Black History Month

The national celebration of Black History Month is a time to honor the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s history. This year, the City of Thomasville is once again working with community partners to celebrate our local history. The 2019 celebration will include recognition of locations of importance to our own local history with “The Power of Place,” an online trivia contest, a Black History Month parade and an evening of community entertainment capped off by a screening of the movie, “42” which tells the story of legendary baseball player and Cairo native Jackie Robinson.

Click here to read more about Thomasville’s Black History Month Celebrations.

1st Annual Black History Month Parade

Saturday, February 23, 2019 at 3:30pm in Downtown Thomasville

Mrs. Juanita Varner and her daughters Wilnita V. Fortson and Sandra V. Dunbar

This year, we’re excited to add Thomasville’s first Black History Month Parade to be held on Saturday, February 23rd at 3:30pm. The parade will be held in Downtown Thomasville. We encourage you to come enjoy the parade!

We are honored to announce that our first Black History Month Parade Grand Marshal is Mrs. Juanita Lorina Lee “Nita” Varner. Mrs.Varner is a beloved retired school and piano teacher teacher in our community and the wife of the late William James Varner, the last full time principal of Douglass High School. Mrs. Varner will be 105 years old on March 20, 2019 and she’s a testament to the influence one person can have on their whole community. Click here to read more about Mrs. Varner.

If your club or organization would like to participate in the parade, click below to fill out an application.

Black History Month Program and Movie Night

February 23, 2019 from 4:00-8:00pm in the Municipal Auditorium

Following the Black History Month Parade, the community celebration will continue with local entertainment showcased at the Municipal Auditorium. The lineup of entertainment includes local singers, dancers and speakers. Check back soon for the entertainment schedule. The evening will culminate in a special movie night screening of “42,” which tells the story of legendary Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player and Cairo native Jackie Robinson and how he demonstrated true courage and let his undeniable talent silence his critics. All events are free of charge and open to the community.

The Power of Place

Each Monday in February, the City of Thomasville will focus on a location within our community that is important to our local African American history. The locations will be revealed on our website and on our Facebook page. Check back throughout the month to read about these special locations, familiar to many of us, with a look at why each is important to our local culture.

Week 1 – The Bottom and the Ritz Theatre

We are excited to kick off our Black History Month celebration of the places in our community that are important and significant to our local African American history. Last year, the Thomasville City Council formally recognized the 200-300 blocks of West Jackson Street as The Bottom District, an area that has deep roots in our community’s local African American History.

The Bottom District

(200 – 300 block of West Jackson Street) developed as an African-American and Jewish business district in the latter part of the 19th century. Always a high-traffic area due to the location of the train depot on West Jackson Street, the development of industry in the vicinity contributed to the quickened pace of The Bottom. By the late 1920s, the area was almost completely developed with small restaurants, retail shops, grocery stores, doctor’s offices and pharmacies. The presence of German-Jewish retail shop owners greatly increased after 1932, along with some Greek-owned restaurants and retail stores. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed segregation, The Bottom was a hub of African-American commerce as well as social and political activity.

The Ritz Theatre

The Ritz Theatre was a segregated movie house operated by Interstate Enterprises, owned by the Nat Williams family, which managed several theaters in the region such as The Rose, The Mode, The HiWa Drive-In and others. The Ritz served African-American patrons during the era of state-enforced segregation from its opening in 1935 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. After this, The Ritz continued to operate as a movie theater for all communities until its closure in late 1976. Like all Interstate theaters, the Ritz was given a name containing only four letters. A project to restore The Ritz was underway in the 1980’s until a decision was made to have it destroyed due to the cost of the restoration. Sadly, The Ritz was demolished in the mid-1980. In 2016, The City of Thomasville began a revitalization effort to bring The Bottom back to life. In spring of 2017, The Ritz Amphitheater and Park were built on Stevens Street, named in honor of the original Ritz Theater. Later this year, the West Jackson Streetscape project will begin. To pay homage to the importance of the area in Thomasville’s history, plaques will be placed in the sidewalk in front of some of the longest lasting and best-remembered businesses in The Bottom. The project is expected to be complete later this year.

Historical information and photos provided by the Thomasville History Center and the Ed Kelly Collection.

Week 2 – The Imperial Hotel

We are excited to continue our celebration of The “Power of Place,” a Black History celebration honoring the significant locations in our community. This week, we take a look at the Imperial Hotel, which was built in 1949 by African American brothers George Edward Lewis, Charles Joseph Lewis, Jr., Marshall Merritt and identical twins Alfred and Alvon Lewis. The hotel was operated until 1969 by Harvey and Dorothy Lewis Thompson. The Imperial was Thomasville's only hotel where African American travelers could stay prior to desegregated accommodations. The Imperial Hotel was featured in The Green Book, a guide for African-American tourists intended to help motorist avoid social obstacles during segregation. The book also listed hotels, restaurants and shops that would reliably serve African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

During the 1940s, ‘50s and 60s, the Imperial Hotel hosted some of the most famous African American entertainers making their way across the United States to play on the “Chitlin Circuit.” The "Chitlin Circuit" is the collective name given to performance venues throughout the eastern, southern and upper midwest areas of the United States that were safe and acceptable for African American musicians, comedians and other entertainers to perform before desegregation. Famous musicians may have stayed at the hotel while on tour.

Over the last several decades, the Imperial Hotel has fallen into a severe state of decline. In 2018, through a partnership with the Jack Hadley Black History Museum, Thomasville Landmarks and the Williams Family Foundation of Georgia, an initiative was launched to save this important African American landmark. If you would like to contribute to “Save The Imperial Hotel” visit the Jack Hadley Black History Museum’s website or Thomasville Landmarks website

Historical Information and photos provided by the Jack Hadley Black History Museum.

Week 3 – Local Churches

Churches have always played an important role in Thomasville’s African American history. In addition to filling a spiritual need, they also were (and continue to be) a place of cultural and social importance. This week, we are going to highlight several local churches of historical importance to Thomasville.

Bethany Congregational Church

1122 Lester Street - Bethany Congregational Church is a United Church of Christ house of worship. It was founded on February 1, 1891, by the American Missionary Association as the chapel and worship center of the Allen Normal and Industrial School, an educational institution for African American students. The school operated from 1885 to 1933, and the church remained after the school property was razed in 1935 to make room for a housing project. Civil rights leader Andrew Young accepted the pastorate of Bethany Congregational Church in 1955. In 1985, the church was added to the National Register of Historical Places.

First Missionary Baptist Church

110 E. Calhoun Street –Originally known as the First African Baptist Church, the members met at a location near the corner of Smith Ave. and Dawson St. in a building known as the Piney Woods Lots. Many of its members were slaves. In 1866, the African American members of the Negro-White Baptist Church gave notice that they would withdraw from the agreement to share a building with the whites in order to become an independent church. The land needed for a building was donated by a member of the white congregation, Mr. Alex Smith, who specified the land be used for church purposes only. The pioneer members of the First African Baptist Church worshiped under a “Bush Harbor” on the property at the corner of E. Calhoun St. and Madison St. until they were able to construct a church building. Fundraising efforts continued until 1890 when the current location of First Missionary Baptist Church began construction. The cornerstone for the current church building was laid on July 29, 1900 under the leadership of the seventh pastor, Rev. Jeremiah B. Davis. First Missionary Baptist Church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Good Shepherd Episcopal Church

515 Oak Street – The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church was founded 28 years after the Civil War. A group of 27 African Americans familiar with the services of the Episcopal Church wanted a church of their own. With the help of members of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, they built a church building and dedicated it on April 8, 1894. The inside ceiling beams of the church are structured like an upside-down slave ship. After the Parish Hall was built, it served as a meeting place for many community organizations. In this parish hall, Father Perry operated a parochial school for grades K – 5 for over 32 years. The Episcopal congregation is also one of the few churches that maintained a racially mixed congregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ochlocknee Missionary Baptist Church

521 U.S. Highway 319 South – Ochlocknee Missionary Baptist Church is located about 12 miles south of Thomasville. The church was founded in 1848 on the corner of U.S. Highway 319 South and Mercy Seat Road. After the original building burned in 1918, the congregation moved to its present location and built a new sanctuary on land sold to the church for $25 by Lula Reid Hadley, known as the first “mother” of the church. The church was built in 1918 and is a frame building approximately 75 feet long and 22 feet wide. The architecture of the church is significant because of its simple form and design, not only typical of rural African American churches, but of Primitive Baptist churches as well. During the 20th century, many church members worked, lived and went to school at nearby Pebble Hill Plantation. A steeple was added in 1947 as a donation from philanthropist Elisabeth “Pansy” Ireland Poe, owner of Pebble Hill Plantation. A local African American building contractor added the vestibule and assembled the donated steeple at the same time. The church was also significant in the area because it served the local African American community as an important social institution and was the location for important family, civic and charitable activities. In 2010, Ochlocknee MB Church was listed in the Georgia Register of Historic Places.

Historical Information and photos provided by the Jack Hadley Black History Museum.

Black History Month Trivia Contest

Each Wednesday in February, we will post a new trivia question on our Facebook page related to Black History Month. We encourage our citizens to comment with the answer to the question. On Fridays, we will post the answer and have a random drawing from all the correct entries. The winners will be posted on our Facebook page and website and they will receive a prize package.

Week 1 Trivia Contest Winner

Cynthia Drayton