Alva James-Johnson

Alva James-Johnson: People bridging communities

While I was growing up in New York City, bridges were just a part of life.

To get from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we had to take the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge or the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River. There was also the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to get from Brooklyn to Staten Island and the George Washington Bridge to get from Manhattan to New Jersey.

Over the years, I've thought a lot about bridges and how they bring people and cultures together.

So I found it interesting when a friend recently presented me with a poem that she wrote about a man who built a bridge right here in Columbus. The woman who brought it to my attention is Peggy Theus, whom I met shortly after moving here.

Peggy and I both attend Columbus First Church, a Seventh-day Adventist worship center off Schomburg Road. When my family first joined the congregation, Peggy, her husband, Dr. Tom Theus, and their children invited us to their homes and treated us like family.

What's interesting about our relationship is that we come from different backgrounds. Peggy is around my mother's age. She is a white woman who grew up in the South, and I am a black woman from the North. But it's what we have in common that has kindled our friendship -- our love for God, family and community.

Peggy, I've learned over the months, was once executive assistant to Mayor James Jernigan and executive secretary of the Bradley-Turner Foundation. According to articles published in the Ledger, Peggy visited the Augusta Riverwalk sometime in the 1980s and began envisioning the Chattahoochee River as the "front porch" of Columbus, a place that everyone could enjoy.

In the 1990s, she served as chairwoman of the Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Riverfront Development Committee, which led to the development of the Chattahoochee RiverWalk. That helped pave the way for what is now the longest urban whitewater course in the world.

But Peggy, now in retirement, is so unassuming that you would never know that she had that kind of impact on the city.

"It wasn't just me," she says with a quiet demeanor. "It was a great group of people who made it happen. I was just part of the team."

Instead, Peggy pointed me to Horace King, a bridge builder who she considered the real hero. He was born a slave in South Carolina, and became the most respected bridge builder in West Georgia, Alabama and northeast Mississippi during the 1800s. He built the original Dillingham Street Bridge across the Chattahoochee, connecting Columbus and Phenix City. He also served as an Alabama state representative after the Civil War.

Some years ago, Peggy wrote a poem in King's honor, which was published in a book titled "The River Keeper's Guide to the Chattahoochee."

I told her I wanted to read it, and she brought the book to church.

In one stanza, the poem says of King: "His life was a symbol, a bridge between men, Can we let it happen through us yet again? By letting this span with its lights all aglow, bring cities together and unity show."

As I read the poem, I began to see similarities between Peggy and King, even though they are living in different centuries. Both have been human bridges, spanning social and cultural divides -- making Columbus a better place to live.

We need more bridges like that in every community.