African-Americans have played a significant role in the history of Macon, Ga., since its early founding. Although many people identify the city with two of its most famous native sons—Otis Redding and Little Richard—whose stories we delved into in Part 2 of this feature series, there were numerous other African-Americans and institutions that helped make the city what it is today.
One of the best places to experience the city’s rich African-American history is at the Tubman Museum. Set to open in its new Macon location in the spring of 2015, it is the largest museum in the Southeast dedicated to educating people about the art, history and culture of African-Americans.
Visitors can explore a wealth of introspective permanent and temporary exhibits and gallery spaces to learn about pioneers such as America’s first self-made female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker; ingenious escaped slaves William and Ellen Craft; Jefferson Long, the first Black man to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1871; and others from Georgia and across the country, plus works from many Black artists from Georgia.
Not far from today’s downtown sits the Pleasant Hill Historic District. One of the first Black neighborhoods listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and still a primarily African-American neighborhood today, it was home to many free Blacks after Emancipation, who came here and established their own thriving, self-sustaining community, encompassing banks, retail stores, law offices, grocery stores, boutiques, professional offices, medical practices, a hospital and a school.
Notable personalities born and raised, or who lived here over the years, include Little Richard (the little pink house where he grew up is still here), civil rights leader William P. Randall, entertainer Lena Horne, the Rev. Pearly Brown (the first Black man to perform at the Grand Old Opry) and artist Henry W. Lucas, just to name a few.
An extensive collection of rare African-American genealogical, biographical and archival information is the focus at the Washington Memorial Library, and the Ruth Hartley Mosley Memorial Women’s Center is a tribute to its namesake, who was a successful businesswoman and philanthropist here in the early 1900s.
A small but nevertheless significant African-American historic site in town is Oak Ridge Cemetery, established in 1840. What is unique here is that these final resting places for many slaves and their descendants were purchased by the wealthy Macon families who employed them. Although in somewhat of a state of decay with plans to discover some of the unmarked graves, you can still see headstones with family names such as Sheftall, Leonard, Hines and Hutchings—the latter the oldest African-American funeral home in Macon and where Redding lay in state at the time of his death.
Like most African-American neighborhoods in the U.S. today, the church played an important role in the community. In Macon, this is evidenced by several historic structures, including First Baptist Church, said to have been established more than two decades before Emancipation; Greater Turner Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church, Macon’s oldest African-American church; Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church, the oldest Black Presbyterian church in Georgia; Steward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his only speech in Macon in 1957; and Beulahland Bible Church, founded in 1942 and still one of the largest African-American churches in the Southeast, among others.
Because Macon is so intricately tied to music history, earning it the moniker “The Song and Soul of the South,” it offers several places to enjoy a diverse array of performance art. African-American musical, film and theatrical performances are the focus at the historic Douglass Theatre. Built in 1921, named after the son of a former slave and later Black entrepreneur Charles Douglas and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was the showcase stop for many Black performers from well back in the day to more contemporary times, including Redding (who was reportedly discovered here), Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Little Richard, Butterbeans, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, Ma Rainey and a numerous others. Outside, you’ll find the start of a Walk of Fame, which currently includes the likenesses of music industry visionaries Johnny “Guitar” Jenkins, Hamp “King Bee” Swain, James Brown and, of course, Redding.
From soul to blues, rock and roll and jazz, African-American-owned and -operated Grant’s Lounge, billed as “The Original Home of Southern Rock,” is one of both Macon’s and Georgia’s quintessential music venues. The “Wall of Fame” here is a veritable who’s who of Macon and other legends from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Big Mike and the Booty Poppas, Wet Willie, the Allman Brothers Band, Nat Greeley, the Little River Band, Tony Tyler, Bobby Womack and Peace, David Sanborn, Sam and Dave, and hundreds of others who have played or visited here during the venue’s more than 25-year history. Any given night of the week you can find the place bustling with a multigenerational, multicultural group of folks who flock here to listen to great live music as well as reminisce over the legends of yesteryear.
SO MUCH TO EXPLORE IN MACON
Like I mentioned earlier in this feature series, it was such a pleasant surprise to find a great deal of depth in this boutique town of only approximately 90,000 people. From its rich music heritage to its estimated 6,000 historic structures, fascinating sites and attractions, the distinctive College Hill Corridor, wealth of Afrocentric points of interest and popular annual events and festivals, there is more to Macon than meets the eye.
Lysa Allman Baldwin is the publisher and editor of Amazing Escapades, offering “Adventures for the Mind Bod and Belly” (www.amazingescapades.com).