Oral Interview with Helen Terrell McGee, age 91, and Nancy McGee, part 2

13. Davenport Town (old Negro community0 showing Baptist Church and store

Davenport Town, the racially segregated black neighborhood on the eastern edge of Smyrna

Bill Marchione: I wanted to ask you if you had any experience of the black neighborhood called Davenport Town.

Helen McGee: Yes, actually one of the black ladies that used to live in Davenport Town used to do our washing years ago, and mother liked her very much. You know they talk about how prejudiced people are. You know for some reason I never felt the way a lot of people seemed to feel about that. People in our bridge club wouldn’t support Obama because he wasn’t the right color. But he can speak English a whole lot better than those folks can.

BM: Do you have any recollection of the Smyrna Race Riot in 1938?

14.Smyrna Riot newspaper

Newspaper headlines about the October 1938 Smyrna Race Riot. The rioting in Smyrna attracted nationwide attention.

HM: Yes, that’s when a policeman walked me home. I was working at Davidson’s at that time.

BM: Where was Davidson’s?

HM: In downtown Atlanta on 8th Street.

BM: Did you see any evidence of the rioting at all?

HM: Well one thing I know… (turning to her daughter). Who was the lady who lived in the end house almost up here on Atlanta Road?

Nancy McGee: Nina Beshears.

15. Nina Ruff Beshears

Nina Ruff Beshears

HM: I don’t remember what she did exactly, but she would not let anybody come on her property. She had some houses for black people at the back end of her lot, almost to the railroad.

(According to the Federal census seven rental properties stood in the vicinity of the Beshears house and were occupied by black families in 1930. The roadway along which these houses stood was called “Railroad Alley”.)

BM: Where was that exactly?

NM: It would be at the corner of what is now Spring Road and Atlanta Road. There is like an empty gas station sitting up on that hill now. The Beshears house was a brick ranch when I was growing up. They may have rebuilt it or something.

HM: Well, Nina protected them black people. Nobody bothered them. They were being blamed for rapes supposedly.

BM: It was a double murder of an elderly farmer and his daughter on Cooper Lake Road that precipitated the riot.

HM: Is that what it was? Yes, it spread all the way over here anyway.

NM: Were there riots? Were there people running in the streets?

BM: 500 to 700 people were said to have rioted over a two-day period. This included attacks on black passengers on the streetcars, blacks being stoned and driven into the woods, and attacks on black homes in the immediate neighborhood, along Elizabeth Street in Smyrna, plus attacks on Davenport Town. Also the burning of a recently constructed black schoolhouse (the first constructed in the Davenport Town neighborhood). The riot briefly captured national attention.

HM: The same kind of people that riot today.

NM: What year?

BM: October 1938.

I also wanted to ask you about the Durhams.

NM: Tell her about Leo Frank.

16. Durham-Phagan House

A contemporary photo of the home of Truman and Lizzie Phagan Durham on Smyrna’s Spring Street

BM: Well, I was looking at the 1930 population schedule for Smyrna and I discovered that Truman Durham (a resident of Spring Street) had two children, a boy and a girl, one of whom he named “Phagan” and the other “Mary.” This struck me as odd especially in that  Phagan was born the very year that Leo Frank was lynched for the supposed murder of the teenage girl Mary Phagan, who was employed in the pencil factory Frank managed in Atlanta. Come to find out later on, from another source, Lizzie Durham, the mother of Phagan and Mary, was an aunt of the murdered girl. In addition she had a sister, Ruth, who also lived with them on Spring Street, a second aunt of young Mary Phagan. So that’s the connection.

40b.Mary Phagan

Mary Phagan, niece of Lizzie and Truman Durham of Smyrna

HM: You know, I never knew that.

NM: I wonder if Priscilla knows it. Priscilla Durham still lives in the Durham house.

HM: She might.

36. Leo Frank

Leo Frank, manager of the pencil factory in Atlanta in which Mary Phagan was murdered.


40c. The Leo Frank lynching

The lynching of Jewish merchant Leo Frank in Marietta in August 1915

BM: The other interesting thing, in 1927 the City of Smyrna adopted an ordinance that said that no black person could live closer than 200 yards from a white person. This ordinance was adopted at a time when the Klu Klux Klan was dominant politically in Georgia.

HM: Really!

BM: And then in 1933 Truman Durham went before the Mayor and City Council and said that a man named Claude Osburn (a major property owner in the Elizabeth Street area just off of Spring Street and a manufacturer of Venetian blinds), had rented four of his houses on Elizabeth Street to black families.

Truman Durham asked the city government to enforce the segregation ordinance to protect his wife’s fragile nerves and insisted that Mr. Osburn be required to evict his black tenants. Well the way the town dealt with it was, I thought, rather curious. What they did was they worked out an agreement whereby Mr. Osburn was allowed to continue to rent three of his four houses to black families, but the one that was closest to the Durham House had to be rented to a white family. And Osburn was also required—he apparently owned the land on which Elizabeth Street sat—to open up a new access road to Elizabeth Street so that the black residents of that street would not have to pass by Mr. Durham’s house when entering or leaving the street. The houses on Elizabeth Street were quite close to those on the aforementioned Railroad Alley and may in fact have formed a part of the same black enclave.

HM: It was hysterical. Did they cut a road back in there or not?

BM: I’m not sure. The public records are sketchy to say the least. If they did create a new point of access it would not appear to have been permanent.

The statistics are really interesting too. What I discovered in analyzing the census data was that in 1900 13 percent of the people living in Smyrna were black. By 1930, the percentage had fallen to just 4.4 percent, a decline of almost two-thirds.

On another note, you attended Marietta High School. Did your brother also attend Marietta High School?

HM: Yes.

BM; Your mother seemed to think that the Marietta schools were a lot better than the Smyrna schools.

HM: Yes (laughing)

BM: Did you have to pay tuition?

HM: You paid tuition in either pace, but it was cheaper in Smyrna.

BM; Another question. This is something that I read in Pete Wood’s book (The Paper Boy, published in 2006). He contends that during the Depression, in the New Deal era, the WPA established a mattress factory for unemployed women in the basement of a building in downtown Smyrna. Do you have any recollection of that?

HM: I don’t remember that but I do remember the Johnson Shoe Shop that was on Atlanta Road.

17. Johnson's Shoe Repair shop owned by Hubert Johnson

The Johnson Shoe Shop in Downtown Smyrna piled high with used shoes.

BM: I’ve heard a lot of people describe that shop piled high with shoes.

HM: And you could go in there and pick out whatever you wanted.

NM: It was near Doc Collins pharmacy, wasn’t it?

HM: you used to go to the Johnson shop to get your shoes resoled or get heels put on your shoes, that sort of thing. He ran that shop for years and years. And the post office was right along side of the shoe shop. It was the shoe shop, Doc Collins pharmacy, and the telephone office in a row and that concrete building on the side of the railroad tracks down by the Reed House. Right at Reed’s Alley, almost right in front of the Reed house.

18. Atlanta Northern Railroad Company buildin: Georgia Power Streetcar Substation

Smyrna’s Streetcar Depot, after its remodeling

NM: It’s gone now; what they called the second depot. It’s been torn down for years. That’s where the train derailed. I was living in the house. I didn’t even know it. I didn’t hear it during the night. Somebody told me about it several days later.

BM: That was the depot for the streetcars. The line was called the North Atlanta & Marietta Railway. It came into existence in 1905 and went out of business in 1947. And the story is that the mayor here in Smyrna, Lorena Pace Pruitt, and the mayor of Marietta wanted very much to keep the streetcars running, but Mayor Hartsfield of Atlanta ultimately forbade any streetcars from operating on the streets of Atlanta, and that’s what killed the line.

HM: That’s when they put the busses in.

19. Greyhound bus in Downtown Smyrna 1948A Greyhound bus on Atlanta Road after the discontinuance of the Streetcar line in 1947

BM: Greyhound had already come in and was competing with the streetcar company. The streetcar line really wasn’t doing very well financially.

BM: Your father was active in the Masonic Lodge.

HM: He was the Grand Master at one time. The Masonic Hall was where we used to go and we’d have suppers and all that.

20. Nelms Masonic Hall

The Nelms Masonic Lodge headquarters backed up to West Spring Street in Downtown Smyrna. 

BM: How about your mother. Was she a member of the Women’s Club?

HM: No, the only thing she ever did where they grouped together was what they called Spend-the-Day. These women would take turns cooking and then they’d all meet and they’d play rook or canasta.

BM: Where did they meet?

NM: They’d just meet at one another’s houses. They’d rotate. They’d meet once a month when I was growing up.

BM: Your mother makes mention of a rotating responsibility of cooking for a group of maybe ten or twelve couples that would meet from time to time, and I got the impression that they were meeting at a hall, possibly the Masonic Hall.

NM: That’s what I would say. Possibly something related to the Masons or maybe to the church. She was a Baptist. The United Brethren was her family’s denomination. But here she joined and stuck to the Baptist church.


BM: You borrowed books frequently from the Marietta Library.

21. Clarke Library, Marietta

Marietta’s Clarke Library, founded by philanthropist Sarah Freeman Clarke, which laid the foundation for the Cobb County Library system

HM: It was called the Clarke Library. It was right across the street, kitty-cornered from the Williams Lumber Company.

BM: Did you have to pay?

HM: I don’t think so. We used to go up there and they’d let me check out two of three books at a time, animal stories, and I’d have two of them read before by the time we got home. I was like in the third or fourth grade I guess, something like that.


22. Lorena Pace Pruitt, Georgia's First Female Mayor, 1945-48

Lorena Pace Pruitt, Mayor of Smyrna from 1946-48, Georgia’s first woman mayor. 

BM: Your mother was fairly friendly with Lorena Pace Pruitt, later mayor of Smyrna (1946-48 and the first female mayor in Georgia).

HM: Lorena, yes.

BM: I remember passages in the diary where they were both raising canaries.

HM: Oh, yes, mother had a canary farm going at one time.

BM: She seemed to be very fond of animals because she also was raising chickens.

HM: Well, we had ducks too. Granddaddy had three ducks (laughs) that would follow him around town. He dug a pool for them out by the fireplace in the side yard and he would go out to feed them and they were right behind him.

BM: Were folks bartering or exchanging in the Depression period? Your mother was making butter and milk and there was discussion of delivering it to other houses and so forth. Were these cash transactions?

HM: The only thing I remember was when we lived in Greenville before we moved back, mother and the lady next door to her—she was a lady from Canada—they would bake cakes and take them to this place and they would sell them. Now this was in Greenville and that was before the Depression. That had to be in the middle twenties. I can remember that.

BM: There were references in the diary to grazing the family’s cow, “Daisy” at the bottom of the hill down near where I now live on Whittemore Road.  There seems to have been a small dairy farm there owned by some friends. Your mother also expressed relief when she didn’t have to do that sort of thing any more (keep a cow and milk and churn). It was apparently a real burden.

HM: It was quite a job.

BM: At one point she said that no money had come into the household for awhile and that the family would have to live on the milk money for a time.

NM: That would have been in 1933 or 1934?

BM: Yes.

HM: I guess so, but I cannot remember who would have bought it. What was she selling, milk?

BM: Milk and butter. Sometimes your brother would deliver milk, sometimes she would, sometimes your father.

HM: Funny I can’t remember that.

BM: It went on for a while.

HM: Things got really tough for a couple of years. I can’t think who would have bought milk from them. But not everyone had a cow. And I can remember having to churn. But I can’t remember who they sold it to. Who would have taken it?

NM: Probably just people in the neighborhood if it was during the Depression.

BM: That was the impression that I got.

NM: With one cow it wouldn’t have been a big operation.

BM: Sometimes she would talk about getting eggs from other families.

Your father was elected City Clerk in the early 1940s. Was that a contested kind of thing?

23. John Corn, Mayor, 1939-40

John Corn, Mayor of Smyrna in 1939-40, a friend and political ally of Carl Terrell

HM: Well, I think the council voted on it. Did you find anything on Mr. Corn?

BM: I know that he was mayor at one point.

HM: I think he had something to do with it because he and daddy knew one another pretty well. He lived in one of those houses right over on Atlanta Road that hasn’t been torn down. Yes, Daddy was elected City Clerk and mother stayed down there (City Hall) as much as he did because she did all the typing for him. And she did that for several years. That was when I was teaching in Kennesaw.

NM: And that was when granddaddy went to those meetings about the Bell Bomber Plant.

BM: Oh, did he?

NM: Yes, it’s in one of the journals. Have you read the journals from the 1940s?

BM: No, I haven’t seen them yet.

NM: One of the entries in the forties shows that when they were planning the Bell Bomber Plant he would go apparently with Mayor Corn from Smyrna along with officials from Marietta, probably to take minutes or something. There are several references in there.

24. Jimmy Carmichael

Noted businessman and civic leader James Carmichael grew up in the Log Cabin community, four miles south of downtown Smyrna, now part of the city.

BM: Was there any contact with Jimmy Carmichael that you’re aware of? He was the lawyer and state representative who was instrumental in bringing Bell Bomber here. He also served as Smyrna City Attorney for a time. He was a pretty influential guy in a lot of ways, active in the cultural life of Atlanta. When I was up to Kennesaw State University recently I noticed that they have a building up there named for him. He managed Bell Bomber an then Lockheed. He almost became governor in 1946, got more votes than his opponent, Gene Talmadge, but lost the race because of the County Unit System of elections that weighted things in favor of the state’s rural counties.

NM: Down here in the Log Cabin section there used to be a huge white house, the old Carmichael house.

HM: Yes, his family lived there.

25. The Carmichael House, Log Cabin CommunityScan

The Carmichael House in a photo taken just before its demolition.

NM: I mean it was a huge rambling place, three stories and square.

BM: There was also a general store down there as well that his family operated.

26.Carmichael Store, Log Cabin CommunityThe Carmichael Store

Until the coming of Bell Bomber in 1943, Smyrna was for all intents and purposes an agricultural village, and the countryside around it was filled with farms, as many as two hundred of them within a ten mile radius, with some of them, like the Carmichael farm, quite large (a veritable plantation). For most of the area’s history cotton was the dominant crop, but with the decline in the value of cotton in the early years of the 20th century, there was a decided shift toward orchard products and berries.

27. rooster-crowing-2

One story that I was told recently underscores the rural character of the area. You know the Optimist Club, where I’ve spoken on occasion, holds its weekly meetings at 7 am in the morning, and years ago if a member missed several meetings in a row, it was the club’s practice to present the laggard member with a rooster as a sort of animated alarm clock.


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