Panelists discuss their experiences during 1970 Augusta riot

Many Augusta residents remember May 11, 1970. They just haven’t talked about it much since then.

As a result, many younger Augustans don’t know about the race riot that ripped through downtown Augusta, leaving six black men dead, dozens injured and businesses from Broad Street to Walton Way plundered.

Georgia Regents Univer­sity instructor Sea Stachura wants to change that. She staged two panel discussions about what happened that day and why.

The discussions are part of a larger project to capture the oral histories of people who remember the event.

“My hope is that we can publish a book that gets a better understanding of why this happened and what happened, but in the voices of the people that were there,” she said.

Grady Abrams, a city councilman at the time and one of two panelists at Saturday’s discussion, recalled how the riot unfolded for about 75 people at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library.

His radio report of the death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman was a factor in the riot. Oatman, who was mentally ill, had been in jail for killing his niece.

“This boy that was killed was 16 years old and should not have been there in the first place,” he said.

Abrams described the cigarette burns he saw on the young man’s body. Oatman also had three long gashes in his back, and the back of his head had been busted.

Officials said he died after falling off his bunk, Abrams said.

“I reported that death on that Sunday evening on the radio program I had – a talk show,” Abrams said. “People met me at the county jail to get answers as to what happened with the boy. Jail officials gave us the regular rap that they regularly give people when they don’t want to give out information.”

On Monday morning, Abrams went to speak to the crowd assembled in front of the courthouse, but no one wanted to listen. Instead, someone tossed a rock at a city bus, he said. Then more rocks were tossed. White people were pulled from their cars and beaten. Businesses owned by whites and Chinese were looted and burned.

Attorney Bill Coleman, who was appointed to represent rioters who needed a lawyer, said he put the events out of his mind, never mentioning them to his three children, until the Richmond County Historical Society asked him to talk about the riot five years ago.

“My most vivid memory is that Tuesday morning, coming to Broad Street, the smell, the odor, because of all of the fires,” he said. “It was plastic and paint, chemicals and wood and carpet, and it was a very strong (odor). My eyes burned from it.”

Archived photographs were projected as Abrams and Coleman spoke.

Drewvonda Miller left the discussion early, upset after listening to discussion about current race relations, which Abrams said were worse now than before the riot.

Misty-eyed, she said, “Sit­ting in there, it just shows that racism still goes on. A lot of people there are still angry about what went on, but nobody wants to take ownership of who started the riot, why the riot started.

“The only thing that’s changed is blacks have more rights now than they did then,” she said.

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