Macon Civil War marker salutes contributions of blacks

lfabian@macon.comMay 29, 2013 

A slave woman brought Macon worldwide notoriety by disguising herself as a white man in 1848 to escape serving her half-sister.

A freed black man became a successful east Macon businessman before the Civil War, although the law forced him to rely on a white partner to make his legal transactions.

The first black Georgian elected to the U.S. Congress came from Macon.

These are just a few of the stories detailed in a new historical marker, titled “Civil War Era Maconites of African Ancestry,” that was dedicated Wednesday morning at 830 Mulberry St.

“Not many of the cities in Georgia who are doing historical markers are remembering the contributions African-Americans made to their community,” said Muriel Jackson, archivist at the Washington Memorial Library. “We know the slave community built this community brick by brick.”

The placard stands in front of the gray Robert E. Lee insurance building, which is two doors down from the historic Cannonball House.

After it’s renovation, it housed WIBB, Georgia’s first black radio station and the studio where James Brown recorded his hit “Please, Please, Please,” Jackson said.

The house was built in 1836 for Robert and Eliza Smith Collins.

The couple owned Eliza Smith Collins’ half-sister, Ellen Smith Craft, the daughter of plantation master Maj. James Smith of Clinton and one of his mixed-race slaves.

James Smith’s wife grew weary of the fair-skinned Ellen being mistaken for one of her children and being a constant reminder of her husband’s infidelity.

She gave Ellen to her daughter as a wedding present.

Ellen and her slave husband, William Craft, concocted a successful plan for her to pose as a white man and they traveled by train to the North with him as her servant.

The couple eventually fled to England, where they became famous fugitive slaves and published “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” in 1860.

The marker is one of at least a dozen commissioned by the Macon Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.

It also notes the story of Solomon Humphries, who rescued his master’s daughter and grandchildren from Indian uprisings in Alabama and received his freedom in return.

The cotton trader was known as far north as Baltimore, where he bought supplies for his successful store, Jackson explained at the dedication.

The new sign at the sidewalk lists former slave and master tailor Rep. Jefferson Franklin Long as the first person of color to speak on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Those marking the 150th anniversary of the war felt very strongly about including the untold stories of the struggles of slaves and free persons of color before, during and after the War Between the States.

“There are also many stories yet to be uncovered,” Jackson said. “This marker will stand as a monument to all those who have passed away without their story being told.”

Sesquicentennial committee member Conie Mac Darnell said Macon is blessed with many Civil War era biographies and journals from its black citizens.

The local historian cited a Kennesaw State University study exploring why blacks are not more interested in Civil War history.

Those surveyed in focus groups indicated blacks felt their stories were left out.

“If you tell our story, we will come,” Darnell said was their conclusion. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”

Next month, the committee will unveil its 10th marker, “Beating Plowshares into Swords,” which will highlight the Old Western Depot, the temporary site of the Confederate armory.

The committee provided downtown Macon museums and the Convention & Visitors Bureau with free maps spotlighting more than 120 Macon places of distinction during the Civil War.

Committee Chairman Bill Elliott said, “When we get our markers in the ground, Macon will have the best coverage of what happened in our city during the Civil War than any other city in Georgia, including Atlanta.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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