OPINION: Hey, ‘Grady Babies,’ old Henry might not have liked you

The Henry Grady statue on Marietta Street at Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Event Photography)

The Henry Grady statue on Marietta Street at Forsyth Street in downtown Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Event Photography)

Henry W. Grady, whose name is still plastered across Georgia 130 years after his death, earned a sliver of immortality in 1886 with a speech he gave in New York peddling a “New South.”

Grady, managing editor and part owner of The Atlanta Constitution, was on a quest to ingratiate the South (and especially Atlanta) to Northern financiers and industrialists. The South, having been squashed like a bug two decades earlier in the Civil War, was still destitute and in dire need of money to pull itself up by its bootstraps, albeit on someone else's dime.

“The Old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth,” he told an audience that included J.P. Morgan and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

In contrast, he said, “The New South is enamored of her new work. Her soul is stirred with the breath of a new life.”

He talked fondly about the freed slaves and said, “Liberty and enfranchisement is as far as law can carry the Negro.”

Of his famous audience member, he said, “I want to say to Gen. Sherman, who is considered an able man in our hearts, though some people think he is a kind of careless man about fire, that from the ashes he left us in 1864 we have raised a brave and beautiful city.”

Channel 2's Kristen Holloway reports.

The next year, in Dallas, Grady continued to make the rounds, although he had a different stump speech for a very different crowd.

There he took after Sherman, who was not in attendance and who had been quoted as saying, “The Negro must be allowed to vote, and his vote must be counted. Otherwise, so sure as there is a God in heaven, you will have another war, more cruel than the last, when the torch and dagger will take the place of the muskets of well-ordered battalions.”

To this, Grady said to the crowd, “Why, careless as he was 20 years ago with fire, he is even more careless now with his words.”

Concerning black people voting, he said, “Simple, credulous, impulsive — easily led and too often easily bought, is he a safer, more intelligent citizen now than then? … Those who would put the Negro race in supremacy would work against infallible decree, for the white race can never submit to its domination, because the white race is the superior race.”

The New South, indeed.

Henry Grady’s “New South” address in New York City in 1886 made the Atlanta Constitution editor an instant celebrity. HANDOUT

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Grady’s “New South” campaign was sort of a bridge between Reconstruction and the consolidation of Jim Crow laws. His calls for “separate but equal” came a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court cemented the system with its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.

I bring all this up because Henry Grady, one of Atlanta's mythical figures,is once again under fire.

A week ago, Georgia State University students released an editorial headlined "Mayor Bottoms: Tear down this statue," saying Grady was a racist undeserving of being on a pedestal. Literally.

The statue they refer to is the massive structure that has stood on Marietta Street since 1891, two years after Grady’s death. A state law meant to protect statues of Confederates from removal will protect this son of a Rebel.

The GSU editorial cited information from an article written this year by a University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professor who said Grady backed politicians who were in the Ku Klux Klan, that his paper wrote humorously about lynching, and that he knew some of his buds employed convict labor for their private businesses.

The professor’s article wondered why the University of Georgia’s famed Grady School of Journalism still clung to his discredited name.

Three years earlier, journalism students at Grady High School called for their school to change its name.

It’s the kind of thing students do. They are filled with passion, optimism and purity of conviction, and someone saying horrible stuff is very bad, even if that person did so in a different century.


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I called my old Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague Colin Campbell, who wrote a column for years and is a Grady descendant.

“I was always proud of him and am still proud of him,” he said of his great-great grandfather. “But it’s complicated. It’s sad.”

Campbell said Grady was selling a “fable,” a tale that blacks and whites coexisted in peace and respect. “The students of Georgia State have a right to be offended,” he said.

The tone of Grady’s speeches “depended on where he was,” Campbell said. “The Northern speeches were conciliatory. Some in the South were not so much.”

Ultimately, Campbell, a thoughtful fellow, said, “You have to look at the times and the politics of the times. You don’t want to forgive them. But you want to understand them.”

That is often said of renowned figures from yesteryear who now look terrible when viewed through today’s wokeness factor.

Photo taken on Oct. 21, 1891, shows the unveiling of the Henry Grady statue at Marietta and Forsyth streets. A crowd of 25,000 attended, even lining the tops of buildings.  (credit: Atlanta Historical Society)

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“Henry Grady was a racist. A mild racist for his time,” an Emory University history professor told the AJC the last time one of these controversies erupted.

I saw that the Rev. Herman "Skip" Mason, pastor of the historic West Mitchell Street CME Church, posted the Grady statue story on his popular Facebook site, "Skip Mason's Vanishing Black Atlanta."

“I put it on my page and then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and, well, I love to see folks get passionate,” he said.

Commenters on his site immediately argued a couple of points. One, tear it down and stop glorifying that old racist. Two, yeah, I hate what he said, but what’s that gonna do for me and my life now?

An employee of Grady Memorial Hospital returns a wheelchair. BRANT SANDERLIN / 2014 AJC file photo

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Mason said if it were up to him, “I’d say pull it down.” But he knows that won’t happen. And then there are the names of Grady Memorial Hospital and Grady High School. The Atlanta school board might want to take up the latter.

What about the former? I asked. Grady hospital?

“Black Atlantans pride themselves about being Grady Babies,” he said, laughing. “The last thing I’m going to do is get in a (peeing) match with Grady Babies.”

Then he got serious: “It brings us face to face with Atlanta’s sordid and ugly past.”

It’s a conversation we keep having.