Originally created 02/24/02

Memories tell story of neighborhood



Sand Hills has the right name, says Josephine Richardson, who has lived there since 1912.

"I used to walk to Walton Way to catch the trolley," she said. "When I got there, I'd have to take my shoes off and shake the sand out of them."

Mrs. Richardson is considered a jewel in the neighborhood. Her family came to Sand Hills after a Savannah River flood drove them out of Springfield Village, the present site of Augusta Golf & Gardens. At 95, she has a poet's memory of life in Sand Hills' heyday, back when segregation was rigid, and families built a proud hamlet over sand.

Its residents named it after the geographic region formed by an ancient coastline. In conversation they call it "the Hill," just as residents of adjoining Summerville call their neighborhood.

The western half was developed after World War II. Up to the 1960s, Sand Hills was the place to be for Augusta's black middle class. Homeowners took pride in the appearance of their houses and lots, residents say.

There's been much written about Summerville, which contained several pockets of black residents, but there's no known account dealing specifically with what used to be its largest black section.

Most of the neighborhood's history lives in the memories of its oldest residents, and as they die they take with them a telling chapter in the story of black Augusta.

Lee Ann Caldwell, a history professor at Augusta State University, has been chronicling the stories of families who lived in Sand Hills.

"It's really a neighborhood that shows us that transition into freedom that people made, from having been enslaved prior to the war to being free people, who now could begin to own their own property and keep their own wages," she said.

HISTORIC AUGUSTA compiled a file on Sand Hills while applying to have the eastern portion placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which was done in 1997. The documentation focuses mainly on the late-19th, early-20th century period, when most of the houses that give the neighborhood its lingering charm were constructed.

The oldest sections of Sand Hills fall within the original boundary of the Village of Summerville. Before it was developed, the land was owned by prominent whites, including the Cumming family, the Montgomery family, the Fitten family and the Fleming family.

With the chains of slavery unlocked and the plantation economy wiped out by the Civil War, former slaves were free to earn a living and to own property. But they needed to find work, so they gravitated toward cities in search of jobs. There were plenty to be found in the growing, affluent Summerville.

White landowners turned over part of their acreage to the help, placing them within easy reach. A thriving community sprouted called Elizabethtown. According to the Historic Augusta file, it was named for Elizabeth Fleming, the missionary daughter of a prominent Summerville resident.

The butlers, maids, carpenters, gardeners, sextons and nannies for Summerville's elite made homes in the neighborhood. Much later its populace included caddies for the Augusta National Golf Course.

NOT EVERYONE who built Sand Hills was a slave before the Civil War. Mrs. Richardson's family had been free for generations, living near the banks of the Savannah River. The constant flooding drove most of the families out of Springfield, bringing an influx into Sand Hills.

Her father, William Allen, worked as a butler and her mother, Adele, as a seamstress, Mrs. Richardson said. Summerville was flourishing as a resort community, with the Bon Air Hotel and the Partridge Inn playing host to wealthy vacationers.

Segregation was strict in that era. Augusta annexed Summerville in 1912, and the next year passed an ordinance forbidding whites from buying property in black neighborhoods and vice versa.

The tight sense of community that once marked Sand Hills is gone. The problem today, Mrs. Richardson said, is that people don't know each other anymore. It's a place full of strangers.

"We never locked the door in the daytime when I was growing up. You didn't have to be afraid," Mrs. Richardson said.

"Now I have a lock on the door and all these bolts. I think that's an indicator of the fear."