The names behind the spaces and places
The month of February is noteworthy for Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day. Since its inception in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, February has become known as Black History Month. Educational institutions, certain religious denominations and governmental agencies recognize the importance of the contributions of black Americans to the history and development of our nation. These institutions supplement the omissions that occur in most of our textbooks used in our schools.
Last year, Dr. Charles W. Bonds, the first African-American to become a full-time professor at Georgia Southern University and a longtime Bulloch County Board of Education member, coordinated a series of op-eds honoring the achievements of local African-Americans that appeared in the Statesboro Herald. This year, he is coordinating another series, which this year is called “The names behind the spaces and places.”
In our community and others, spaces and places are named for individuals who have distinguished themselves by their contributions and achievements. The Averitt Center for the Arts is named for Hal Averitt, a former mayor of Statesboro. Inside the center is the Emma Kelly Theater. Emma Kelly was dubbed “the lady of six thousand songs” by Johnny Mercer. Kelly was famous for her exquisite singing voice and magic fingers on the piano. Julia P. Bryant, Mattie Lively, Sallie Zetterower and William James have schools named in their honor because of their significant contributions to the education of thousands of children. Their legacies live forever through the buildings named in their honor.
This Black History Month’s series of weekly columns will provide readers with information on places and spaces named after individuals in our community. Winding through certain areas of the community are two walking trails named in honor of two well-known icons of Statesboro, “Blind Willie” McTell, which appears to the right, and the Rev. Julius Abraham. The recreational facility on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive bears the names of four icons: Luetta Moore, Roosevelt “Sam” Love, the Rev. Patrick Jones and Zadie Douglas. The last article will focus on Donnie Simmons, an advocate for equality, justice and fair educational opportunity. We will continue to remember their contributions to our community through the places and spaces that honor their legacies.
I came to know about “Blind Willie” McTell late in my life — about 11 years ago when I was working on Del Presley's “A Place to Call Home” at the brand new Emma Kelly Theater.
The musical, a bicentennial celebration, told the story of Statesboro's early families, folks with names like Blitch, Olliff and Averitt. And it included the stories of African-Americans Dr. Van Buren, the Rev. William Daniel Kent and, significantly, Minnie and Willie McTell.
Realizing the importance of this history-making production, I recruited Logie Meachum, a well-known, award-winning bluesman and college professor from Greensboro, N.C. It was with Logie, who later reprised the role for my production called “Bluefront” at Georgia Southern University’s Performing Arts Center, that I learned about this phenomenal human being.
One of his most interesting stories about Blind Willie details his walking in an Atlanta neighborhood where a bad dog regularly greeted him at a local fence. One day, the owner opened the gate to allow the dog to chase McTell. Little did he know that McTell was “ear sighted.” Willie pulled his pistol and shot the dog dead with one shot. It is reported by his cousin Horace McTear that Willie would turn his head and make a clicking sound with his tongue in order to hear the reverberation of the sound and determine the locations of people and objects before him.
Sometime between 1898 and 1901, on the 5th of May, Willie Samuel McTear was born about nine miles south of Thomson, county seat of McDuffie County. How he obtained the McTell spelling is uncertain.
He was born blind or became so shortly after birth. For a while he could perceive light out of one eye, but eventually he lost this ability. Around 1907, Willie and his mother, Minnie, moved from Stapleton to Statesboro, which was experiencing prosperity through the growth of the local lumber and turpentine industries and, of course, the continuing success of Sea Island cotton. Many African-Americans made their way to south Georgia in hopes of finding service and domestic work in this boom-town.
The Statesboro years were “good” for Willie. At first, Minnie and young Willie lived in a small shack near the railroad tracks, but after a time Minnie found permanent employment as a cook for the Ellis family, owners of a downtown pharmacy, and the two of them moved into a modest house on Elm Street provided by the Ellises.
According to biographer David Evans, he made many friends during these years, including a blond girl down the street who encouraged him to get an education as she had done. His intelligence and abilities impressed many in town and, later in life, he considered Statesboro his real home. He was known locally by the nickname “Doog” or “Doogie.”
In his book “Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell,” Michael Gray tells a story about the dangers of the railroad that dates from Willie's earliest days in Statesboro. “According to testimony recorded in the 1970s, older people in town then remembered when Willie and another boy had been playing on the tracks when a train suddenly bore down upon them. Willie heard it, shouted to his friend and jumped clear just in time. His friend was slower and lost a leg.”
Willie the Statesboro child didn't just play marbles. While his mother went to work for the Ellises, Willie stayed home and played out on the dirt roads: North Walnut and West Elm. He could do everything the other children did: ride a bicycle, spin a hoop and wrestle. He was also learning guitar, harmonica and he would listen to the organs in church. He learned to play the 12-string guitar, accordion, kazoo and violin.
It was also in Statesboro where his mother died, on Dec. 21, 1920. Michael Gray’s book records Willie’s words: “My mother, she died and left me in 1920 ... and after then I got on my own. I could go everywhere I wanted then, without lettin' anybody know where I was. I didn't have nobody to write back to but a brother 3 years old, and he wasn't able to understand.” Blind Willie McTell died of cerebral hemorrhages on Aug. 19, 1959 in the state hospital in Milledgeville.
The story of Willie’s struggles and successes after Statesboro is the stuff of good storytelling. The evolution of the hit “Statesboro Blues” is, in itself, a tale rich with irony and perseverance. And, I'm pleased to say, Statesboro has honored him: the Averitt Center’s Board of Directors selected him as a “Legend in the Arts.”
The beautifully paved Blind Willie McTell Trail, beginning at Memorial Park on Fair Road and ending at Triangle Park downtown, follows a route close to the railroad tracks that would have been known to Willie. The Bulloch County Historical Society has highlighted the trail in “Downtown Statesboro,” the splendid little walking tour book edited by Virginia Anne Franklin Waters.
But what about his music? Realizing that Thomson has already established a Blind Willie McTell Festival, where is the “Statesboro Blues Music Festival”? Several people have talked to me about putting his inspiring story on-stage. But where is the script? In the hands of sensitive artists, I trust this idea will come to fruition. As dynamic as yesterday's headlines are the lives of Georgia’s men and women like Blind Wille, Ma Rainey, Blind Tom, Thomas Dorsey, Aaron Munlin, and the list goes on — folks who grew up right around here, the ground on which we stand. They are our legacy.
My friend Logie, ever the teacher with his gift for the anecdotal, told me about his own blind grandfather who drove a wagon all over his North Carolina neighborhood. He remarked, “It is amazing how the human body adapts and overcomes in order to be proficient. Life yearns for itself. It also redeems itself.”
Mical R. Whitaker, a retired Georgia Southern University theater professor and director, is the artistic director of the Statesboro Youth Theater. His production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” co-directed with Melinda Roell, will be staged at the Emma Kelly Theater from Feb. 13-15.