Benham highlights black community's economic contributions
by Marie Nesmith
Jan 19, 2012 | 2787 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, right, speaks about black history in Bartow County to an overflowing crowd at the Bartow History Museum’s monthly Lunch & Learn program on Wednesday.  SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, the Bartow History Museum featured Justice Robert Benham at its Lunch & Learn program Wednesday. A member of the Supreme Court of Georgia since 1989, the Summer Hill High School alumnus graduated from Tuskegee University in 1967 and the University of Georgia Lumpkin School of Law in 1970.

"Justice Benham is a native of Cartersville," said Trey Gaines, director of the Bartow History Museum, 4 E. Church St. in Cartersville. "He grew up here and went to school here and has an important story to tell relating to his career in serving on the Supreme Court and his connections to the African-American community. We just wanted to highlight that and celebrate his contributions to the community. [We hope people gained] an appreciation for the history that he represents to the community. We, obviously through the museum, tell a lot of different stories in our exhibits but our programs complement and supplement some of those exhibits. ... Our programs really bring out a variety of different historical topics and subjects.

"[Benham's presentation was] in conjunction with the Martin Luther King birthday celebration and [we are] also approaching African-American history month in February. So this is sort of a kickoff to that. We've got him [speaking] but we also have the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit opening up next week, and we have a number of programs related to African-American history month and celebration."

Referring to himself as an admirer of poetry and history, Benham -- in his presentation -- highlighted various contributions made by Bartow's black community.

"History has such an impact. It has small incidences [that] can have lasting impressions on us and forever build the twig of our life and shape and mold our future," Benham said. "So let's talk a little about those things, and while we have such a rich history here in Bartow County, I want to spend most of my time talking about the businesses and tell you about businesses that were right here within 50 feet of where you sit. ... There were over 30 African-American businesses in downtown Cartersville, according to the census of 1870.

"There were craftsmen. There were blacksmiths. There were seamstresses. There were restaurants and a host of other businesses in the downtown area. And the most prosperous African-American at that time was J.Q. Gassett who owned and ran a grocery store [and the building] is still on Main Street," he said, adding Gassett operated his grocery store from the late 1800s to the 1920s.

In the 1930s, Benham noted there was a sizable shift, with black businesses moving from Cartersville's downtown to the city's Summer Hill community.

"A change occurred as change does," he said. "There were 30 or 40 African-American businesses in the downtown area. By 1940, there was only one left. What happened? Why did they all leave? As far as I can determine, it was [during] the 1930s when there was a hanging in downtown Cartersville. It occurred and was the first time that troops were brought into Cartersville since the Civil War.

"After that hanging, African-American businesses either voluntarily left or were pushed out of the downtown area, leaving only one African-American business right across the street here -- the Cartersville Tailoring Shop, operated by Happy and Sarah Younger and that existed into the 1960s. So where did they go? They went to Summer Hill."

During his presentation, Benham also discussed various business owners, such as Dr. W.R. Moore, who became Bartow's first black doctor when he started practicing medicine in the late 1800s.

Also mentioning the black community's contributions to other cities in Bartow, Benham revealed, "Kingston had more free African-Americans in its city than all of Bartow County during slavery. Kingston had 11 free African-Americans -- more than any other area in Cartersville. And Kingston was one of first towns in this area to elect a person of color to its city council."

Progress such as this, Benham said "has not been a solo journey of African-Americans alone. It has been a journey of cooperation between people of both races and all races. A lot of the progress we have enjoyed has come about because people realized they have more things in common than they have things, which separated them. And if they worked on the things that they had in common, the things that separated them would become less and less significant."

For more information about the BHM and its upcoming offerings related to Black History Month, visit www.bartowhistorymuseum.org or call 770-382-3818.