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From two worlds to one

Sue Jones Burton's memories are as fresh as the smell of honeysuckle in her grandmother's yard.

Sue was the first-born child, in a house backing up to the banks of the Chattahoochee. Family crowded the table after church for Sunday dinner. The yard was always in bloom. Her favorites were the bright blue hydrangeas.

In the back, Sue played hide-and-seek among pecan trees, pear trees and blueberry bushes. The vegetable garden had the tallest stalks of corn a girl had ever seen, and there was a cow her grandfather bought so she wouldn't have to drink store-bought milk.

The outside world seemed far away.

Sue wasn't old enough for school. Days were spent with a white girl who lived nearby. They enjoyed playing and they enjoyed themselves.

Until the other girl posed a question.

"Sue, are you a n-----?"

Sue didn't answer. She didn't know what her friend was talking about.

"Because if you are a n-----, my mother said I can't play with you anymore."

That was the last time the children played together. That was more than 65 years ago, and at the age of 70 it stings almost as badly today.

This was her first experience with prejudice. It would not be her last.

The Magic Corner

Columbus was two worlds.

White Columbus revolved around banks, mills, stores and churches. White men ran the banks, owned the mills, operated the stores and preached from the pulpits. They lived in big houses downtown or in suburbs springing up around Wynnton.

Blacks were relegated to the bottomlands of Wynn's Hill. Their world was more than separate. It was one white folks didn't know about or care about.

Whites never imagined the success of the Lunsfords, Pierces or Farleys. They knew little about the professional people whose offices were around a block called "The Magic Corner."

A souvenir program from a 1938 meeting of black educators included names of teachers at 26 black schools and the ministers of 46 churches. Classified pages listed 18 barbershops, five beauty parlors, 11 builders and 12 grocers. There were five doctors, eight dentists, five druggists and 10 funeral directors.

Few people realized there was a Colored Columbus Medical Association. Its members included Dr. W.T. Ayers, M.D.; Dr. E.J. Turner, M.D.; Dr. G.G. Gallimore, M.D.; Dr. Thomas Brewer, M.D.; Dr. A.T. Jones, pharmacist; Dr. R.H. Cobb, dentist; Dr. E.B. Coffee, pharmacist; Dr. K.H. Terry, dentist; and Dr. William H. Spencer Jr., dentist.

It was 1952 before the medical society in Columbus admitted black physicians as scientific members.

This vibrant community was invisible -- except for The Wash House on Sixth Avenue where white matrons or their servants brought their dirty clothes. Black women returned them clean.

Author John Henrik Clarke's mother was a washerwoman making $3 a week. He remembered the red wagon that carried her piles of laundry. As a child, he rode atop those bundles.

It was better to wash for rich folks instead of poor people -- and it wasn't just tips.

"Their clothes weren't as filthy," he said.

Reading labels

Education didn't come easy.

Clarke, one of nine children, was the first to learn to read. He studied letters on signs, grocery handbills and anything tossed in the street.

"I knew more about the different brands of cigarettes and what they contained than I did American history," he said. "I would read the labels on tin cans to see where the products were made. These scattered things were my first books. I remember picking up a leaflet advertising that the Ku Klux Klan was riding again."

In the 1920s, only 10 percent of black children attended high school. Spencer High wouldn't open until 1930, so they went out of town.

Roscoe Chester, a product of those schools, said diplomas "opened many doors -- stable doors, back doors, barn doors, doors of chauffeur-driven cars and a whole lot of kitchen doors."

Access to the public library was an obstacle.

Clarke borrowed books from people he worked for or forged the names of well-known white people on notes asking for certain books at the library.

"This illegitimate book-borrowing went on for some time until one day the white person whose name I had forged appeared in the library at the same time I did. That put to an end my illegitimate use of the public library of Columbus," he said.

Novelist Carson McCullers learned of efforts to desegregate the library -- her spiritual home. A 1948 letter to librarian John Bannister acknowledged the debt she owed the Columbus Public Library -- and the outrage she felt that blacks hadn't been able to use the facility as she did.

"Always it has been an intolerable shame to me to know that Negroes are not accorded the same intellectual privileges as white citizens. As an author represented in the library, I feel it is my duty to speak not only for myself but for the august dead who are represented on the shelves and to whom I owe an incalculable debt. I think of Tolstoy, Chekov, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Paine."

The Mildred Terry Library for blacks opened in 1953. A special purpose local option sales tax is supposed to fund its expansion. Construction is pending.

Today, black and white alike use the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road. Dr. Price Walker, one of the first black students at Columbus High, serves on the library board.

The back stairs

Sue Burton lives in Atlanta after years in Ohio. The Columbus she grew up in wasn't that different from the rest of America before and after World War II.

She climbed the back stairs at the Royal Theater for Sunday night movies. If her family went to the Goo-Goo, they ordered at a window outside the restaurant.

Schools were separate. So were water fountains. In high school, Burton rode the bus every day, stopping downtown and mischievously drinking from forbidden fountains.

"We wondered aloud if the white water tasted better than the black water," she says. "We got a lot of nasty stares from the white people who saw us."

She was 15 when she flashed anger people her parents' age kept tucked away. A seat in front of the back door of a city bus was vacant, so she took it. At the next stop, a white man ordered her to give up the seat.

"I refused, and the bus driver said he wasn't going to move the bus until I moved," she says.

Other blacks begged her to give up her seat. One woman offered her own seat. When an elderly black woman pleaded with her, Burton got up.

Francis Jones didn't get up.

In the summer of 1963, Jones caught a bus on Linwood Boulevard and sat up front. An elderly white couple sat across from her.

"Didya ever think we'd be sitting here across from them?" the man said.

Jones ignored him. He wasn't saying anything she hadn't heard before.

Leaving the bus, the old man left a parting message.

He spit in Francis Jones' face.

From somewhere came a hand, a white hand.

"This beautiful white woman with blonde hair took her handkerchief and wiped the spit out of my face."

The Rev. E.D. Bryson of Holsey Chapel CME Church, spurred by college student Rudolph Allen, had asked city commissioners to abolish segregated seating on city buses. Returning, he said if there wasn't action by that afternoon, blacks were moving to the front of the bus.

Potential riders were trained in civil disobedience. Be nonviolent. Don't talk back. Don't fight back. Take a book so you will look like you're reading.

Bunky McClung Clark did just that.

"Only I held the book upside down," she said.

She was taken off the bus, arrested, put in a squad car and taken to jail. On the way, the police radio was blaring.

"N------ are getting on buses all over town."


Civil rights superstars didn't make headlines here, but Columbus dealt with race.

 The Rev. Primus King filed suit and abolished Georgia's all-white primary in 1946.

 Blacks and whites in Columbus voted together for the first time in 1950.

 The police force desegregated in 1952.

 Lunch counters desegregated in 1962.

 Public schools desegregated in 1964.

 Dr. James Grant joined the school board in 1967.

 Albert Thompson was a member of the Georgia House, the first black House committee chairman and a Superior Court judge.

 A.J. McClung was mayor pro-tem and, for several weeks, mayor of Columbus. He and Dr. Robert Wright were the first blacks on Columbus Council.

Today, Rep. Sanford Bishop represents most of Columbus in Congress. John Allen is a Muscogee Superior Court judge and Evelyn Turner Pugh is mayor pro-tem.

At the same time, the future of City Manager Isaiah Hugley was an issue in the 2006 mayoral race between incumbent Bob Poydasheff and challenger Jim Wetherington.

Poydasheff appointed Hugley in 2005. During the election, a whisper campaign began saying the black man would be replaced if Wetherington was elected.

Despite the talk, Wetherington ran well in the black community with support from Clerk of Municipal Court Vivian Creighton Bishop, Tax Commissioner Lula Lunsford Huff and Marshal Greg Countryman.

Hugley remains city manager.

How diverse is upper management in today's Columbus?


Calvin Smyre wanted a job and friends wanted him to stay home. A phone call solved both problems.

Just out of Fort Valley State, Smyre was told there were no job openings in town. He went to see A.J. McClung, director of the YMCA and the city's mayor pro tem.

A call was placed to Sam Caldwell, a disciple of Sen. Herman Talmadge and Georgia's Commissioner of Labor.

Smyre was handed the phone.

"You're hired," the commissioner said. "Now raise your right hand and repeat after me."

Wait a minute, Smyre said, I haven't taken the state merit test or anything. To which Caldwell replied, "Don't ask so many questions, son."

It was oh so simple then. Blacks wanting meaningful jobs with local corporations knew where to go and whom to see.

The process began in the law offices of Albert Thompson, until 1970 the city's only black elected official. If you were a candidate for bigger things, the whole group convened. The list was fluid, but included Thompson, McClung, George Ford, George Rowell, Clarence "Hickey" White and Gordon Kitchens.

Candidates were severely tested. Answer questions. Accept suggestions. Take orders: what to say, what to wear, how to cut your hair. Survivors found interviews -- with banks, insurance companies or textile mills -- to be a breeze.

This was not a practice session. More than jobs were at stake. This was an insurance policy that lessened the risk of the black community being embarrassed, for prospects who didn't pass muster were rejected.

Things have changed. But how successful is diversity?

Politically, Smyre is the most influential black in the Georgia Legislature and a key Democrat on the national scene. In the corporate arena, he's a senior vice president at Synovus and president and CEO of the Synovus Foundation.

Blacks are represented in city government, city council, the school board and the legislative delegation.

In corporate Columbus, however, diversity is spotty in both board rooms and upper management.

At Synovus, the board of directors has one black member and its top management team has only Smyre.

The TSYS board has one black director. The boards of CB&T and SunTrust each have two black members.

Among major corporations, Aflac is the most diverse. It has two blacks among its directors and three black females on its management team.

Whatever grade you give Columbus on diversity, know that success began with George Ford. Through his friendship with Aflac founder John Amos, Ford sat on the boards of several local corporations.

Less known is the story of how they met. They revolved in Democratic Party circles but hadn't talked much when Ford jumped Amos about his company's lack of minority employees.

"This is a highly technical field," Amos said. "I don't think they could do the job,"

George Ford challenged him to find out -- and it's a challenge still valid today.