There is a deep-rooted history of African American heritage in Athens, Georgia. Some stories are well-known, while others are hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. Did you know the Morton Building was once home to a beauty salon or that there is a historic one-room schoolhouse located in Athens-Clarke County? You can learn more about the schoolhouse, the Morton Building and more during the African-American Heritage Tour with Athens' own singer, tour guide and retired Clarke County Health Department Office Manager Rosa Thurmond.
Thurmond was born and raised in Athens, Georgia and was the first African-American receptionist desk clerk for the Heath Department, but most people know her for her singing and her deep love for her family and people.
Before conducting the African-American Heritage Tours, Thurmond organized Black History Month programs during the month of February for the elementary schools in Athens-Clarke County — which she still does today. She teaches students songs such as “Wade in The Water,” among others.
“I love sharing what I know,” said Thurmond.
She enjoys sharing stories of African-American music history with people and these school programs were the only way she was able to do so until she received a pivotal phone call from former Athens Welcome Center Director Evelyn Reece in December 2009.
It came as a huge surprise to Thurmond when Reece contacted her — a month after retiring from the Health Department – to inquire about taking over the African-American Heritage Tours.
“I told her…well, I don’t know you’ve got to give me some time to get this thing together,” said Thurmond.
Having lived in Athens, Georgia for more than 50 years, Thurmond decided to base the tour on her experiences that she has had growing up in town. She also interviewed people she knew in the community and conducted other research to get an accurate account of facts.
In February 2010, Thurmond used her research, experiences, and knowledge to conduct her first tour. Today, the tour is conducted by Thurmond along with other volunteers who have more information to share with groups such as the Morton Theatre or the Chestnut Grove Schoolhouse.
Taking the African-American Heritage Tour
During the tour, you will take a bus to visit various attractions and locations. There is also an opportunity to stop at certain locations such as the Morton Theatre, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Chestnut Grove Schoolhouse, among others to take a look inside. However, the stopping points or step-off points as Thurmond calls them, depend on the time allotted on the tours. Each of these stops along the tour has a significant story that directly impacts the African-American experience in Athens, but usually, only one or two step-off points occur during a tour.
The Morton Building — built, owned and operated by Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton in the early 1900s— is home to one of the first and only surviving vaudeville theatres left in the country. According to the Morton Theatre website, various African-American doctors, dentists, and pharmacists occupied the Morton Building with their practice as well as insurance companies, beauty shops, a bakery, and mortuaries. A cool fun fact is that Dr. Ida Mae Johnson Hiram, one of the physicians whose office was located in the building, was the first Black woman to be licensed to practice in the state of Georgia. Plus, in the theatre, performers such as Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington filled the building with joyful noise. More about the businesses and performances at the Morton can be heard on the tour.
Thurmond is also a part of history at the Morton because she was the first woman to record live in the Morton in 1994. Plus, she was also asked to perform during the closing ceremonies for the 1996 Olympics in Athens at this historic theatre.
Another step-off location is the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), home to the oldest African-American congregation in the county. The building was built in 1916, but the first congregation was organized in 1866. It is here where visitors will have a chance to look inside the church and learn about its history and significance.
“Those are good step-off points,” said Thurmond, “and the people feel connected when we step-off and walk through.”
Another interesting location is the home of local artist Harold Rittenbery, where you have a chance to see his metal sculptures and artwork, which are displayed throughout his front yard. Rittenbery has sculptures located at different sites in Athens such as at the Lyndon House Arts Center and the Cobbham Triangle Park as well as the Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Atlanta.
Built in 1896, the rare surviving schoolhouse Chestnut Grove School owned by the church with the same name, Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, is another step-off point. The one-room schoolhouse is where one instructor taught African-American children of all ages. On this tour, you will take a look inside the schoolhouse, with a tour guide from the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, and hear stories about some of their most prominent students.
Of course, these are just a few of the highlights that occur on the tour. Thurmond has been conducting the tours for 11 years and she will continue doing so as long as she is able. One thing she would want her future and past tour-goers to have after taking the tour is a newfound appreciation for the culture and the people’s journey.
“I would like for them to take away a sense of being for the African-American Heritage tour and what it entails and just familiarize yourself with the reasoning behind the tours and the history, “said Thurmond, “and develop … a caring, loving, understandable attitude as to from whence [African-Americans] have come.”
If this sounds like something you would want to experience schedule an African-American Heritage tour with Rosa Thurmond by contacting the Athens Welcome Center. Tours will begin again in the month of March.