Roswell works toward a more complete retelling of the city’s Black history

08/12/2020 - Roswell, Georgia - Pastor Sabin Strickland poses for a photo outside of his church, Pleasant Hill Church, in Roswell. Strickland grew up in Roswell and has been preaching at Pleasant Hill Church for more than 23 years.  (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
08/12/2020 - Roswell, Georgia - Pastor Sabin Strickland poses for a photo outside of his church, Pleasant Hill Church, in Roswell. Strickland grew up in Roswell and has been preaching at Pleasant Hill Church for more than 23 years. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

During a 2016 visit to historic Roswell’s Bulloch Hall mansion, a tour guide pointed out a child’s bed with a small pallet tucked underneath — the place where the “little black shadow” slept. The child under the bed was enslaved and said to be beloved by Mittie Bulloch, mother of President Theodore Roosevelt, who slept in the bed above.

On another occasion, a city historian explained that slaves brought to the area in the early 1800s didn’t have the same hardships as slaves in the Georgia Piedmont region.

Roswell is now working to present a more enlightened version of its Black history that doesn’t scrub painful truths about enslaved people. The city is also working to preserve more recent memories of a Black community that had to create their own places to socialize and enjoy life during segregation.

Pleasant Hill Church Pastor Sabin Strickland has roots in Roswell’s past and present. “I do think the city is taking a proactive view in terms of being more realistic,” he said. “And taking the necessary steps to acknowledge history in such a way that folks understand that while plantations are a part of history, the infrastructure was created and done on the backs of Black people.”

William Jackson and Grace Robinson were slaves for the Bulloch family, which owned what is now the Bulloch Hall historic home in Roswell. They were called Daddy William and Maum Grace. William was coachman and butler. Grace was the children's nursemaid. She is buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Roswell. This photo was taken circa 1905 according to Roswell Archivist Elaine Deniro. Photo courtesy of Roswell Historical Society.
William Jackson and Grace Robinson were slaves for the Bulloch family, which owned what is now the Bulloch Hall historic home in Roswell. They were called Daddy William and Maum Grace. William was coachman and butler. Grace was the children's nursemaid. She is buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Roswell. This photo was taken circa 1905 according to Roswell Archivist Elaine Deniro. Photo courtesy of Roswell Historical Society.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

The change is coming on the heels of peaceful protests in Roswell calling for more awareness of modern-day racial injustices. One of those was a rally hosted by the city of Roswell and Pleasant Hill Church, a Baptist church founded by slaves in 1847.

Roswell celebrates its history on a larger scale than most neighboring towns with historic mansions such as Bulloch Hall, Barrington Hall and the Archibald Smith Plantation Home. They have become museums for walking tours where guides or docents tell the stories of families that lived there in the early 1800s. Less is revealed about what the people who were enslaved to them endured.

Black people enslaved to the first city leader, Roswell King, helped to build his textile mill and the rest of the town. Remnants of Roswell Manufacturing Company remain along popular Vickery Creek and Mill Park.

Dena Bush, historic assets manager of homes owned by the city’s earliest settlers, said she plans to add racially diverse docents for public tours in the city.

“Given the current national dialogue about the history of racial inequity, city of Roswell staff are carefully considering our further response and responsibility to the community and our dedication to making space and giving an intentional voice to those who fall between the historical records,” Bush said in a statement.

Roswell's historic Bulloch Hall was the childhood home of Eleanor Roosevelt's grandmother and Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Mittie. Mittie and Teddy were cousins to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and grandparents to Eleanor Roosevelt (FDR married cousin Eleanor en route to the White House).
Roswell's historic Bulloch Hall was the childhood home of Eleanor Roosevelt's grandmother and Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Mittie. Mittie and Teddy were cousins to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and grandparents to Eleanor Roosevelt (FDR married cousin Eleanor en route to the White House).

Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Roswell is currently doing a land survey of the historically Black Groveway community, near Pleasant Hill Church. A $12,000 grant was awarded by the State Historic Preservation Office to continue a survey of the city’s historic resources. A city planner said if the community can get Groveway designated as a historic district, the neighborhood could be better protected from redevelopment, which has already started to take place.

In July, the City Council approved a site across from Pleasant Hill Church for the relocation of Doc’s Café, a restaurant patronized by Black residents during segregation. Roswell plans to restore the café and open it for public tours. The structure is currently located on Oxbo Road less than a mile from the church.

Pleasant Hill’s Pastor Strickland grew up in Roswell. His mother and others have memories of segregation during their teenage years and eating at Doc’s Café.

It was considered a favorite gathering place run by Sam Stafford, who was known as “Doc,” Charles Grogan said. He said teenagers were drawn to the food, jukebox and dance floor, the pinball machine and a separate room with a booth section where they would snuggle closer to dates. Stafford died in 1960 but the cafe stayed open until the late 1960s, He added.

“It was a place where Blacks could gather because we didn’t have any place else to go,” Grogan said. “We couldn’t go to the movies.”

Some of Grogan’s ancestors came to Roswell as slaves and are buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery where he voluntarily keeps up the grounds. Grogan and Roswell Historical Society Archivist Elaine Deniro plan to document an oral history of Doc’s Café from residents who remember the establishment.

Roswell approved a $40,000 contract in January to hire VHB consulting firm to work on relocating Doc’s Cafe.

Mayor Lori Henry said Roswell has a responsibility to be inclusive in its approach to history. “Informing the public more on the city’s racial history can lead to more equality in the present,” she said.

Members of the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition are asking Roswell to grant permission to place a marker at a site where they collected soil in 2019 in memory of Mack Henry Brown. His body was found on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Roswell in 1936, handcuffed, his feet bound by wire, and shot twice in the back, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported at the time.

Members from the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition collected soil from the a riverbank near the area where the body of Mack Henry Brown was found in 1936. Photo Courtesy Rev. Patricia Templeton
Members from the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition collected soil from the a riverbank near the area where the body of Mack Henry Brown was found in 1936. Photo Courtesy Rev. Patricia Templeton

Brown worked as a janitor and lived in Atlanta but Rev. Patricia Templeton of Saint Dunstan Episcopal Church said his story is a part of Roswell.

The Remembrance Coalition made soil collections near the location of 35 lynchings that took place in Fulton County including Brown’s. They are kept at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, Templeton said.

During the June rally outside city hall, the coalition posted signs with Brown’s name along with the names of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, both Black men whose deaths earlier this year sparked protests and riots.

Henry didn’t reply to inquires from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding Brown or a site marker but added to her comments on race and history.

“The recent national conversation about racial equity has given us an opportunity to reassess where we’ve come from, to build and strengthen relationships across our community, and to reaffirm our commitment to each other,” she said. “Working together, we can make meaningful changes that will distinguish Roswell as a city of safety, inclusivity, and equity.”