GPB explores 1970 Augusta race riots in new podcast ‘Shots in the Back’

Credit: Joe Holloway, Jr.

Credit: Joe Holloway, Jr.

In May 1970, in an overcrowded Augusta jail, a mentally challenged Black teen named Charles Oatman died after accidentally shooting a niece. Word got out he was beaten to death.

Officials said it was an accident, but many residents were deeply suspicious. Oatman’s death sparked protests and riots that led to six black men shot in the back dead by white police officers. Over two days, looters ransacked and burned dozens of businesses, turning city blocks into war zones. The National Guard was called in to quell the unrest.

Historians consider this one of the largest uprisings during the civil rights era in the Deep South.

With Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Jessye Norman School of the Arts as partners, Augusta journalist and teacher Sea Stachura, who is white, has created a compelling new podcast called “Shots in the Back: Exhuming The 1970 Augusta Riot.” The first episode came out in late June, providing an overview of Oatman’s death and setting up what happened next. They are planning six more episodes to be released bi-weekly exploring the roots of discontent, the riots themselves, a look at the victims and how the event re-shaped the city.

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Stachura’s podcast is prescient on the heels of nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death in May, calls for structural changes to policing and a reckoning regarding Confederate symbols and statues.

“There are so many parallels between what happened in 1970 and what has happened recently,” said Stachura, 42, who over the years has worked at different public radio stations, including one in Minnesota, where Floyd died.

Stachura first began studying the Augusta riots nearly a decade ago, then received a couple of grants while teaching at Augusta State University, now Augusta University. She interviewed several key figures of that time, many who have since passed away. She held some public discussions about the riots in 2013.

She then considered writing a book.

“But I felt that as a white woman whose area of expertise was not African American history, I didn’t have the chops to do that yet, so I put it aside,” Stachura said.

But she couldn’t quite let it go. She placed a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Archives for the declassified FBI files on the Augusta riots. She received access to 900 pages, a treasure trove of never-before-released information, including greater details on the men who were shot and killed and others who had been injured.

In 2015, she approached GPB to do a project together, but GPB didn’t have the funds to do anything grandiose, so she did a short anniversary piece instead. She then went on to finish a graduate degree first and joined the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program, as a teacher.

Sean Powers became director of podcasting at GPB in 2018 and told her he’d be open to doing a podcast about the riots. When Gary Dennis, executive director of the school, saw a grant available with a social justice component, he hooked up with GPB to create the podcast.

Stachura sought students to work on the podcast, and ten volunteered, ages 10 to 17. None knew anything about the riots. They helped her conduct interviews and provided their own commentary on what had happened. Several students joined her to visit Oatman’s grave with his relatives.

Credit: Joe Holloway, Jr.

Credit: Joe Holloway, Jr.

Tiara Dugger, an Augusta native who is now 18, said being there with his family members was deeply emotional: “The family never got answers to what happened and why it happened. Seeing a child like that die and not getting justice, it’s just heartbreaking.”

Dugger, who lives about five miles from ground zero of where the riots happened, was also upset she knew nothing about this pivotal event until Stachura brought it up to her. “Why didn’t anybody tell me this?” she said. “It makes me want to bring about more change. It’s 50 years later, but these things are still happening today.”

The students also learned how poor many Blacks were in Augusta in 1970. Two of the neighborhoods impacted by the riots had no sewer or water, and one didn’t have paved roads. The schools for Black students lacked enough books or even desks.

“I wanted our students to grapple with that and relate it to their own lives,” Stachura said. “One of my students found the word racism scary as a young Black girl. A 12-year-old white boy was just afraid he might say the wrong thing.”

The good thing about the students is they ask questions adults might not feel comfortable asking.

“I kind of describe them as the Greek chorus,” Stachura said.

Powers at GPB called this twist on the podcast “brilliant. I thought it was a way to give the story some more depth, more life. These are young people not connected to the events. They are learning as they go.”

Credit: Atticus Dillard-Wright, Essence Willingham and Tiara Dugger at the gravesite of Charles Oatman, the teen's death that outraged Black Augustans in 1970. CR: Sea Stachura

Credit: Atticus Dillard-Wright, Essence Willingham and Tiara Dugger at the gravesite of Charles Oatman, the teen's death that outraged Black Augustans in 1970. CR: Sea Stachura

He hoped to time the release for the 50th anniversary of the riots in May 2020, but the pandemic delayed their ability to finish enough episodes, so they pushed the release of the first episode to late June. They have continued to tweak the scripts to reflect recent happenings with the shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta at the Wendy’s and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Stachura is happy she found this outlet for her work.

“I don’t feel the need to write a book anymore,” she said. “I feel like what we’ve got right here is really accessible and durable and free.”

Powers said these riots are not taught regularly in schools — even in Augusta. GPB, he noted, disseminates curriculum statewide, and he hopes they can get more history teachers statewide to discuss it.

“It’s full circle for the kids,” he noted. “They can say, ‘What can we do to prevent this from happening again?’”

Credit: Sea Stachura, the journalist who put together "Shots in the Back." CR: contributed by Sea Stachura

Credit: Sea Stachura, the journalist who put together "Shots in the Back." CR: contributed by Sea Stachura