At best, history of blacks in Union County is sketchy. In the 1850 census of the county, twenty-four landowners were listed as slaveholders with a total of about 91 slaves. Some of the slaveowners’ names were illegible in the listing, and likewise the number of slaves held. By 1860, just prior to the Civil War, blacks in the county numbered 116 and all of them were slaves.
Since the farms were relatively small, and most of them were settled by independent Scots-Irish who migrated from North Carolina, few of the landowners had been accustomed to slavery and did not bring slaves with them to the lands they claimed, received mainly from the land lottery, along the creek and river valleys of Union County.
A look at names of slaveholders in 1850 reveals that citizens with these last names owned slaves: Butt, Hughes, Barclay, Reid, Haralson, England, Watkins, Addington, Erwin, Turner, Collins, Flowers, Hunter, Thompson, Hudgins, and at least four more whose names cannot be determined from the census taker’s handwriting.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. After this major document that changed the lives of blacks throughout the United States, most of those living in Union County remained as farm workers for their former owners, the women did housekeeping and laundry, some found work in the few hotels in town, and those with trades like carpentry or blacksmithing found work in those lines. Blacks also worked in the mines during the heyday of gold mining in Union County.
Two communities of black settlements were located in the Blairsville militia district. One was near the foot of Welborn Mountain. The other was about a mile east of Blairsville off Highway 76. This settlement was said to have houses located in the hollow there, with the black school and church on a rise above the dwellings.
Cemeteries reveal clues to the history of a people. From the old courthouse square in Blairsville, the Black Cemetery is located 1.5 miles east on Highway 76, with a turn south on Shaw Road for one-fourth mile, then southwest to the top of the ridge and westward for about one-fourth mile. Although there are more than 100 graves in this old cemetery, only seven have names still decipherable. The first person buried there with a name on the stone was Samuel Morris, born in 1839 and died March 26, 1901. Others and dates were: Lester Butt, June 10, 1900-March 13, 1904; Whalen Butt, April 27, 1875 – May 13, 1905; Ollie Butt, July 15, 1881-February 16, 1906; Mary Addington, 1812-June 12, 1919 (note her long life of 100 years); John T. Trammel, October 15, 1857-September 3, 1928; and Eliza Trammel, December 24, 1868 – November 17, 1945.
Records show that Eugene Butt gave land for the black church, school and cemetery following the Civil War. Church and school were held in the same building. Rev. Tom Coke Hughes, a noted white Methodist preacher of the nineteenth century held services at the black church on occasion. It is said that he had an agreement with Glenn Butt that if the congregation got “caught up in the Spirit,” he would escort Rev. Hughes safely from the church amidst the shouting and charismatic celebration.
The black school was still in operation in 1924, although M. L. Duggan, Rural School Agent who did a survey of Union County Schools in 1916 did not list the black school as one of the public schools. By 1938 the church had only the families of Glenn Butt and Eliza Trammell attending. Most of the black families had moved elsewhere to find employment.
When I was a child, my parents showed me graves in the Old Choestoe Cemetery that had fieldstone markings. I was told they were graves of former slaves of Collins, Hunter and England slaveowners in the community. Many of the blacks took the last name of their former owners after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 100-year old Mary Addington in the black cemetery near Blairsville no doubt bears the last name of March Addington who owned five slaves in 1850. Mary could have been one of them, or have married one of his male slaves.
I have been inspired again by reading several of the speeches and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among his famous words are the “I Have a Dream” address delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 18, 1963. In it he stated: “I have the dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And in that same speech: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
His advocacy of non-violent social change has brought about many actions that have helped his dreams to be realized. I can imagine that from the 1830’s through about the mid-1940’s before the remaining black population left Union County, they held similar dreams. The blacks were here for awhile, having come through no choice of their own. They lived and worked and then went elsewhere, along with their dreams and their history, like the mists that lift from the mountains. We see vestiges of their habitation here and wonder how life must have been for them.
[I am indebted to these publications for information for this article: “Sketches of Union County History,” (1987), edited by Teddy J. Oliver, pp. 38-41; “Cemetery Records of Union County, (1990), pp. 296-297)].
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published January 20, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.