The once-rural community is now part of DeKalb County. It was carved out of neighboring Henry County, but Flat Rock was never incorporated. It was home to the first black and white churches in the area. Reverend T.A. Bryant donated his father's historic home so the community could establish an archive in it.

BRYANT: I was born here in this room, and I grew up here. I had three sisters and one brother.

LOHR: Reverend Bryant is 85 years old. He remembers what it was like working on the farm his father owned in the 1920s.

BRYANT: Mainly it was hard work. Doing all the chores, you know? We always had chores to do. 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, and - yeah. And mother always fed the chickens herself and gathered the eggs. When my dad didn't need us in the fields, we'd go to school, but if he needed us, we didn't go to school

LOHR: Reverend Bryant's father grew cotton, corn, wheat, oats, and specialty items like watermelon and cantaloupe to sell in town. He likely did the most to preserve this community when he bought 45 acres of land for $600. T.A. 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: A lot of people were leaving. A lot of his cousins left for New York and Detroit and Cleveland. And he eventually said that he wanted to keep the community alive. And he - I don't think he realized the impact. You know, we was here and we stayed here. Our people stayed here. And very few black communities, you know, was substantial or stayed in the community where they came out of slavery, you know?

LOHR: 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 program, "African-American Lives," Henry Louis Gates talks to comedian and actor Christ Tucker who traced his roots back to Flat Rock and Bryant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV PROGRAM "AFRICAN-AMERICAN LIVES")

HENRY LOUIS GATES: And that's amazing that...

CHRIS TUCKER: He was trying to give them a stake in the south, a reason to stay, because they were not going to own property in Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cincinnati, in Philadelphia or New York.

LOUIS GATES: That's deep. That's deep to think like that. That's something I'll never forget. And this is blowing me away. I can never forget that.

TUCKER: But he kept - in a sense, he kept Flat Rock from moving to the north. He kept Flat Rock together.

LOHR: The town had its own one-room, segregated schoolhouse. 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 of the original Flat Rock United Methodist Episcopal Church taken in 1916. Records show the church dates back to 1870 when it was founded by slaves. And there's the nearby cemetery, also established by slaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

LOHR: The cemetery is hidden from the road. We walk up a steep hillside in 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 small, gray headstones with no markings.

WAITS: This is our great-grandmother's grave right here, Eliza Waits, that was born a slave. There's no headstone. These are all her kids. This is our great-uncle right here, Andrew Waits, that was born a slave died in 1905.

LOHR: 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. It's been passed down through the generations.

Now, the cemetery can only be accessed by walking a long distance or by getting permission from a homeowner. So Waits says that's why the property is so overgrown with trees, brush and thick leaves.

WAITS: We're trying to preserve this cemetery. 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.

LOHR: 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 are not official records, but rather those kept in Bibles, churches and basements.

CLARISSA MYRICK: To have a community - a living, breathing community - that has roots that go back before the Civil War is indeed a rare find.

LOHR: Clarissa Myrick-Harris is with One World Archives, a nonprofit group working to preserve African-American history.

MYRICK: What went on in these antebellum African-American communities, their day-to-day lives, about relationships between the people of the African-American community and the surrounding white communities, and then, of course, the relationships and the institution-building that went on in the community itself.

LOHR: Myrick-Harris says using DNA tests to trace black families back to their African roots is important, but, she 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.

WAITS: In 50 years, I want people to come in and, say - put their name in all of a sudden, there's their family history, they'll have pictures, there's places, they'll have maps, and say, wow, now I know my family history. Because there's a lot of black people who can't even go back to one slave. A lot of people can't even go back to their great-grandparents.

LOHR: Waits 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.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta

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