Promised Land community honors its own with new school

Few people are more attached to their heritage than the Livseys and the Andersons of the Promised Land community in southeast Gwinnett County.

That's why a united "hooray" went up when the Gwinnett board of education voted unanimously this month to name the new school on Centerville Highway Anderson-Livsey Elementary. The action was the result of more than a year-long campaign to honor two of the county's pioneer black families.

It was also a course change from an earlier decision to name the school after longtime educator Grace Snell. The board voted instead to change the name of the new middle school in Snellville from Midway to Snell, thus accommodating all families.

"It honors an African-American family and community that has been a very stable and productive community in Gwinnett County," said Atlanta attorney Dwight L. Thomas, whose mother, Lois, was an Anderson. "It shows that Gwinnett County has thoroughly embraced diversity and progress."

Lois Thomas called the decision "wonderful" and "a milestone in many ways."

Her father, Thomas Mitchell Anderson, served for two decades as a trustee for the local Methodist church elementary where she attended. Her parents were so devoted to education, they bought a car so the children could attend Bruce Street School, also known as Lithonia High School for Negroes, where Lois graduated in 1946. Gwinnett County had no higher education opportunities for African-Americans at the time.

Both the Andersons and Livseys were neighbors on what was once the Promised Land plantation south of Snellville.

Purchased in 1820 by Thomas Maguire, the original 250-acre tract was the site of a plantation that grew to nearly 1,000 acres with 26 slaves.

Robert Livsey, whose ancestors worked the land, bought the property in the early 1920s, and it has become a point of pride among nearby residents for three generations.

"Our heritage is based on the black and white and Indian cultures," said Thomas Livsey, Robert's grandson and editor of Our Town, a publication covering Snellville and the surrounding area. "What's so important is that most of the people who come to Stone Mountain are Civil War buffs, and they would just die to be able to walk on an actual plantation. I could sell bags of dirt from the Promised Land for $20."

Thomas Livsey wants to promote the site for tourism and open it to educational tours. The goal, he said, would be to generate revenue to help preserve the last standing historic structures in the area.

Thomas' mother, Dorethia, said the campaign to get the school named after local families took two paths. She said her husband, Thomas, engaged residents by visiting door-to-door and by placing signs.

"He is the one who showed persistence and persevered with this endeavor," she said.

Dorethia worked within the school system. As a member of the human resources council for the past 11 years, Dorethia approached associate superintendent Frances Davis about the issue. And, after consulting with school superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, the school district decided to study the issue further.

School spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the board carried out its standard three-month process for naming schools, then decided to reconsider its decision after the superintendent realized the uniqueness of this situation.

"As we learned more about the Anderson and Livsey families and their historical significance to that community where the school would became clear we should revisit the decision," she said. "Really, renaming the middle school in Mrs. Snell's honor is appropriate because she taught middle grades."

District officials met with members of the Snell, Anderson and Livsey families to reach the agreement.

"Really, this is a way for us to honor all of these great families," Roach said. "This change allows us to acknowledge the contributions of all three families and does so within the communities in which they lived."