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Keysville, Georgia Is a Minus Dot We All Need to Watch
Published on May 17, 2004 By 6969jimbo6969 In Current Events
Dedications, and Indications of Eradicating the Addiction to Bigotry

Sometimes the smallest development can portend the marvel or the terror that is coming. These days, when a focus on the insanity and brutality is as easy to envision as remote access to CNN or Fox, optimism is hard to find anywhere near the center of things---where, even if it exists, the dogfights around ownership and turf combine the self destructive with the laughable, but for the ongoing human-survival sweepstakes, which would arguably indicate a friendlier and more munificent orientation. Every city in the U.S. is, unfortunately, a hotbed of factionalism, where people, who say they want to serve each other, fight like dogs for scraps from the plutocratic table. Thus, especially if optimistic scenarios are what one seeks, the places to search are at the margins, practically invisible in some cases.

The social networks behind the Marcus Dixon case, all kinds of healing phenomena in the Southern Appalachians, activists who have managed community development under the grimmest of circumstances in Dixie, the signs that suggest that transformation’s tantalizing challenge is one we can win are everywhere, in spite of the overwhelming indicia, on the surface and at the center, that things are hideous here and will only worsen and decay. Emma Gresham embodies this tendency, so easy to ignore, so important to embrace. Keysville, Georgia, population plus or minus three hundred, offers a vision of a human future, a human path we can tread in spite of all evidence of doom to the contrary.

The stories that Emma’s swirling life of giving and grieving and laughing and fighting circumscribe are the stuff of multi-volume sagas and multifaceted extravaganzas. At their heart, these tales express the iconic orphan experience of a Harry Potter, the battle-to-end-the-world of Frodo and the Fellowship. The Keysville Improvement Association would not accept these airs, of course, but viewed from afar, heroic energy certainly flourishes in this out-of-the-way corner of the South, where Mayor Gresham and her supporters have cut the ribbon that allows Keysville’s first City Building to open for business.

This is to plantation country what the aorta is to the human body, the bloody wealth of chattel labor until 1865 flowing down the Savannah River as regularly as the annual Spring flood. The Counties of the area remain roughly evenly divided, between White and Black populations. Unlike neighboring Jenkins, Scriven, and Emmanuel Counties, however, where White supremacy barely makes a pretense of hiding out, little Burke County sports churches, schools, police, and other organizational and institutional arrangements that suggest the potential, even amidst the memories of mayhem still prevalent here, for healing and a multi-hued future. And unlike upstream, and relatively upscale, Richmond County, which with Augusta National and the Medical College of Georgia at its core has one of the most subtle color codes in the South operating, Burke somehow manages to combine Mayberry and something magical and inexplicable, despite plenty of individual instances of difficulty and backsliding in matters of Black and White.

Augusta suburban and exurban existence, Black poverty, and White property are the primary inputs into Burke County today, its proximity to one of the world’s only Hydrogen Bomb factories---the Savannah River Site, in Jackson, S.C., is across the river---rnot even on the radar screen of most people present here. Jobs are either scarce or non-existent as the distance from Richmond County increases, rural and village children who attend public schools travel hours each day to and fro, and life centers on church and family networks, but for the odd conjunctions of unlikely friends that are still possible in the Burke County climate.

Keysville sits at the ass end of most of these tendencies, but for the “odd conjunctions” that define its stellar success as a laboratory of democracy and community. Waynesboro, the County seat, is a mecca of progressive thinking in ways as diverse as schools and police and voluntarism, taking in the best of the suburban influx without, thus far, succumbing to any comprehensive proclivity to GOP politics. But Keysville lacks the money and building that flow from Augusta, forty miles away, and the overwhelming majority of the real property in town is in the hands of a few families that remain stubbornly recalcitrant about the privilege of a pale birth, albeit of course one just as bloody a labor as any other.

Emma Gresham’s life is unlike anything you will see on TV outside of an occasional Oprah precis. More will come to light about this remarkable woman in these pages, although today we will only imagine her at 16, in 1941, marrying her soldier sweetheart Quentin the day after Pearl Harbor, his leave to court and spark cut short by the Hawaii ‘9/11’ of the 1940’s. We can envision her giving birth the following Autumn, as she is embarking on her forty year teaching career, after graduating from Augusta’s Historically Black Payne College the previous Spring.

Her husband survived the war, a patriot of a handy and logistical bent who specialized in painting and carpentry in the Army. He made the military a career, which under Truman accelerated the move away from Jim Crow. From a glacial to a tepid pace represented almost unbelievable rapidity in a region so addicted to color coding that returning GI’s faced lynching and maiming across the South, albeit they also fought back and migrated in unprecedented numbers, to populate the cities and man the industries of what would become the rust belt.

She and Quentin, in this spinning out of their lives, spent the next thirty five years in and around Talladega, Alabama, the poisonous prosperity of nearby Fort McClellan keeping Quent busy until 1960, as he painted at the Logistical Center which the Anniston Army Depot housed, adjacent to the Chemical Weapons School and unauthorized new-agent-testing grounds in the woods of Northeast Alabama. She became the lead language instructor, and eventually the principal, at what until 1970 was the Talladega Negro High School. She finished out her career as a public school English teacher, although she did not see her first White student until 1973 and bore witness to the initial practice runs of White flight from Dixie’s community commitment to excellent schooling.

This pair of patriots, quiet heroes of the best of the American dream, managed to make something of themselves in the teeth of stupid discrimination and heartless bigotry. They danced through it all with grace and love, backers of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proprietors of hope and work while recognizing the hypocritical code to which America expected them to kowtow. When Emma retired in 1982, Quentin passed his contracting business on to a daughter and son-in-law---the way of the working class world at work---and the couple, still in love and “fit to be tied,” she said, “if we had to spend more than a night or two apart,” returned to Georgia.

They brought their love-affair of a marriage back to Keysville, a tiny speck of human congregation, although they both had family scattered up and downriver and inland, in both South Carolina and Georgia, for a hundred miles. Keysville was Emma’s home, and a tiny Presbyterian academy---its instructors all White, nothing more radical in its doctrines that quality instruction in the ‘three R’s’ being appropriate for African Americans---seeded the current climate of community in Burke County in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Not for nothing do the landed elites of Latin America and fascist Asia still disappear and otherwise target didacts for death. Learning is a powerful antidote to backwardness and bigotry. Keysville’s White folks, always a small minority, under the guidance of the grandparents of the current cabal of clans who own things, in 1933 disavowed the town’s charter, recording their prescient distaste for democracy’s future contours.

Beginning in the early 1960’s a decade or more prior to the full penetration of the gheist of civil rights in the area, Keysville’s Blacks began to agitate for their town back, validating the cynical savvy of 1933. In 1985, they succeeded in wresting a charter and electing the first Black mayor of Burke County, a decision promptly vacated by the local Courts---justice may be blind, but law is utterly political. But with the dogged determination of the White Presbyterian teachers who kept education alive in spite of KKK threats and horrid PR reviews among their peers, Keysville fought back.

The Keysville Civic Improvement Association, the organizational undergirding of two decades of advances, decided to have a day in court. Under the skillful stewardship of Tyrone Brooks, now a dean of the Black Caucus in Georgia’s General Assembly, and then a brilliant litigator, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, after Georgia’s highest legal body gave its predictable stamp of approval to vicious White Supremacy and Black political oppression. Brooks was never the match of a Joseph Lowery in oratory, but no one surpassed him in building a campaign for reform, using legal methods. The ACLU offered financial and logistical support, and in 1989, Keysville once again joined the majority of humanity that believes in democracy as the political approach of choice.

Emma became mayor in 1994, when she was 69, and she still reigns today, her honor and queen of the K.C.I.A. simultaneously, with a craft and intelligence that stem from years in the trenches, getting recalcitrant students to achieve things they never imagined possible. She has built on unswerving support from the 80 or so Black households in the immediate vicinity. But she expanded this, calling on relationships with White mechanics and tradesmen for both above-board and under-the-table support. And she prayed, arguably the answer to her imprecations the appearance of the Reverend Bill Perkins, a non-denominational grassroots preacher whose integrated congregation has dug deep in every possible way to make Keysville the realization of a dream of human cooperation and social possibility.

The first significant tangible fruit of this tilling of the social soil was the creation of a Community Center, one of the first of its kind ANYWHERE, let alone in a former plantation, Black-Belt area politically and economically still locked down by reactionary White families. As well, community gardens, a tutoring service, child care support, and all manner of healthy and innovative operations that EVERYWHERE IN AMERICA NEEDS TO FOLLOW sprang up. Little grants and generous in-kind support assisted in the manifestation of all these things, but the key ingredient was the unflagging work and spirit of Emma Gresham and those, despite her retirement, whom she continued to teach in the ways of love and progress.

Not quite two years ago, in the last chapter of today’s brief installment in this never-ending story of hope, a young tigress from New York, whose family roots are near the site of the H-bomb factory across the river, came to work in Keysville. A microenterprise maestro who worked multiple jobs to support her habit of speaking up and working out for social progress, Judith Stocker and Emma Gresham fed each other’s fanatical commitment to the construction of a city building. Tired of conducting civic affairs from closets and other interstitial arrangements of labor and technology, they cajoled and begged and plotted their way to the May 15, 2004 unveiling of the Keysville Municipal Center, a modest building and a gargantuan achievement.

`Judith Stocker sees to the heart of why even modest success is so unlikely in America today, except for plutocrats and inherited wealth. “It’s that damned bomb plant! That and the way of thinking that goes with it. There’s hardly a dime left over for schools, not a nickle left for health care, and not a penny for childcare.” The only exception to this buy-more-bombs mantra, of course, is the accompanying ‘build-more-prisons’ litany. “When we see the folly of our ways,” she says, “I’ll stop having to be such a damned hard-ass.”

Stocker laughs at the bittersweet wisdom she embodies. Before ‘Sonny’ Perdue swept to power in Georgia in 2002, on the tails of a plutocratic avalanche of money, and in the tsunami tide of contradictions of being a Dixiecrat in America today that unseated Roy Barnes, then Gov. Barnes awarded Emma Gresham a prestigious “Rural Leadership” award. She treasures this validation no more than the rewards of former students who continue to call and sing her praises, but she does appreciate a measure of recognition, as do we all.

More than ever in American history, perhaps, “the time has come to take a stand,” as Joyce Griggs---another intrepid warrior and patriot currently estranged from the neo-nazi thugs in charge of our country---has said. But we need stand, not only in opposition to the butchery and whore-mongering that now hold sway in the halls of power, but also in adoring support of the cases---so often nearly invisible, far from the center of hip and chic and false reality and falser consciousness so popular in urban enclaves---in which men and women like Emma and Quentin Gresham and Judith Stocker and Rev. Bill Perkins and the Keysville Civic Improvement Association prove the sweet pudding that could be America’s fate instead of the annihilation worshipped by our present political elite.

As always, of course, “THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT!!”

on May 18, 2004

Another excellent tale. As you say, with such catastrophic things happening elsewhere in the world, it is easy to lose sight of smaller everyday stories of hope and achievement as embodied by Emma Gresham and Judith Stocker. Your story of Keysville and it’s struggle to determine it’s own fate and the people that fought to make it happen is just one positive story, I believe there are many more, unfortunately most of them never see the light of day. I live in awe of strong people who use their strength and influence to achieve outcomes mainly for the benefit of their fellow citizens. It is amazing that Mrs Gresham is still mayor at the age of 79…most people her age would have faded into a life of graceful retirement.

BTW I love your writing, it is unique on this site. Your research is thorough (that alone is fairly unusual here…..and I include myself in that criticism) and your writing style is so incredibly rich. I note that your articles don’t get many comments; I think this can be explained by the fact that we live in a world where the fifteen second sound bight is king and people have little time for true investigative journalism. In equivalent terms the short ‘poppy’ (read lightweight) blog is king, while well thought out articles are usually overlooked. Keep up the excellent writing…some of us will always read it.

All the best
on May 18, 2004
Thank you Gerry!

I overwrite. I love big words. But the stories I offer are generally interesting, plausibly important. And my heart is in the right place. I'd love to be able to sell my work, but to me the more important question is how we can read and tell stories that make the difficult situation of humanity now a little easier, how we can find a path toward something other than self immolation.

Thanks for your kind words, keep me posted, and

ciao for now,

on May 18, 2004
Another great story! I agree with Gerry Atrick , you are such a writer!!! If I chose anyone but me right now to tell my story for me, it would be you.
on May 18, 2004
OK's the keep writing...we'll keep reading (WF, hope you dont mind me including you in this)
on May 19, 2004

If anyone's story would be worth the investment to tell, yours would be the one. Thanks for being a reader. Keep me posted, thanks, and

Ciao for now!!
on May 19, 2004
Writing and storytelling, implanted so deeply they permeate my nerve fibers, are at the core of whatever in the hell I am. I agree with Octavio Paz. "He sang! Singing not to remember his lying life of truths, but to remember his true life of lies." Thanks so much for scoping things out and keeping things going now and again.

Ciao for now,