Words, being human inventions, can change in meaning and content, sometimes overnight. “Cool” was the in-word for approval for some younger segment in this society until recently, but “fire” is becoming the new in-word.
In a recent column, I described “home” as a definable place, the people who live there and the dynamics of their interactions as it was in my world a generation ago, less time than that for some. The concept of “community” is similar to home, almost an extension of that social reality.
The rural community was born on the frontier, the first system of making life together beyond the family and often based on a network of descent and marriage. The place, by whatever name from Pine Grove to Cold Springs, had a number of objects and services needed by people living nearby, things that drew them together regularly. Included were some or all of these: a crossroads grocery or general store, one or more churches, a grammar (first seven grades) school, a general militia district voting place, a grist mill, which might also be used for lumber, and a literate individual serving as justice of the peace.
My brilliant colleague, Professor Richard Persico, called these “locality relevant functions.”
Like home, it was the people and the way they lived together that defined a community. As is sometimes true of homes, there were bad communities, torn by power struggles; disputes among neighbors, the full range of ways that humans mess up life together. The racial divide was un-breached except at the local store, where all money was of the same color and at occasional funerals, where relations had bridged the separation in profound experiences of respect and even love.
Mostly, communities were good. Things were gladly shared: fellowship, fun, news — both good and bad — troubles and triumphs. If someone got sick, community people showed up to help. When there was a death in the family, there was help, sympathy and much food. Before the advent of the modern funeral system, skilled carpenters in the community made the coffins, which were lined with cloth by skilled ladies while other men dug the graves. My paternal grandfather kept a supply of fine lumber in a dry place under his house for making coffins and his wife kept a store of gray muslin to line the coffins. Community service based on gospel.
Growing up, I knew that I could stop at any house along the road and be welcomed like family. Come to think of it, people of some degree of kinship did live in most of those houses, including connections that I did not know about then. I never knew fear of the world around me because in my community, I was as safe everywhere as I was in my parents’ house.
Many small towns sprang up at coal and water stops during the period of rapid railroad expansion and some of them took on the character of communities. They also created conditions which destroyed rural communities. Consolidation of schools brought country kids to town and closed rural schools. Better roads opened work opportunities away from the farm and made it easy to get to town to buy from stores with more options and lower prices than the country stores. Communities lost locality relevant functions.
Then supermarkets headquartered far away took away community control. Regulations of schools, highways, criminology and much more moved to state and federal government, often improving the life of millions, but always eroding the sense of community in towns to the point of extinction.
I know that aspects of community existed in urban ethnic neighborhoods based on shared ethnic identity, churches, stores and schools that reflected the interests of residents. However, urban renewal, gentrification, gang violence and other factors have destroyed many of these.
Elsewhere, pseudo community has replaced the real. It can be seen in some special interest organizations and clubs. Many churches include “community” as part of their names or statements about what makes them special.
Clearly the human need for community remains. It almost certainly is rooted in nature. It is evident in tribal societies, chimpanzees, whales, quail and bees.
I am thankful that I have remnants of community in my life. I am a lesser being because so much of it still is gone.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.