Editor's Note: The following guest column is a collaborative piece submitted by the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce president John Boothby and Forrest Sawyer Jr.
February is Black History Month, and each year we are treated to newspaper, magazine and television features of the contributions of African-Americans to culture, science, arts and athletics in America.
Typically, the contributions of African-Americans right here in our own community get overshadowed by those of the better-known pioneers of national prominence. Recently Forrest Sawyer Jr. approached the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce with the idea of collaborating on some historic, local black businesses and the impact they have had on Covington and Newton County.
One of the oldest African-American businesses in Covington is Sims Barber Shop. Located on Hendricks Street, just off of Washington Street. In 1960, Thomas Sims and his father first began cutting hair. In the early years, they were joined by Thomas' two brothers, Hackney and Wiley. In 1966, Thomas took over the operation.
Hackney and Wiley didn't drop out of sight. Both went on to distinguished careers. Hackney became Dr. Hackney Sims, surgeon, and older brother Wiley Sims spent his career with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, recently retiring.
Thomas carried on the family business, spending the next 40-plus years as a community fixture, cutting hair and shaving loyal customers at the same location. Today, Sims Barber Shop is a local icon, and his customers can be seen even today, awaiting their turn on benches outside the shop, enjoying the sun and conversation.
In today's world, where businesses come and go, it's comforting to be able to see these venerable gentlemen, nodding to passers-by, waiting their turn to take their places in one of Covington's oldest businesses. It harkens back to a time when the pace was slower and life was perhaps sweeter. Sims Barber Shop has quietly served their customers in Covington for nearly a half century, loyally and reliably. The Chamber of Commerce salutes this African-American owned and operated business during Black History Month as part of our local history.
Another historic African-American business in Covington is the Town House Café. Located just around the corner from Sims Barber Shop, on Washington Street off the Square. Ossie Lee Hamn started her business in 1965, just two doors down from its present location.
It was truly a family business. Hamn's mother, a school teacher, and her husband, a local farmer and school bus driver, could be seen at the Town House Café every evening after school. They would sit, drinking coffee and sweet tea if business was slow, but when businesses was brisk, they would both be up, pitching in with whatever needed doing.
Hamn's sons James, Thomas and Stoney were frequently there, too, helping their Mother run the family business. James was the only full-time employee; his brothers Thomas and Stoney were attending classes at R. L. Cousins School. The famous Cousins football team could be seen at the restaurant almost every day after practice, being fed out of the goodness of Hamn's heart because most were unable to pay.
At the time, Covington was still legally segregated and the Town House had only black customers. But then, the occasional white customer would come in and be welcomed and fed by the Hamns and their customer base grew even more.
James and his mother ran the restaurant for many years. Thomas and Stoney went off to college and the military, still working on and off at the café, but it was essentially Ossie Lee and her son James running the business.
In 1984, Ossie Lee died and the business became James's to operate. With the continued help from Thomas and Stoney, James and his wife have built the café into a local, well-known institution. Today, when people want Southern cooking at its best, they go to the Town House Café where they can be assured of friendly service, great food and a true Southern culinary experience. The Chamber of Commerce salutes the Town House Café as a shining example of successful business, great food and an outstanding family tradition that exemplifies Black History Month right here in Covington.
If you would like to learn more about African-American history in Newton County, please visit www.afro-newton.wikispaces.com.