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Posted: June 19, 2012 8:55 p.m.

Dinah Watts Pace: a Covington legend

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A plaque sits in honor of Dinah Watts Pace's orphange in the Washington Street Center. (Right) Pace in the late 1800s.

On a tree-lined street in Covington, just a stone's throw from the hurly-burly of the Interstate, time slows to the pace of an earlier era. The air is thick and unhurried and cicadas drawl their summer songs they way they did more than 125 years ago when the street's namesake - a light-complexioned woman with serious eyes - first stepped into town.

The year was 1883 and the woman, 30 years old and freshly minted as a teacher with a diploma from Atlanta University's education department, had come to teach the children of Covington's black schools for a few months. Little did she know her life's work would be tied to the fate of these children.
For more than 40 years, Dinah Watts Pace would be the driving force behind the renowned Covington Colored Children's Orphanage, educating, feeding and raising more than 700 children in all. She would live through the Civil War, the onset of the Jim Crow era, the Jazz Age and World War I and would see her orphanage grow and become a shining example in the community, before the winds of time took everything away, leaving only her name on a street sign.
She was born Dinah Watts, a slave in Athens belonging to the Alexander family, in 1853 shortly before the Civil War. By the time she was 8, the Alexander home, headed by Mrs. Alexander, had become a boarding house with three households and at least 12 slaves. In this environment, young Dinah and her siblings, bright and driven to succeed, picked up an education as best as they could.

The tumultuous reconstruction years after the war found her in Atlanta, in the Summerhill area located between the present day Turner Field and Grant Park - the cradle of affluent black society at the time.

From a very early age, she was compelled to reach out to children. At 12 years old, Dinah Watts could be found on the street corners, recruiting neighborhood children and organizing Sunday school classes, which were held on the corner of Richmond and Martin Streets with the help of her older brothers Albert and Lewis Watts. That Sunday school was the nucleus of what would eventually become Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, the first black Baptist church in the neighborhood, later changed to Reed Street Baptist Church and then Paradise Missionary Baptist Church.

"There's this picture painted at the church that she was this eloquent lady who was already grown" when she started the Sunday school, said Dr. Charles Harper III, present day pastor of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, as he gazed at an undated photocopy of a daguerreotype labeled "Sister Dinah Pace." The image, which hangs on the wall next to portraits of the church founders, shows an adult woman elegantly dressed in the Victorian fashion of the day with pleated rows of buttons and puffy wrist-length sleeves. A woman so light she could have nearly passed as white. "But no, she was a young girl in a neighborhood that gathered together the children in the neighborhood," he said. "It seemed she was really calling the shots and her brothers were supporting her in her mission."

"She had a calling in her life to organize kids, and she did. She was obviously a special lady."

After five years of Sunday school, the congregation recruited its first pastor. A then-teen-aged Dinah Watts and her brothers moved on, with Dinah eventually earning the distinction of a college degree and her brother Lewis becoming a Pullman Porter - one of the good jobs for black men at the time. Her brother Albert would go on to become a successful grocery store owner in Atlanta, though their ties with the church they helped found would remain. When she died in 1933, her funeral services were held at Reed Street Baptist.

"I think the missionary seed had been planted and she saw what she could do and she wanted to do more," said Harper. "It's a remarkable story. It truly is a remarkable story."

That missionary zeal took root again when Dinah Watts came to Covington in 1883 as a school teacher. Her salary was scanty, her classroom was a two-room cabin and its desks and chairs made from dry goods boxes. But what she lacked in materials, she made up for in passion.

She had meant to teach in Covington for only a few months, but just as in the Summerhill neighborhood, her concern and compassion for her students led her above and beyond her official school duties, as she visited homes and parents who were as much in need of help as the children.

Perhaps then, it was not surprising, even inevitable when in the spring of 1884, she found herself taking care of two orphaned girls who had nowhere else to go. Word of her kindness soon spread and she found herself caring for more abandoned children - on her teacher's salary. She would take the children with her to school during the day and tried to teach the older ones at night. A few gifts of money came in and she was able to rent the other room of the tiny two-room house, but it was never enough.

Her family grew in other ways too that year. Shortly after she came to Newton County, she had met James Pace, a widower and blacksmith nearly 20 years her senior who sold coffins on the side. The two were married in the fall of that year after he reassured her that he would not stand in the way of her work.

Dinah Watts Pace quit her teaching job around 1886 and threw herself into raising funds for the orphanage, which was incorporated in 1890 as the Covington Colored Orphans Home. She traveled throughout Newton County and to Augusta, where she had friends, to ask for aid. She was tireless and resourceful. She began writing letters to people in the north asking for help. A sorority in Wellesley College in Massachusetts began sending boxes of food and clothing. Her brother Lewis gave most of his wages as a Pullman Porter to support the school, as described in a 1892 New York Times article.
She employed every skill and talent she had towards securing a better future for her school's children, taking on roles that society did not ascribe to black women at the time.

"It was so hard for women to be in a leadership position in anything back then. It was unheard of," said Pastor Harper, explaining why Watts Pace's achievements were so remarkable.

"A wealthy Northern benefactor got wind of Watts Pace's efforts. Mrs. A.C. Reed, the wife of a clergyman in Manchester, Vt., sent $1,000. With this money, a beautiful 10-room, two and a half story house was built for the orphanage, which was renamed the Reed Home and Industrial School in 1903.
As the school grew, Watts Pace employed three other teachers and graduates of Atlanta University, including her niece Annie Mae Watts. Students from the orphanage would often work at nearby farms during the day to earn extra money or to grow food for the school, and on Sundays, mule-drawn wagons would come by the school to take children to the church of their choice.

Music was another passion for Watts Pace, who loved to sing. She made sure there was a music room stocked with instruments and sheet music and a library in the new dormitory, which housed about 90 girls and a handful of boys. "Aunt Dinah's girls" were admired for their proper and cultured upbringing. The school was able to take in more boys after a man from Detroit donated a country house.

In its heyday, the school was held as a model institution, citied by scholars in articles. Watts Pace was a regular participant and speaker in conferences of social reformers and educators with luminaries such as WEB DuBois. She relied on a network of other like-minded, remarkable women in Atlanta, Augusta, and throughout the country, such as Carrie Steel, whose namesake Carrie Steel-Pitts Home still operates in Atlanta today.

Informally, within the community, she was also known as a dream reader whom people would consult on for "the numbers," according to native resident JP Godfrey Jr. and historian Mark Auslander.

But like so many remarkable institutions, the Covington Colored Children's Orphanage was dependent on the life-force of its founder.

Tragedy struck when the girl's dormitory burned in a fire in 1917. Soon after, Dinah's husband James Pace, passed away. By then, the school had fallen on hard times, as Watts Pace was growing older and less able to travel to raise money.

In January 1933, at the age of 80, Dinah Watts Pace suffered a stroke of vertigo and fell into the fireplace. She was hospitalized and died a few days later at Atlanta Hospital on January 25, 1933.

Watts Pace's niece and the school's teachers struggled unsuccessfully to keep the school open for two more years. When the school closed in 1935, there were reportedly plans to turn the property into a Methodist retreat, which never materialized. The property was eventually sold for unpaid taxes and the building was burned down by the county.

Today, there is nothing but leafy, green open space and towering oak trees to mark the spot where the house once stood. A cemetery has sprouted in the area once owned by Watts Pace.

A few years ago, the Newton County Historical Society had commissioned a plaque commemorating the "Dinah Pace Orphanage and School," but the property owners did not want it on the land, said Flemmie Pitts, a local historian with the African American Historical Society of Newton County. The plaque is now housed at the Washington Street Community Center.

The road that runs near the location was named Dinah Pace Road, in honor of the orphanage founder. The church she helped found, Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, also recently named an award in her honor - the Dinah Watts Pace award for Excellence in Christian Education.

But Dinah Watts Pace's most lasting legacy is perhaps the one that is hardest to measure - the generations of young children whom she brought up with love and education would go on to form the bedrock of the black middle class today.

 

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