While Atlanta was long the home of the nation’s most powerful and noted leaders of the civil rights movement, a number of important battles of the period were fought in Southwest Georgia.
As a recognition of the region’s significance, the National Park Service and Historic Preservation Fund has awarded a nearly $500,000 grant to an Americus preservation group to create a new civil rights museum. It will be housed in a building that was once the only place African Americans in the area could get medical treatment and be served by black physicians, according to a statement from Charles Coney, Americus city manager.
What was known as the “Americus, Georgia Colored Hospital,” was built in 1923. For the 30 years it was in operation, it was one of the few medical facilities in the South that exclusively had African American doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists serving black patients. But by the turbulent 1960s, the building became a “freedom center.” Leaders of the Americus Movement strategized there to end segregation in their town and expand voting rights for African Americans across Sumter County.
The Americus Movement began around the same time the more prominent Albany Movement took off just 38 miles south. That campaign for integration of public accommodations was led by local Albany leaders such as Charles Sherrod of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was supported by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other representatives of civil rights organizations. Momentum from Albany spread to Americus, bolstering the efforts of young protesters such as Sam Mahone. He along with scores of African American children, teens and young adults in Sumter County were jailed in wave after wave of protests in the summer of 1963. Many were held without being formally charged and were sent to jails in surrounding counties when their numbers grew too great for Americus facilities to hold.
Mahone, who lives in Atlanta, is now president of the Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee. The organization led the effort get the park service grant through the agency’s African American Civil Rights Program. He said the museum will tell not only the story of the 1960s, but also of the self-sufficiency African Americans had to exercise under legal segregation. It will also serve as a regional hub for groups addressing current racial, economic and justice inequalities, he said.
“The civil rights battles were won in small towns, not big cities,” Mahone said. “There are all these unknown foot soldiers whose names you never hear and who people never talk about. This generation stands on the shoulders of those who went before us.”
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