February is Black History Month, a time when a spotlight is usually put on Black Americans who made a difference over the years.

Many of those recognized are famous people. But what about those Black Americans who never made it into the history books, but in their own smaller ways, contributed to the community?

I've pondered that question in recent years about Jackson County. So much of the local history has been lost, especially from the Black community where official records are often sparse.

I've been particularly interested in how the local Black community intersected in the larger "white public square" of community life during the decades following the end of the Civil War and Emancipation. 

How did those former slaves emerge from the shadows and move into the larger life of a small town community that was controlled by their former white masters?

What did they want to accomplish and how did the white community respond?

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There's not a lot of records that chart what happened here. We have some transcripts from the 1930s during the WPA years where former slaves were interviewed about their lives. A few of those former slaves were from Jackson County and that does give us a little insight.

And there were some books in the early 1900s that highlighted black leaders in the area, but it's mostly about ministers and not political leaders.

The most information I've been able to find has been in old newspaper stories, but even that is incomplete. White newspaper editors often treated black citizens with mockery and derision.

Occasionally, however, there are news stories that give us a glimpse into the past and how local Black citizens tried to rise up from the shackles of slavery and become whole American citizens despite a huge amount of pressure from white leaders to keep them down.

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The two main institutions Black citizens embraced post-1865 were churches and schools. While some slave owners did allow their slaves to attend church, there was various forms of segregation invoked. It was only after the end of the Civil War that Black men and women were able to create their own churches with their own leaders.

These new churches were important as a center of social and cultural life in the Black community. It was in many of these churches that Black schools were first created in the area. The former slaves saw education as being vitally important for their children and for the future. 

But Black education faced a lot of obstacles here. In Georgia, public education only began to take shape in the 1870s and the priority wasn't on black children, but rather white children.

Public funding was limited and most of it went to white schools. That's because most of the property in Georgia was owned by white landowners, many of whom resented paying taxes that were used to educate black children. All public schools were underfunded in Georgia, but Black schools were by far the worst. 

Despite that, Black education efforts grew and became a central focus in the local Black community. There are stories of local black schools holding special events and on occasion, the local white editor would praise those. 

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In addition to more equity in education, local Black leaders also focused on getting more equality in two other areas of the white public square: The ballot box and the jury box.

We've heard a lot about how Black citizens were denied the right to vote in the South. That's true, but between 1865 and 1908, some local Black men were allowed to vote. They had to pay a poll tax, and surprisingly, quite a few in Jackson County did.

Published records show that at one point in the late 1800s, over 900 Black men had paid the poll tax. 

But there weren't enough Black voters in the county to make much of a difference in the outcome of local elections, so local white leaders weren't too worried about the impact of Black voting until the rise of the Populist Party in the 1890s when Black voters became a pawn between Populists and Democrats.

For the most part, the local newspaper portrayed Black voters as being ignorant and accused Black men of selling their vote for "sugar," said to be $1 to $15 per vote, or for liquor. (Vote-buying was common here in that era, but not just among Black voters; white voters often sold their votes, something the editor seems to have skimmed over.)

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But just as important to Black leaders as voting were efforts to have a seat in the county's judicial system.

There were no local Black lawyers here in that era, although the famous Black Republican leader and lawyer Henry Lincoln Johnson reportedly practiced law in Jackson County around 1892. (Johnson, an Atlanta native, had graduated from a Northern law school in 1891 and set up a practice in Atlanta. I've not found a reference to him directly in local news articles, but around 1892, the City of Jefferson reportedly had a Black man as a solicitor of its city court. That may have been Johnson. He was, according to his biography, the first black man to practice law in Jackson County. He later ran the state's Republican Party and held a top patronage job in Washington D.C. Johnson is also known for his famous wife, Georgia Douglas, who was an early Black poet and playwright affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance.)

What local Black leaders were focused on at the time was to have Black men eligible to serve on juries.

Racism was a fact of life in the late 1800s and Black men (and women) accused of a crime were typically treated more harshly than a white man with the same offense. And white men who killed a Black man were  often exonerated on the basis of "self-defense." A lot of Black men were beaten and sometimes killed in Jackson County by white men who never faced any serious inquiry over those deaths.

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During the 1870s, Black leaders in Jackson County organized a local Republican Party, much to the dismay of the county's white Democratic establishment.

One of the first leaders of the party was former slave Henry McLester. Born around 1810, McLester had lived as a slave for most of his life. At some point, he took the surname of his master, J.G. McLester, a prominent  Jackson County businessman.

McLester became the chairman of the Jackson County GOP and was apparently a forceful voice for Black civil rights for over a decade.

In March 1881, McLester called a meeting of "colored citizens" in the county at the courthouse (use of the courthouse as a meeting place for the Republicans was controversial with some whites opposed to allowing Black men to use the space. It appears, however, that white county leaders continued to allow the courthouse to be used for the meetings despite the pushback.)

At that 1881meeting, McLester said it had been organized to organize an effort to allow Black men to be in the county's jury pool.

According to a news article of the meeting, McLester said Black citizens had been "most shamefully cheated out of their rights and deprived of a most material part of their privileges as a citizen; that there are 800 colored voters in this county and 200 names in the Jury boxes, and yet not one of those 200 is a colored man."

Another Black Republican leader of that era who had run unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1880, Appleton Horton (also sometimes referred to as T.A. Horton and Ap. Horton) also spoke and called for the county to allow Black men to serve on juries.

Horton apparently made a long, forceful speech on the subject, saying that he blamed the five white members of the county's jury commissioners for the omission. Horton "presumed that they had overlooked them (Black men) because they were not known and that this was the object of the meeting, to make themselves and their wishes known so that the Commissioners would in the future recognize their rights."

Horton went on to say that Black men could never get justice when the juries were always white men. 

"(He) made the assertion that the Georgia chain-gang was black because the jurors who convicted them were white," said the newspaper article.

Horton said that Black citizens were expected to pay their taxes, work on roads and could be called on to defend the country, so he couldn't see why they weren't eligible to have their names put into the jury box.

In September 1881, a few months after that meeting, a petition was passed around during court week by Black citizens asking for the right to sit on juries.

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Of course, that never happened.

The all-white power structure was not about to allow Black men to sit on local juries. There wasn't any real serious recognition of civil rights here, or anywhere in the South. Slavery might have been abolished, but white leaders were never going to treat Black citizens as equals.

The evidence of that can be found in an editorial in this newspaper following that March 1881 meeting.

The editor said that while there may be some Black men who could serve on juries, "there is a higher law before which all must bend." He wrote that law is "moral integrity" and is something, "we are sorry to say, our colored brethren do not possess."

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Despite that hostile atmosphere, local Black leaders continued to push for judicial justice and basic civil rights. The local Republican Party under Black leadership continued to be active, although it apparently fractured after McLester died in 1890. New leaders appear to have feuded over who would be in control and how to respond to the rise of Populism in the 1890s.

By 1909, Jim Crow laws had slammed the door closed on all Black rights in the state, a door that wouldn't be opened until the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement.

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There are a lot of untold stories of Black men and women in Jackson County who tried to make a difference over the decades, stories of men and women like Henry McLester whose actions have now been lost to time. He wasn't famous, but he did what he could during a time when speaking out was very dangerous.

Those stories deserve to be told and not forgotten. 

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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