Sowing the seeds of change

Storehouse furniture founder Robert Currey moves to Hancock County and shakes things up, but some long-time residents are not happy about it.

Next week: When Derreck Kayongo left Uganda for college in the U.S., he planned to return to help out his fellow countrymen. But then he got an idea from a bar of soap.

Robert Currey gets down on his hands and knees and puts empty Miller High Life and Cheerwine cans, plastic cups and rubber tire bits into a bulging plastic bag. Robert, 74, is an Atlanta retail icon who founded Storehouse furniture and moved to Hancock County a decade ago. On this cold January morning, he crawls through the sedge to reach a muddy, trash-strewn culvert.

“Whoa. This is not a good idea,” he says, legs akimbo, while straddling the ditch on the Eastern edge of town.

The typically indefatigable Robert is disappointed. He’s the driving force behind this day of service in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and turnout is low. Robert expected upward of 50 black and white Spartans to help beautify a few streets, sing, pray and share a meal of hot dogs, chili and chocolate chip cookies.

Only 20 people showed up.

“We didn’t get the support from some in the community and that makes me sad and makes me want to cry,” Robert says.

Boo-hoo, responds Edith Ingram. Ingram, the doyenne of Hancock County’s black leadership, labeled it “derogatory” and “racist” to pick up trash on the day set aside to honor King. Robert, in response, moved the volunteer day this year to the Saturday before MLK Jr. Day. Ingram wasn’t mollified.

“We’ve got a group of white people that have it in their minds that they know how to run things,” says Ingram, 72, believed to be the first African-American elected as a probate judge in the nation. Robert “puts himself out there, and says, ‘I need you to help me.’ But he’s paying lip service and doesn’t mean it. He’s not going to do what it really takes to help the county.”

Robert knows what, and who, he’s up against in his late-in-life mission to improve one of Georgia’s more blighted corners. He also knows that picking up a few bags of trash won’t dissolve the mistrust, fear and racism that festers in one of Georgia’s blackest counties.

But Robert is determined that each small, community-building step will bring Hancock County that much closer to King’s Promised Land. And woe unto anybody who challenges the stubborn, irascible and dedicated philanthropist.


County built by slaves

Life was grand in pre-Civil War Hancock County, once home to regionally renowned schools in Powelton, Mount Zion and Sparta. Maiden Lane was where many of the town’s elite lived and many of their antebellum homes remain in tip-top shape. The three-story red brick courthouse with majestic cupola, although in dire need of a paint job and $3 million in repairs, is one of Georgia’s finest.

Life, of course, was considerably less grand if you were black. Hancock was once Georgia’s wealthiest county, a cotton empire built on the backs of slaves who toiled at the Rock Mill, Glen Mary and Shoulderbone plantations.

“Hancock was the place to live ’til the boll weevil got us,” said Helen “Sistie” Hudson, who has lived in Hancock 60 years and chairs the county commission.

By 1960, it had become one of Georgia’s poorest counties. Anybody with resources headed to Milledgeville, Augusta or Atlanta. Of those who remained, 90 percent were black.

Then came John McCown, a black activist who arrived in 1967 as executive director of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, a civil rights organization. Blacks considered him a savior; whites, a scoundrel, according to “Black Boss, Political Revolution in a Georgia County” written by John Rozier and published by the University of Georgia Press. Rozier credits McCown with transforming Hancock into the first black-controlled county in the United States since Reconstruction.

His power-to-the-people crusade attracted millions of dollars in federal and private foundation grants that built a catfish farm, a cement plant and low-income housing. With control of the county commission, McCown and followers, including Ingram — “a political red-hot mama to the black community,” according to Esquire Magazine — turned to the school system.

Political power in hand, McCown’s troops targeted white economic control. McCown’s followers boycotted downtown businesses. Rumors that African-Americans were stockpiling weapons led Sparta’s white police chief to order 12 machine guns for his five-member police force. A wave of arsons ensued. In May 1974, Gov. Jimmy Carter visited in hopes of defusing black-white tensions.

Most of McCown’s dreams of economic power fizzled. Projects were mismanaged. Money disappeared. State and federal authorities investigated. McCown, through a variety of shell corporations, had gained control of many properties and hundreds of acres of land. In July 1974, The Atlanta Constitution wrote: “Hancock County is still poor. But John McCown is not.”

McCown, who died in 1976 at the controls of his single-engine Cessna, had poked and prodded the county’s festering racial wounds which, to this day, remain raw.


Lessons and challenges

Robert was born in Chattanooga and raised comfortably middle class on Lookout Mountain in north Georgia. His father, Bradley, was a banker who was in bed by       9:30 every evening. Mother Louise raised the six Currey children (Robert was the second youngest) and instilled in her children an empathy for others.

One long-ago morning, when Robert was about 7, the family picked buckets of blackberries, huckleberries and muscadines. Later in the day Louise encountered a stranger selling blackberries. Eyeing the beat-up car and the back seat full of hungry-looking children, Louise added to her bounty of berries.

They need money more than we do, she told Robert. “She did that damn stuff all the time,” he says.

One of Louise’s causes was the local home for abused and neglected boys where whippings were routine. She lobbied Georgia legislators to halt the abominable practice and later raised money for homes in Chattanooga for unwanted boys and girls. She also served on the Lookout Mountain school board and, later in life, took to environmental advocacy fighting, in particular, construction of the Tellico Dam along the Little Tennessee River.

All the while, she had her hands full with Robert.

“Robert had a really hard time growing up,” brother Brad Currey remembers. He recalled one morning when Robert stumbled down the back steps into the kitchen with a furious look on his face.

I know I’m not stupid. I know I’m not stupid, he said, seething with frustration.

Robert suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability little understood at the time. He didn’t learn to read until third grade or write until fifth. Unlike the other students, he couldn’t finish his assignments on time. Many after-school detentions ensued.

“I just dreaded school,” says Robert. “When fall came around, and things cooled down, I would get depressed because I knew I’d be locked up for another nine months in school.”

In 1956 Robert dropped out of a military academy in Chattanooga and headed to Atlanta to live with Brad and his young family in Collier Hills. Robert slept on the unheated porch and attended Northside High School. After graduating in 1959, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to maintain military vehicles and tour Europe. Instead, he was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington where he ran a spare parts room for nearly three years.

“I learned that the Army was the single greatest agglomeration of dumb-asses in my life and it was the first time I understood I wasn’t one of them,” Robert says. “Relatively speaking, I was pretty smart.”

Discharged, Robert returned to Atlanta. Brad called in a favor and Robert was accepted at Oglethorpe University.

Robert had no time for collegiate shenanigans. As an older freshman, he lived off campus and rode the bus up and down Peachtree Road from school to jobs to home. He pumped gas, washed cars, delivered flowers and sold tombstones.

From the gas station Robert learned customer service. The flower shop inculcated style and arrangement. The monument business taught design, geometry and how to get people to buy stuff they didn’t need.

One day a well-to-do family wanted to honor their departed patriarch with an ornate tombstone. Robert took them to Westview Cemetery to eye the monuments of Robert Woodruff and other Atlanta luminaries. The family bought a well-apportioned headstone of pink and white marble inset with roses. Robert’s commission on that one sale allowed him to quit the tombstone business.

At Oglethorpe he met Suzy Straub, the daughter of a peripatetic American Red Cross official. He landed a job with Thomasville Furniture in North Carolina in 1966 and married Suzy that fall. Her teaching career began in Thomasville where the student body was mostly black.

Robert, a customer service rep, dispatched with his work by noon each day. The afternoon was spent learning the furniture business — production, accounting, shipping. The company president asked Robert for a report on the employee training program. The report wasn’t flattering.

“People would ask me what I thought so I’d tell them,” Robert says.

He was fired.

Back in Atlanta, Robert worked for World Bazaar helping them open stores around the Southeast, while they squirreled away Suzy’s salary from teaching. That nest egg, along with $10,000 each from brothers Brad and Fred, allowed Robert to open Storehouse furniture in 1969.

Owning a retail business was a dream come true. But it almost killed him.


Atlanta’s furniture king

Storehouse introduced contemporary cool to Atlanta. Robert, the store’s creative soul and tireless promoter, emphasized design and quality over price. Bentwood chairs and butcher blocks were best sellers.

Robert traveled the world looking for next-wave furniture, upholstery, lamps and accessories. Back home, he’d mix and match a tabletop, a base, some fabric.

“He’d come in with a style no one had done before. He had taste in every fingertip,” said Gordon Segal, a customer and friend who started Crate & Barrel. “He was also an unusual human being. He would give the appearance of a casual country boy, but he’s very shrewd.”

Robert loved the retail life: the creativity; the salesmanship; the trade show camaraderie in High Point, New York or Milan; the fancy meals and plentiful drinks, especially the drinks. He was driven, a hundred-mile-an-hour, suffer-no-fools businessman on a mission.

He was also a boozer who preferred the term “wine connoisseur.” After observing the damage done to friends and reading the warning signs on the road to alcoholism, he quit cold turkey on Nov. 26, 1980.

Meanwhile, Storehouse grew to 25 stores, $30 million in revenue and 300 employees. Fred Currey had controlling interest and he wanted to franchise the brand, take it national and make more money. Robert reluctantly sold out.

Fred sold Storehouse to an Atlanta investment bank in 1982; the company went bankrupt in 2006.

“For Fred, it was an investment. For me, it was my life,” says Robert who, to this day has hard feelings toward his brother. “It just about killed me. Storehouse was my lover. I don’t even like to talk about it. It makes me feel bad.”

Fred, who lives in Texas, blames poor management for Storehouse’s eventual demise. He calls his brother “a good guy.”

Robert spent six years working with U.S. and European retailers and furniture makers, but he ached to be his own boss again. In 1988, he opened an outdoor furniture company that became Currey & Company, a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of outdoor furniture and indoor lighting with showrooms from Texas to New York and a factory in the Philippines.

Robert’s competitive drive returned. So too did the frustration and anger targeted at mere mortal co-workers. Ron Simblist, who ran a showroom at the Americas Mart, called Robert “tyrannical” and remembers being kicked out of Robert’s office one day. (They went on to become friends.) Suzy, who handled the books, recalled the time a red-faced Robert ran through her office brandishing an ax. Why? She never knew. Robert has no recollection of the incident.

“He’s a mean son of a bitch,” says son Brownlee who now runs the namesake company. “He commits deeply to something and when you know you’re right you don’t brook people telling you you’re wrong easily.”

While serving on jury duty one day in 1996, Robert suffered a massive heart attack. Doctors paddled him six times with a defibrillator. He awoke 11 days later, a changed man. He lost 50 pounds, became a near-vegan and embraced the philosophy of economic salvation, which he introduced to employees at Currey & Co.

He hired a former Thomasville Furniture boss, newly armed with a master’s degree in world religions, to preach financial responsibility to his workers. Every employee — there are 110 today with names like Lopez, Nguyen, Sanchez and Pham — is eligible for a free college, graduate or technical school education. They study what they want — IT, accounting, construction management. Once degreed, a job at Currey & Co. or elsewhere in Atlanta is assured.

“We had an employee who got an associate business degree at Perimeter College, but she really wanted to be a nurse, so she went to nursing school too,” recalls Robert. “We had a great employee for 17 years. She got an education. And now she’s a great nurse at Grady and a contributor to the community. Everybody wins.”

He’s now extending the program to 600 factory workers in the Philippines.

With retirement looming, Robert eventually handed the keys of Currey & Co. over to Brownlee. He and Suzy bought a farm in Tennessee and considered growing organic vegetables. A friend’s invitation to lunch in Sparta, though, yet again changed their lives.


Hello, Sparta

From the street, the Harley Harris Rives House looms on the eastern edge of town, a six-columned antebellum beauty framed by towering magnolia trees. Formal British gardens encircle the circa 1840s home as do apple, peach, fig and pomegranate trees.

The Greek Revival mansion once served as the townhouse for the daughter of a wealthy cotton planter who owned a plantation outside Sparta. Uninhabited for nearly a decade, the Curreys happened upon it after lunch one day. The owner offered them a tour. The Curreys were smitten, particularly by the large backyard that would make a fine garden.

They bought the Rives House in 2002. A painstakingly slow and expensive rehabilitation — it took hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the mansion to its formerly fine condition — kept the Curreys from living full-time in Sparta until 2006.

One recent cold January day, the Curreys offered a tour of their museum-worthy home. The dining room, with ceilings 11 1/2 feet high, and living room are adorned with portraits of Robert and Hancock County gentry. The first-floor walnut doors come from timber hewn from the plantation. Along the upstairs hallway sit dozens of antique chairs scattered like wooden soldiers no longer at attention.

Robert’s chair collection, dating to the early 1800s, spills into the basement’s unused billiard room. The summer kitchen alongside, where cows were once stabled, contains a refrigerator filled-to-the-gills with the bounty of last summer’s garden.

Their first garden included tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash. Today, the Curreys cultivate organic Boston, Romaine and Freckles lettuce, three types of kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips, onions and garlic on 2 backyard acres. Across the road they grow shiitake, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms in an abandoned red brick furniture factory.

Christened Elm Street Gardens, the operation sells vegetables at farmers markets in Augusta and Milledgeville. The mushrooms go to markets and high-end restaurants in Atlanta and beyond.

“What this whole damn thing is about is not just growing vegetables or mushrooms — it’s community building,” says Robert, perched on a high-backed couch in his library with dog Rives by his side. “My hope is that we bring these young, bright people to our little community and they get active and stay here.”

Already, a handful of Elm Street’s farmers have put down roots in Hancock County. The Curreys plan to hire a few more. The mansion and farm attract students and nonprofit groups keen to learn about a simpler, healthier way of life. Historical and agricultural tourism is about all Hancock County has to offer the outside world these days.

Globalization killed Sparta’s two textile and two furniture factories. Hancock Memorial Hospital closed in 2001. Lumber trucks rumble through the half-empty downtown. Unemployment officially is 15 percent, but realistically much higher. Hancock is the nation’s 23rd poorest county, according to the Census Bureau.

The Curreys hired an organizer five years ago to take the county’s pulse and plan community-building events. The Hancock Community Group was formed. A Labor Day picnic was inaugurated; last year’s gathering attracted 400 people, black and white. The Curreys provide a hog or two for roasting. Others bring chicken, hot dogs, covered dishes.

Robert chairs the local food bank. He raises money for the county’s Relay For Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. On New Year’s Day, the Curreys marched up front during the Emancipation Proclamation celebration.

“Some people still want to point their finger and say there’s nothing you can do to improve Hancock County,” says Sparta Mayor William Evans Jr. “But when I see the efforts of Mr. Currey and others I’m hopeful that things can change.”


Work in progress

Some things in rural Georgia seem impervious to change.

In September 2011, the Hancock Central High School Bulldogs lost a football game to rival Warren County. A helmet-swinging melee ensued.

David Daniel, head coach for Warren County, was hit repeatedly in the head and seriously injured. He filed a federal lawsuit against the Hancock school district, off-duty sheriff’s deputies and the player he accused of injuring him.

The case hasn’t been settled, but Hancock County had received yet another black eye.

“It’s the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen,” said Don Bevill, a former Kennesaw resident who retired to Hancock eight years ago.

Sadly, most everything in Hancock gets refracted through a prism of race. The football fight was no different: The coach is white, the players black. Hancock’s black leadership largely sided with their football players. Many whites didn’t.

Mutual suspicion is rampant. Even something as noble as MLK Day fosters mistrust.

“I don’t see anything Currey’s done to bring the races together,” says Robert Ingram who, like sister, Edith, represents the old-line black guard. “He’s not going to include us in anything because we don’t just sit and agree with him. So he gets ‘good negroes’ and ‘head-nodding’ negroes who say, ‘Yessuh, Mr. Currey.’”

Robert sighs, weary of defending himself.

“What we’re doing is very satisfying and also very distressing. But should I stop? When I get burned out, should I just sit in my condo in Atlanta and look at the tops of pine trees? I don’t think so,” he says, the fading winter sun darkening the library. “This whole experience has made both of us more understanding, more compassionate and we’re better people for it.”

Suzy is more blunt: “Blacks don’t want white folks ruling them again.”

Too late. Voters — including many African-Americans — returned the county commission to majority white rule two years ago.

“I’d certainly love to see the day where race doesn’t make a difference,” says Evans, Sparta’s black mayor. “I genuinely believe Mr. Currey wants that, too. Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring people together.”

Robert closed on two more plots of land along Elm Street last month and is readying them for spring planting. He may buy an abandoned store or two to help revitalize downtown Sparta. His lawyer is working up a charitable trust to perpetuate the Curreys’ good works once they’re gone.

“There’s a level of fulfillment we get here that we sure don’t get in Atlanta,” says Robert. “If you want to see the social ills of the country, just step outside our front door because it’s right in front of your face. In Atlanta, I read about problems. Here, I live them. It’s a righteous life.”

A friend alerted Dan Chapman to Robert Currey, the Atlanta retail icon who founded Storehouse furniture and was trying to turn things around in Hancock County, one of the poorest counties in the country. Chapman was struck by the septugenarian's  indefatigable spirit. Robert could have just retired to Sparta, plowed money into his house and lived happily ever after following his successful career. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work trying to make it a better place. Chapman visited Sparta five times for this story and interviewed Robert – with wife, Suzy, always by his side – extensively. He read various newspaper and magazine accounts of Hancock County's tumultuous history, as well as John Rozier's book "Black Boss, Political Revolution in a Georgia County." Lengthy interviews with local officials, community leaders, Spartan residents and Robert's confidantes ensued. What follows is one man's compelling journey to bring economic salvation and racial reconciliation to one small corner of rural Georgia. Robert, like the rest of us, may just learn something along the way.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

About the reporter

Dan Chapman writes about the economy for the AJC, a broad enough beat that allows for stories on poverty, race, economic development, government, rural life, demographics, manufacturing and globalization – all topics that came into play on this story. He joined the newspaper in 2000. Previously, Chapman worked for The Charlotte Observer, The Winston-Salem Journal and Congressional Quarterly.

About the photographer

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.