When Hawkinsville-native Vivian Thomas left South Georgia for Georgia State University in the late 1970s, her father gave her a warning: Be cautious when you drive through Henry County.
“He said, ‘Now baby, when you hit that line that says Henry County, don’t you stop for gas, don’t use the bathroom, don’t stop for candy, don’t do nothing,’” she said, explaining that her father’s generation of black Georgians were wary of Henry because of rumors of racial tensions. “Just make sure you get through Henry County. Do you understand?”
Flash-forward 40 years later and Thomas helped make history Tuesday after winning the race to become Henry's District 4 leader on the county commission. The governmental body, which in her father's time was all white, is now majority minority with four black members and two white. Thomas, who is African American, will be seated on the six-member commission in January.
“Now his baby will co-manage the county that scared him to death,” Thomas said Thursday.
The new leaders have often shared the same goals of those they replace in local government, including the desire to improve roads and infrastructure, create jobs and boost economic development, experts said. The one noticeable difference is the approach to public safety, with many minority leaders seeking to increase diversity in the ranks of police officers and at fire departments.
“The policies that African-American officials and others pursue are usually very similar to those of their white predecessors,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “That is to say, economic development is still preeminent. People want their community to be strong and vibrant and to attract and retain investment. The bottom line, it’s a difference of no difference.”
Others, however, have seen the changes as a potential threat, some observers said. The fight over cityhood by residents of Eagle’s Landing, an upscale community on the southern end of Stockbridge — Henry’s biggest city — was driven, in part, by concerns that white residents had been losing political power, critics of the breakaway attempt alleged.
Leaders of the secession movement vehemently denied the accusations and noted that black citizens make up as much as 40 percent of the residents living behind the gates of the Eagle’s Landing Country Club.
“Georgia is going through what they call a ‘browning’ effect,” Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford said. “I say that’s due to the economic development success of Gov. Nathan Deal for eight years of bringing businesses here … and people coming because of jobs.”
Thomas, whose district includes Eagle’s Landing, said helping the community and Stockbridge heal their divisions will be her first priority when she takes office in January.
Henry’s transformation started to take root two decades ago and has moved rapidly. The rural community was 81 percent white in 1980 and had about 36,200 residents. But as the county exploded with growth in the late 1990s and over the past two decades, it underwent a seismic demographic shift, with minority groups discovering the appeal of its lush, wooded landscape, the small-town feel of the McDonough square and the quick access to downtown Atlanta.
By 2015, the county's white population had dropped to 47.3 percent while the number of minority residents increased to 49.4 percent, according to the latest figures from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Eugene Edwards, president of the Henry branch of the NAACP, said the changes in leadership have made it easier for him to get the county to honor black leaders who are part of its heritage. The Henry Commission in October agreed to honor civil rights leader James Lemon with a marker in Locust Grove. Lemon led the Henry NAACP in the 1940s and faced threats from the Ku Klux Klan because of his advocacy for better training for teachers in the county's segregated black schools.
“He was a great man who was advocating for African Americans when Dr. Martin Luther King was still in school,” Edwards said. “We wanted to honor him and let his legacy live on.”