Calling it an "absolute honor and privilege," Alexis Carter-Callahan is delighted to help showcase the history of African-American businesses in the heart of Cartersville. Titled the Walking Tour of African-American History in Downtown Cartersville: 1870-1940, the effort is a self-guided stroll highlighting eight sites and a pair of historic business districts.
"I wanted to be a part of this project because my family has always had a strong tradition of sharing oral history," said Carter-Callahan, who assisted the walking tour committee with its family history nights and setting up a Facebook page. "My elders have often shared stories of my great-great grandmother, Mary Eliza Young, who owned a restaurant in the [downtown Cartersville] West End district [in 1910]. A black, female entrepreneur who was one generation removed from slavery. Imagine that! To help with telling the story of other prominent black business owners and entrepreneurs in the community has been an absolute honor and privilege.
"When I joined this project, I was blown away by the amount of research that the team compiled to put this project together. Dr. Pam Wilson [from Reinhardt University] has been a phenomenal asset to the project by adding a level of depth to the stories that we are able to tell about Cartersville's black business owners through documents like census records, Sanborn maps, wills, deeds and Reconstruction-era documents. These documents proved that Cartersville has long served as a hub of black excellence. One of the facts that I found most intriguing about this project was the rise of black female entrepreneurs during this time period — 1870-1940. They were able to mobilize their resources, work in conjunction with their husbands, work without their husbands, work out of their homes, own property and leave legacies for their future generations."
To learn more about the walking tour and its historic African-American businesses, Cartersville Downtown Development Authority Director Lillie Read encourages individuals to attend a complimentary presentation Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bartow History Museum, 4 E. Church St. Along with sharing the committee's findings, the event will feature a guided tour, if time and weather conditions allow.
"I was definitely fascinated by the wealth of African-American history that exists in downtown and in Bartow County as a whole," Read said. "There were two distinct African-American business districts in downtown at various points in time. The area under the bridge had a number of businesses and a small, but thriving, district existed around a street known as Conyers Alley, which is now just a driveway that runs between Sew Knot Serious and Rehoboth [Professional] Hair Braiding. At one point it used to be a road that went through to Cherokee Avenue, which was then called Market Street, and there were black-owned businesses on that road as well as on Main Street.
"… Conyers Alley used to just be a back alley with a well and access to some warehouse spaces that were behind established businesses on Main Street. It eventually grew into a thriving business district itself with barber shops, restaurants and eventually a grocery store — Gassett’s Grocery — around the corner at 127 W. Main. There was also an African-American doctor, W.R. Moore, who [had] his business in this area."
With several organizations involved in its creation, Read referred to the walking tour as a "collaborative effort."
"The DDA was already working on plans for a new walking tour and was interested in highlighting some lesser-known history downtown," Read said. "Around that same time, Sheri Henshaw from Keep Bartow Beautiful wrote a successful grant to Georgia Humanities to help us with the research and digital hosting for that project, which [got] it kicked off. Then, Ellen Archer at the [Cartersville-Bartow County] Convention & Visitors Bureau said that she would be willing to incorporate our information into the larger African-American Heritage Trail that is being developed countywide and, at that point, I knew we had something really special on our hands."
For Carter-Callahan, the tour will help educate and inspire.
"Oral tradition is often one of the main ways African-American families pass down the stories of our forefathers and foremothers," Carter-Callahan said. "Projects like this tour also aid in keeping these stories of African-American history alive.
"When people take this tour, I hope that they are able to glean information about the tenacity and fortitude of African Americans to succeed in a time that was not always kind to black and brown folks. Also, I hope that members of the Bartow County community are able to take pride in seeing their ancestors hard work memorialized."
As Read noted, the tour also will tie into the recently established Bartow African-American Heritage Trail that is helping highlight and preserve historic black sites. The driving tour consists of Butler's Shoe Store in Adairsville; Melvinia "Mattie" Shields McGruder's monument in the Kingston Cemetery; Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center and St. James AME Church in Cassville; Euharlee Covered Bridge and Black Pioneers Cemetery in Euharlee; Miss Vinnie's Cabin, Summer Hill and Mount Zion Masonic Lodge No. 6 in Cartersville; and George Washington Carver Park in Acworth.
"This is such a great project, and another big idea on Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham's wish list,” said Henshaw, executive director of Keep Bartow Beautiful and project manager for the Bartow African-American Heritage Trail. “I am so happy that the Cartersville Downtown Development Authority board and their committee worked with us, Bartow County Grant Writing, Bartow History [Museum] and with Etowah Valley Historical Society to secure this Georgia Humanities Grant and make his dream a reality that everyone can now experience.
"The 10 sites that Justice Benham proposed for the driving tour includes a site near downtown Cartersville, and two more just a mile away. … Uncovering this history is just the start of so many great things to come, and we believe visitors will be moved, entertained and enlightened by what they learn about the people, the places, the businesses and their owners," she said, referring to the downtown Cartersville walking tour. "It challenges our assumptions, and opens our eyes to a hidden past. For instance, what work did a 'drayman' perform? What was a 'pressing club'? Who was Angelina Peacock, and why was she so unusual for her time? Where was the famous Blue Front Café, and why was it called that? How did Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War segregated South affect folks — both black and white — working in downtown Cartersville on a day-to-day basis, as they traveled and ate, shopped and enjoyed the movies? Those experiences were the same for both races, and yet very, very different."
For more information about the downtown walking tour and Saturday's presentation, call the Cartersville DDA at 770-607-3480 or visit http://downtowncartersville.org.