Originally created 01/01/00

Augusta's century: Race, river shaped history



It is at the heart of Augusta, tracing its winding path through history, framing thoughts and attitudes during the past century -- from the minute Alex Whitney, a white man, was killed by William B. Wilson, a black man, on a streetcar in 1900, to the waning days of the century when the 1998 mayoral election was decided along racial lines.

Race didn't shape every major event in Augusta's past century, but it contributed more than its fair share, leaving an intangible yet indelible stamp as real as any mark of fire or water. Mr. Whitney's death during an argument sparked a city ordinance segregating public transportation in Augusta, the first step in a battle that would include Cracker Party politics and the white primary election, court-mandated desegregation and rioting.

The Cracker Party emerged in Augusta in 1931, growing out of the older American Protective Association with its anti-Catholic rhetoric and its support of the white primary, which kept blacks from voting during primary elections. The Crackers would keep a stranglehold on Augusta politics, guiding the course of the city for 15 years until the white primary was abolished by the Supreme Court.

It would be the 1950s and 1960s before black politicians were elected to office, helping to usher in the civil rights era in Augusta, when leaders such as the Rev. Charles Hamilton headed the growing movement. In 1960, a group of Paine College students asked Mayor Millard Beckum to end segregation at Bell Auditorium and to allow black students to use the empty John S. Davidson school, leading to formation of a biracial committee to study race relations and integration. The students also rode in the white section of public buses, sued the bus company -- and won -- and staged sit-in protests at lunch counters in downtown stores, remolding the racial landscape of the city.

But it wasn't enough to ease simmering tensions that erupted in 1970, when 16-year-old Charles Oatman, who was black, was beaten to death by other inmates at the Richmond County jail, setting off riots on Broad Street, Ninth Street and Laney-Walker Boulevard. Six people were killed and the National Guard was brought in for a week as soul singer James Brown urged residents of his hometown to remain calm.

It wasn't enough to bridge the racial divide in a city that questioned the 1998 shooting of 29-year-old Alfaigo Terrell Davis by two Richmond County sheriff's deputies after a car chase through Apple Valley subdivision in south Augusta. The two deputies, Nicholas Capobianco and Gary Clark Jr., both white, said they fired to protect each other when Mr. Davis, who was black, tried to run over them after they got out of their patrol cars.

And it wasn't enough to break out of the mold of Southern politics when the 1998 mayoral race between white former television anchorman Bob Young and black former Mayor Ed McIntyre split along racial lines. With one exception each, every white-majority district voted for Mr. Young -- who won -- and every black-majority district voted for Mr. McIntyre.

Even as Augusta waged an internal struggle with itself over the issue of race, it was expanding and growing, moving into the 20th century with zeal as it strove for economic growth and physical expansion, pushing outward -- sometimes at the expense of its original core downtown.

Augusta's Great Fire of 1916 was the first real blow, ripping through downtown business and residential areas, leaving them in physical and metaphorical ashes. Instead of rebuilding, many people moved to the outskirts of town, beginning the slow decline of a downtown area that would be dealt a further blow 62 years later when the opening of Regency Mall and Augusta Mall marked the final shift from urban to suburban life.

"The fire -- it literally changed the face of Augusta," said Ed Cashin, a professor at Augusta State University who chronicled the city's history in The Story of Augusta and other books. "That's when people began moving out to Summerville. And it destroyed many of the lovely homes in the downtown area."

It was only a few years before the fire that the city had tried desperately to save the downtown area, building a levee to shield it from the ravages of the same river that had been Augusta's lifeblood from the beginning.

"They were flooded bad three times in 25 years, and the second two -- in 1908 and 1912 -- were the final straws," said Gordon Blaker, curator at Augusta-Richmond County Museum. "If you get slammed hard enough, you do something about it. Some of the floods were mild -- they just filled the streets with water. But some were very destructive."

But harnessing the Savannah River's power was as important to Augusta in the 20th century as it had ever been, and the effects were felt far beyond the banks. In 1945, contracts were let for the surveying of a dam at Clarks Hill. Together with a second dam at Hartwell, it would supply electricity that would lure companies such as E-Z-GO Car Corp., Procter & Gamble and Monsanto Chemical Co., creating a surge of industrialization in Augusta, including the "miracle mile" of industries near Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field.

The Clarks Hill dam was the particular labor of Lester Moody, secretary of the chamber of commerce, who also managed to bring Camp Gordon to Augusta in 1942 and Savannah River Plant in 1950. Both would bring a flood of people to the area and would have a stunning financial impact.

Eventually renamed Fort Gordon, the Army base brought military dollars to the city. Employment at Savannah River Plant, which became known as Savannah River Site when Westinghouse Corp. took over operations in 1988, eventually swelled to 25,000 people before the end of the Cold War.

"Probably the No. 1 person who helped shape this city in the 20th century was Lester Moody," Mr. Blaker said. "He's the guy. It took a lot of doing to get things like that. You probably need some kind of connections, but I think he was also just a very persuasive fellow."

Augustans continued to try to profit from the Savannah River into the 1990s, when the city council built Riverwalk Augusta to capitalize on potential riverfront business.

The city also became a golf mecca during the 20th century after Bobby Jones created Augusta National Golf Club, which would become home of the Masters Tournament. After construction of the course in 1932, golf became a defining view of the city in some circles and created an annual industry that still gives Augusta an economic shot in the arm every April, when thousands of visitors crowd streets around Augusta National, renting homes from residents and spending dollars at area hotels, stores and restaurants.

The growth of the city and the continuing suburban sprawl would lead to ever-increasing incorporation of new areas and the eventual consolidation of Augusta and Richmond County governments in 1996.

Moving through the 20th century, like its peers, Augusta would become more dependent on cars and strip malls as its focus moved away from the heart of the old neighborhoods to the ever-expanding city outskirts. Roads such as Gordon Highway, approved in 1955, provided the course of the current, cutting out of historic areas and providing easy access to open areas of the county ripe for expansion.

But in recent years, there has been a shift in focus back to the core, with revitalization attempts in Olde Town residential district and new businesses opening on Broad Street.

"Like most cities, there was an emphasis on the malls and the suburbs and the cars, and it meant the death of downtown," Mr. Blaker said. "But that's been turning around in the past few years."

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223.