African Americans have played significant roles in the history of Fayetteville, Georgia. As we wrap up Black History Month, we want to look back at a few stories we've highlighted in the past and to tell a new story as shared on video by our own Information Clerk Derryll Anderson, who was born in Fayetteville.
(Filmed in February 2023)
The Dorseys & the UBA Lodge
(Originally published in the February 2019 edition of City News)
Church Street in the heart of Downtown Fayetteville is an unassuming and relatively quiet neighborhood, except perhaps for the sound of traffic cutting between Lanier and Georgia avenues. One may never guess that a building still standing there was once upon a time a beacon of hope to recently-freed slaves living here, around the state, and across the post-Civil War South, who rather suddenly had to figure out their own financial futures.
Someone guessing the Edgefield Baptist Church building would be very close, but it is actually the smaller, more simply-designed building located immediately to the south of it that gained widespread notoriety in those days. That building starting in the late 1800s housed the Union Benevolent Aid Society chapter, the first in Georgia, which would spin off dozens more across the state. Former slaves who were “good sober-minded Christians” were invited to join the society by paying a 60-cent initiation fee followed by weekly dues of 10 cents. A member in good standing who fell sick could expect to receive a 50-cents-per-week benefit, and beneficiaries of a deceased member would receive $140 toward burial expenses.
Dorsey says the local UBA was modeled after other national organizations established to help former slaves “take care of themselves and be responsible in society.
“If you read the bylaws, there are a lot of don’ts,” Dorsey explained. “You had to be exemplary in your lifestyle. You can’t drink. No cussing and all of that.”
Establishing the UBA chapter in Fayetteville was Isaac Dorsey’s idea, and it came to fruition in 1883 with the help of his father and other community leaders. Isaac, born into slavery in 1857, was the son of Tom and Silvey Dorsey, the former having been owned by Fayetteville’s Dorsey Family, and the latter having been owned by Fayetteville’s Holliday Family. Both of those families were at different times owners and occupants of the antebellum home that now serves as the Holliday Dorsey Fife Museum just off the Old Courthouse Square.
It was customary in those days for slaves to assume the surname of their owner, which is also the case with Tom and Silvey Dorsey. In fact, Silvey was previously called Silvey Holliday prior to the cessation of slavery in the United States.
Research on the lives of the Dorsey Family continues, including their work with the UBA. [Talk about UBA booklet and where it can be found.]
One recent February morning, Fayetteville resident Thomas Dorsey, the great-great-great-grandson of Tom (actually Thomas) Dorsey, dropped by the Holliday Dorsey Fife Museum to visit with museum staff and other City employees, and to update them on his research into the lives of his Dorsey ancestors. Museum managers Nicole Gilbert and Tom Lee have been working alongside Dorsey to research his family history.
Dorsey said work continues in the nearby Fayetteville City Cemetery to identify and clear gravesites on the back side of the property set aside for slaves, freed black people and their descendants. Dorsey noted that many of his Dorsey ancestors are buried there, including some buried as late as 1980 with financial assistance from the UBA once based on Church Street. Tom and Silvey, of course, are buried there, as is their son Isaac.
Dorsey’s research into his family history began about 40 years ago when as a teenager he had a conversation with his grandfather Paul Dorsey. The younger Dorsey was asking about his grandfather’s father, and then he wanted to go up the line from there.
“He knew Isaac,” Dorsey recalls, noting that Isaac Dorsey was Paul Dorsey’s (1905-1987) great-great-grandfather. “Isaac was born in 1857, and he died in ’21.”
Dorsey kept asking, “Who was his father?” and then, “Who was his father?”
And that led Dorsey’s grandfather to tell him about Tom.
“Did you know him?” Dorsey asked.
“No, I didn’t know him,” his grandfather replied.
Dorsey says his grandfather would have been two or three years old when the original Thomas Dorsey died in 1908, so he didn’t remember him, but he knew of his reputation, and those are the stories he passed down. And those are the stories Dorsey is still collecting, preserving and passing along to his own children and to whoever else takes an interest.
“Tom was a faithful servant blacksmith,” Dorsey says, explaining that Tom and his owner Solomon Dorsey remained friends well after slavery was abolished. In fact, Solomon was instrumental in helping Tom purchase a residential property on Church Street as well as the parcel that would eventually become home to the UBA lodge his son founded. Dorsey says his namesake continued blacksmithing as a freedman, and he believes the location of the blacksmith shop would have been somewhere between Church Street and Fayetteville’s iconic water tower.
Historical research has revealed that Solomon Dorsey was born in 1825 and Tom Dorsey in 1829, so the two were close in age. Originally, Tom was owned by Solomon’s father but was given to Solomon when they moved to Fayette County in 1842.
Dorsey points to Tom Dorsey’s obituary in a 1908 edition of Fayette News that calls him “one of the oldest and most respected colored citizens of Fayette County.” The obituary continues: “He was raised by S. D. Dorsey and remained here after he was set free.”
History of a Home: The Story of Ishmael Harkness
(Originally published in the February 2020 edition of City News)
There is a house not far from Fayetteville, down in the unincorporated community of Inman, that has an old story soon to be enshrined on a national level. It is the story of Ishmael Harkness, a runaway slave who joined the United States Army during the War Between the States and then returned as a freeman to marry the love of his life.
Harkness’ descendants are applying to have the mid-1800s home, known as the Rueben Gay House, included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Harkness’ story begins in the mid-1800s when he was born as a slave of Josiah Harkness in nearby Henry County. When his owner died, Harkness took the surname of his new owner, Elijah Mann, then he ran away in 1864 and joined the Union Army for a year. According to historical records, Ishmael Mann served in the place of Thomas Maythern, a white man from Cleveland, Ohio, who had been drafted to serve in the Union Army but did not want to do so. Maythern paid for Mann to serve in his place.
Mann was in the 48th United States Colored Troops Regiment, which served in Alabama and Florida. The regiment reportedly lost 61 soldiers to battle wounds and an astounding 465 to disease. Mann himself was hospitalized in December 1864.
Mann eventually returned to Georgia, and he changed his last name back to Harkness, which was likely a show of greater fondness for his original owner. Harkness in 1876 married Matilda “Matildy” Gay. The ceremony took place in the home named for Gay’s father, Reuben Gay.
Ishmael and Matildy Gay moved to Alabama, became successful farmers, and raised a family there.
Nowadays, descendants on both sides of the family are working to have the Reuben Gay House added to the National Register of Historic Places. If they are successful, it will be Fayette County’s only building on the Register with an African-American history.
Welcoming others to the city they grew to love
(Originally published in the February 2021 edition of City News)
Separated by 60 years and about three miles, Hazel Askew and Thais Mills have never met each other, but they have a lot in common.
Ms. Askew, the elder, has lived in Fayette County all of her life, the last 85 in Fayetteville. Ms. Mills has only been here a few years, but to see her enthusiasm for Fayetteville on social media, you’d have thought she was born and raised in the shadows of Georgia’s oldest courthouse. Both ladies are of African descent. Both have a passion for where they live and for making others feel welcomed here, regardless of their heritage.
Ms. Askew, on the other hand, was not always made to feel welcomed. She remembers school buses passing her on the way to school. She had to walk while white children rode those buses. Still, she loved her community.
Trucks would give black children a ride out to the farms where they worked in the fields “to make a few bucks.” Hard work was a way of life in the 1930s and ‘40s, especially for black young people, for whom college and university opportunities were slim.
Despite racial segregation and discrimination across the nation at the time, Ms. Askew says she was taught to see the brighter side of life and to be grateful for what she had. She also had a keen eye to do better in life. A talented seamstress, Ms. Askew became known for her craft, working for people all over the county, but most notably the Redwines, who were some of Fayetteville’s most influential community leaders.
Ms. Askew’s late husband worked in Atlanta for the federal government, and her income helped the family’s bottom line, but when her five children were a little older, Ms. Askew wanted to earn more money to provide more opportunity for her children. She attended Atlanta Technical College to become a keypunch technician, and she, like her husband, became a federal employee. She worked for years in the National Parks Service, and she retired as a payroll supervisor with the Federal Aviation Administration.
While they earned their living in Atlanta, Fayetteville was their home.
“We knew everybody in town,” Ms. Askew said. “In fact we knew the people out in the county, too.”
After he retired from his federal job, her husband became known as an appliance-repairing associate of the late Robert Jordan, who ran the city’s most iconic hardware (and everything else) store.
Ms. Askew is one of the last living residents to remember Fayetteville’s railroad. She recalls visits to the station along what is now North Jeff Davis Drive to see the train roll in from Fort Valley to the south and Atlanta to the north.
“We ran down there to see who was getting off the train,” she recalls. “It was a big deal. People got their picture made.”
Ms. Askew rode the train one time. It was a one-way trip to Atlanta, though that was not her intention.
Ms. Askew remembers the day her aunt took her to the station for a visit to Atlanta. Nobody told her the train wouldn’t be bringing them back.
“While I was there (in Atlanta), they took the train off the tracks, Ms. Askew said. “I rode the train for the first time and the last time.”
Indeed, the train company discontinued rail service through Fayetteville in the later 1930s, and sometime after that they pulled up the tracks.
Nowadays, Ms. Askew spends her time tending to her immaculate garden in the Sugar Hill neighborhood and socializing with family and friends.
It’s this kind of history, and particularly its black history, that intrigues Ms. Mills about Fayetteville. Her roots are in New Orleans, Louisiana, the town her family fled when Hurricane Katrina devastated it in August 2005. She was a teenager and a budding artist at the time.
The Mills Family moved with so many other refugees to Houston, Texas, but there was also a connection back then to Fayetteville, Georgia. Ms. Mills has an aunt who lives here.
“I would visit her here in the summer,” Ms. Mills recalls. She says she and her mother settled in Houston but regretted not moving to Fayetteville when her aunt did.
When her mother passed, Ms. Mills and her own young daughter looked east.
“I called my aunt and asked for her zip code: 30215,” Ms. Mills said. “And that’s what I gave my real estate agent.
“I remember my mother saying she wished she had moved here 30 years earlier. Now I am here with my daughter.”
Not long after arriving in Fayetteville, Ms. Mills took a job driving a bus for Fayette County Public Schools. She says it was an amazing opportunity to get to know the community and its families. She says the parents of her bus children made her feel very welcomed here, and now, though she has only been here a few years, her heart is very much about making others feel welcomed.
Ms. Mills took the same approach to social media. She joined the Living in Fabulous Fayetteville Facebook group, and she quickly engaged with the community asking questions and offering encouragement. In the meantime, she became a local influencer herself. From there, she opened her home garage “to girls only” as a place to hang out, be welcomed, and be encouraged.
“I want to be a resource, because I need resources,” Ms. Mills said. “We have a good time there.”
That garage is also Ms. Mills’ abstract art studio, where she makes her one-of-a-kind flowers and other works of art (ThaisFlowers.com). In recent weeks, it has become a multimedia studio of sorts, where she interviews people and produces other recordings and live broadcasts for her online channels, including the Gotta Love Fayetteville Facebook group.
Ms. Mills has embraced technology as a means of embracing the future of her new hometown, but she is also fascinated with Fayetteville’s history. If you attended the last couple of Cemetery Walks hosted by the Holliday Dorsey Fife Museum, you may recall a young lady portraying Ms. Grace Fitzgerald, the only black woman to be buried in the whites-only section of Fayetteville City Cemetery. That was Thais Mills.
What makes Fayetteville so special? Anyone who slows down long enough to notice will tell you it’s the people who make this city a great place to live, work, play, and stay. Ms. Askew and Ms. Mills are two of the reasons “you gotta love Fayetteville.”