Etowah Bush School Fills in the Pages
The pages of Black history are torn or missing in many small towns. At the Etowah Bush School, Black history is 365 days a year.
Tucked into the old train station in downtown Cartersville, Georgia, with windows that still rattle with every passing train, stands the Etowah Bush School. Created by two Bartow County natives, a husband and wife team of Dr. Sean Callahan and Alexis Carter-Callahan, the Etowah Bush School rectifies the absence of a place to tell the complete African American history of this rural southern town. Photos, primary sources, and informative placards reflecting the county’s African American history line the blue walls of the museum. The Etowah Bush School includes the museum in the train station and walking tours of downtown Cartersville and other areas of Bartow County.
Cartersville is a rural southern town in the foothills of the Northwest Georgia mountains that sprouted up along the train tracks in the mid-1800s. In 1850, it only had 500 residents, but its textile industry and fertile soil were economic pull factors, and within two years, its population rose to 2,400. Now, it is home to over 20,000 people. According to the 2010 census, the city is nearly 30 percent African American, but despite this large percentage, the County history museum only provides a small amount of insight into Cartersville’s African American history.
“Etowah Bush School was created out of a deep need for my husband and I to discover our own ancestry and family history,” said Carter-Callahan.
“Our ancestral lines are a part of the founding African American families that helped to construct the narrative of the history of Cartersville. We felt that there was an urgent need to document, preserve, and celebrate the unique culture of black people in the rural Appalachian South.”
Documenting Cartersville’s African American history meant months of pouring over primary sources, accessing archives, reading newspapers, interviewing people, and in the end, gathering and telling the African American history of Cartersville following the Civil War. “The Black story has often been under-recorded,” Carter-Callahan stated, “and the urgency arises in capturing the stories of our elders.” She referred to a quote by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. when asked why recording African American history is so important: “The sacrifices that our ancestors made so that we can be the great African American people…is one of the greatest tales ever told and when you want to know my motivation for doing African American studies generally…it’s to bear witness to the triumph of our people’s soul.”
The museum bears witness to local history through its featured exhibit, Towards Freedom: African American Business Owners in the Cartersville Downtown District, 1870-1940. This exhibit uses a collection of captioned images to reflect the vibrant African American community in this rural southern town. The exhibit describes how, during Reconstruction, former slaves and their children had to navigate their entrance into a postwar economy. Many became blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, farm hands, and domestic workers, but others founded businesses on the north side of downtown Cartersville’s Main Street. John Q. Gassett was an educated real estate entrepreneur who opened Gassett’s Grocery in 1893, one of the first African American-owned businesses in Cartersville. The city’s first African American doctor, Dr. William Riley Moore, established his practice above the grocery store, where he served hundreds and hundreds of people until Gassett’s death in 1921. African American-owned restaurants such as the Blue Front Cafe and Gassett’s Grocery created a customer base that attracted other African American-owned businesses to the area.
This collection of business and commerce propelled the community, as the title of the exhibit states, towards freedom. For example, Justice Robert Benham, the first African American judge appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court, was born in Cartersville. He was a trailblazing lawyer, an active member of the Civil Rights movement, and served in the U.S. Army Reserve. His success and accomplishments are testaments to the African American excellence that continues today in Bartow County.
“Our community is full of everyday heroes—domestic workers, hair stylists, farmers, blacksmiths, grocers, educators, insurance agents—all regular folks that created and continue to foster and sustain the continuation of the Black culture,” Carter-Callahan said. “The good parts of our history are often found in the everyday ways that we continue to persevere.”
But choosing to ignore the suffering of African Americans is yet another way that history can be whitewashed. Celebrating only the good parts of African American history is performative.
“While strife and suffering are certainly not the only stories to tell about Black people, bypassing these stories can hamper the opportunity to face, discuss, and deconstruct difficult topics—many of which have formed the undercurrent of our current societal reality,” Carter-Callahan said.
These difficult topics are addressed during the Etowah Bush School’s walking tour of Cartersville. Just a five minute walk from downtown is Vinnie’s Cabin, a former slave cabin whose thin, wooden walls, insulated with newspaper, were a futile shield for hot summers and cold winters. The cabin was home to people who were enslaved before and during the Civil War; the adjacent house was owned by the Field family, who were wealthy plantation owners. During the 1880s, a paid cook named Ms. Vinnie lived in the cabin with her son, and worked for the Field family.
The walking tour also addresses lynching in the South. Cartersville had a number of lynchings, including that of John Willie Clark in October 1930, which received national attention. Following the lynching, many of the African American-owned businesses in downtown moved to segregated and mostly residential districts such as Summer Hill and West End. This was not uncommon. According to a map from the Atlanta Journal-Consitution, only 30 of Georgia’s 159 counties did not have a lynching during the years 1880-1968.
“Without the dark details of the past,” said Carter-Callahan, “we cannot fully explore the consequences and circumstances of our present society.”
That is precisely the reason why it is important to seek out local African American history where you live. As a white girl who moved to Cartersville 15 years ago, I knew little local African American history before visiting the Etowah Bush School. Georgia history taught in eighth grade addressed lynchings, but didn’t discuss the ones that occurred locally, and the slave cabin was never mentioned. Likewise, I didn’t learn about Gassett’s grocery store and the thriving African American business community on Main Street.
“At Etowah Bush School we often say, we are Black 365 days a year,” Carter-Callahan explained. “Our history is not relegated to one month and our people are not a monolith. Black people are complex and unique and amazing.”
Seek out the full and complete history of where you live, and view it with an open mind. Recently, there has been an additional push for a reckoning with America’s racist history. Look into your own town’s history and grapple with its realities. “Focusing on small scale history allows us the opportunity to humanize our pasts, and to not only tell these stories from a textbook or storybook context,” said Carter-Callahan.
History is all around us. It watches us from behind; it follows us wherever we go; and we must understand it in its entirety as we create our future.
Cover: National Archives.