Even when interracial marriage was against Georgia law, mixed-race couples married

Sallie and Joseph Carpenter planned a big party for their 50th wedding anniversary last year but COVID-19 got in the way. They settled for a quiet celebration but hope to have a larger gathering later. Courtesy of Carpenter family
Sallie and Joseph Carpenter planned a big party for their 50th wedding anniversary last year but COVID-19 got in the way. They settled for a quiet celebration but hope to have a larger gathering later. Courtesy of Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

Two couples celebrate their 51st anniversaries this year

The Fulton County clerk looked at Joseph Carpenter and Sallie Mitchell and frowned.

“You know that y’all ain’t supposed to get married, don’t you?” said the clerk.

Joseph and Sallie just stared at the woman. Their message was clear: They were not leaving empty-handed. The clerk reluctantly handed over a marriage license.

Though federal law made interracial marriage legal in 1967 (as a result of the historic Loving v. Virginia decision), state laws forbidding it remained on the books, and sometimes were enforced.

In 1971 a Clayton County ordinary refused to issue a license to John Sanford and Betty Byrom until the U.S. Attorney General’s office stepped in. That was the end of Georgia’s archaic law.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about John and Betty recently, and afterward, heard from several couples whose weddings took place even earlier, before Georgia reluctantly changed its law.

Joseph Carpenter and Sallie Mitchell were married April 4, 1970, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Courtesy of Carpenter family
Joseph Carpenter and Sallie Mitchell were married April 4, 1970, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Courtesy of Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

Joseph and Sallie

Although she was an early-to-bed type, Sallie Mitchell, a schoolteacher, agreed to go to an Atlanta club with her girlfriends. It was the late 1960s. The place was empty except for the owner and Joseph Carpenter, a teacher from Houston County.

Joseph and Sallie danced. (She had to prompt him.) The next night they went to a drive-in movie at the Starlight. The next weekend he came back up from Houston County with roses from his yard, two steaks, and a bottle of Chianti.

“I’m a little country girl. I didn’t know how to cook any steak, and he was a good cook, so he just came into my apartment, and he started cooking,” said Sallie, speaking from the home they share on Lake Oconee. “We had steak and potatoes and salad and the Chianti wine, and roses out of his garden. It was very impressive, and it was, ooh, I need to see him again.”

The course of this true love did not run smooth.

When a co-worker revealed that Joseph was dating a Black woman, his superintendent in Houston asked him to leave the school. Joseph’s father, Frank Carpenter, forbid the marriage. Neither of his parents came to the ceremony.

Sallie’s parents, Henrietta and William Mitchell, were concerned but not opposed when Sallie spoke of marriage to Joseph. They worried that the couple would face discrimination. “After they got to know Joe, they fell in love with him, and it was OK.”

ExplorePhotos from the lives of two mixed couples

Joseph and Sallie were married April 4, 1970, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur.

Both have worked for decades in Atlanta schools. She taught at C.L. Gideons Elementary School., Blair Village Elementary, Tull Water Elementary and L. J. Campbell Elementary. He taught at Bass High School, Brown High School, and Northside High School, and was assistant principal at Roosevelt High School.

He was called up for the Air Force reserves during Desert Storm but was not deployed overseas, instead serving in Idaho.

They have two children, Mitchell, and Helki, born 16 months apart. The arrival of the little ones helped mend the tear in Joseph’s family, and his mother, Helen, came down to Georgia to help take care of the children. Helen ended up living with Joseph and Sallie for 19 years.

Though they lived in Southeast Atlanta, they sent Helki and Mitchell to school at Briar Vista and Druid Hills through the minority-to-majority program.

Helki, now Helki Pruitt, said, “I learned how to navigate this Black and white world.”

Joseph and Sallie each learned new things from the other. She took him down to tiny Woodland, Georgia, (pop. 406) to visit her parents, and he learned how to pick butter beans and help at a hog-killing.

She learned Italian cooking from Joseph and his mother Helen, and how to enjoy fried clams and lobster.

They built a house on Lake Oconee in 1986, and have retired there. Joseph, 81, developed Lou Gehrig’s disease several years ago and is dependent on Sallie for many things.

But a photo of the two of them this past Valentine’s Day shows the love in their eyes.

On Valentines Day, 2021, Sallie and Joseph Carpenter look back on 51 years of marriage. Courtesy of Carpenter family
On Valentines Day, 2021, Sallie and Joseph Carpenter look back on 51 years of marriage. Courtesy of Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

Credit: Courtesy Carpenter family

“We had our fights, our money problems, the same thing anybody else had,” said Sallie, 75. “He happened to be white, and I happened to be Black. I don’t see it as being that much different from anybody else, other than the color.”

Nick Garin and Gayle Bowden married at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation church, off North Druid Hills Road. Courtesy of Garin family
Nick Garin and Gayle Bowden married at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation church, off North Druid Hills Road. Courtesy of Garin family

Credit: Courtesy Garin family

Credit: Courtesy Garin family

Nick and Gayle

In the spring of 1970 Nick Garin and Gayle Bowden, both students at Emory University, went off to Ossabaw Island on a retreat for student leaders, where they paid no attention to each other.

They were thrown together on the return trip to Atlanta when the dean gave them both a ride back to Emory. Hearing Gayle sing “Moon River” on the long drive suddenly piqued Nick’s interest.

“She’s beautiful; she’s got this incredible voice; she’s got everything going for her,” he thought.

She was under a similar spell: “It was spring. The magnolias were blooming.”

Both were student activists and campaigned against the war in Vietnam. Nick, who grew up in Auburn, was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Council when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and spent the next two days volunteering at the King house.

Gayle grew up in Collier Heights, in northwest Atlanta, and was the valedictorian at Harper High School.

They married young: She was a sophomore, he was a senior. When they announced the upcoming wedding, her parents, Charles and Diane Bowden, were “not very thrilled,” she said, but not opposed.

On Nick’s side, “my dad (George Illichevsky Garin) basically disowned me. My mom (Mary Ann Garin) stayed with us. But it had a bad effect on their marriage.”

They applied for a marriage license in DeKalb County and did not experience any resistance. “Nobody gave us any grief about it,” said Nick.

Most of her family came to the wedding. Hardly any of his came.

Their ceremony took place Sept. 5, 1970, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta near North Druid Hills. As they were entering the church, another bride and groom were just leaving, having celebrated an earlier ceremony. The groom was wrapped in a Confederate flag worn as a cape.

It was a strange moment.

On their honeymoon, the two drove to New York, where Nick planned to go to seminary, and Gayle had transferred to Barnard.

On the way, they overnighted at a friend’s house in Hendersonville, North Carolina, who told them under no circumstances were they to stop for gas while they were in the area. “You’d better gas up and get through this region without stopping,” they were warned.

Nick ended up in law school, and the two moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where Nick worked as an assistant state attorney general, dealing with consumer fraud and other issues. Gayle, certified as an elementary school teacher, worked for not-for-profits.

The Garins moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where they raised their three sons, who are (from left) Scott, Charles and Philip. Courtesy of Garin family
The Garins moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, where they raised their three sons, who are (from left) Scott, Charles and Philip. Courtesy of Garin family

Credit: Courtesy Garin family

Credit: Courtesy Garin family

They have three boys: Scott, Charles and Philip, all of whom live in upstate New York.

Nick said they have found easy acceptance in New York state. Poughkeepsie is evenly divided between the races, he said, with a growing percentage of Hispanic residents. (The U.S. Census Bureau records the city’s population as 47% white and 37% Black.) “There is no reaction to us up here.”

Distrust comes from strangeness, he said. “It’s only when you don’t know each other. Once they get to know you, all of that racist stuff sort of melts away.”

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