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Black Oxford residents reflect on growing up in segregated Newton
Emory Oxford entrance
The city of Oxford developed around Oxford College's campus, which was the original main campus of Emory University prior to its move to DeKalb County. - photo by File Photo

OXFORD, Ga. —  It wasn’t until five years ago that Avis Williams set foot inside the park in the middle of the Covington Square. 

Growing up in Covington in the 1960s, Williams was warned by her grandmother that it was not a safe place for her as a young Black girl.

“'They' happened on Saturdays, so you were supposed to be home before a certain time,” she said.

The “they” Williams referred to were the rallies that the local Ku Klux Klan chapter organized. The Klan was active in Covington in the 1930s and ’40s, according to Mark Auslander, a historian who has researched the history of Black and enslaved

peoples in Newton County.

This feeling of having spaces that were out of bounds is one familiar to Anderson Wright, the Oxford Historical Society’s president. Growing up in the 1940s in the segregated city of Oxford, he recalled being told by his father to not go “certain places.”

So, when asked what she thought about the Confederate monument that has stood in the middle of downtown Covington for more than a century, Williams said she didn’t know what they were talking about as a child.

“I didn’t know what was over there because I’d never gone,” Williams said. “I just walked on the perimeter on the sidewalk because that’s what they told us was safest to do growing up.”

As the planned removal of the monument neared a likely final hearing by the Georgia Supreme Court, and Oxford’s city council is set to remove inaccurate historical signage around the city in the coming weeks, Black community members reflected on their experiences growing up in the county.

Controversy in Covington

The Newton County Board of Commissioners on July 9, 2020, voted to remove a 116-year-old monument to Confederate war veterans, prompting a series of protests from advocates on both sides of the issue in the time since.

The Georgia Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was among those who went to court to halt the removal. It appealed to the state’s Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals held that a Newton County court “properly dismissed” requests for a judge to intervene in the removal.

Today, the monument still stands, as the city awaits a final decision from the Supreme Court. Justices are set to consider the appeal Thursday, May 19, and issue a ruling in the months afterward. 

The monument is not the only reminder of the Confederacy and the county’s history of racism at this site. At a motorcycle rally in the square on April 10, a stand displayed several Confederate flags.

When asked if she is affected by such displays, Williams said that it’s the “vitriol” that accompanies them — that people may hate or dislike her solely because of the color of her skin — that troubles her.

Exclusion at Oxford College

For many Black people in the area, the cities of Covington and Oxford have not always been welcoming places. 

In Oxford, particularly, Black people were instrumental in the construction and operation of Oxford from its early days as Emory University's original main campus and its conversion to the university's two-year college. Yet today their contributions remain largely unrecognized save a plaque outside Pierce Hall.

“There are many painful memories,” Auslander said. “The largest had to do with education and labor … African Americans, who had worked at the college since its founding, weren’t able to send their kids there; they were confined to low-income jobs with no job security.”

This was the experience for Wright, who worked in Oxford’s cafeteria in the summertime when he was 15, collecting trays and washing dishes for 50 cents an hour and 25 hours a week.

To him, it felt “just like home” because of its proximity to his house and the fact that his grandmother also worked there, doing laundry for students and faculty. However, Wright was not given the opportunity to enroll at the college, as the institution did not accept its first Black student until 1963. 

Instead, he attended a mechanical trade school in Atlanta before enlisting in the Navy.

Emogene Williams and Ernestine Williams Toles, Williams’ mother and aunt, were born in Covington in 1931. Despite being “brilliant individual[s],” she said the sisters were unable to apply to Oxford because they were Black women.

Williams was given the opportunity to do what her mother and aunt couldn’t. She graduated from Oxford in 1978 and from the university’s Atlanta campus in 1998. 

She proceeded to receive a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctor of Ministry degree through Emory's Candler School of Theology. Williams delivered the keynote address at Oxford’s Commencement ceremony on May 7.

Despite prevailing exclusion, Auslander said the campus acted as a refuge during the Civil War. The college’s Phi Gamma Hall acted as a hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers during this time. Students and faculty members let local Civil Rights legend Forrest Sawyer Jr. “hide out” in dorm rooms while he hid from the county sheriff in the 1960s.

“Ironically, there were certain ways people of color felt relatively safe in Oxford — the college, especially,” Auslander said.

Remembering those passed

Friendships Wright cultivated in Oxford during his childhood followed him throughout his life. During his time on leave from the Navy in Japan, he ran into his friend John Pleny "J.P." Godfrey, who was serving in the Air Force at the time. 

Godfrey, who died in 2020, grew up in nearby Conyers. He was the grandson of Israel Godfrey, a stonemason who likely helped build the chapel at the college.

After Godfrey completed his service in the Air Force, he returned home to Oxford and devoted his life to renewing the area his grandfather helped build, teaming up with Auslander to clean up the Black side of the Oxford Historical Cemetery, which Wright said was “completely in ruins.”

It’s names like these, Williams said, that “aren’t usually placed on any kind of rolls.”

Among the many staff members she appreciated during her time as a student, Williams remembers Sallie Nolley, a cafeteria employee, Mildred Joiner, who worked in her dorm, and Lizzie Perry, a library custodian.

The university’s lack of acknowledgement of the enslaved people who built the college and the Black workers today is a problem Williams is working to change.

In the past year, Williams has worked on Emory’s Twin Memorials Project, an initiative to erect tributes on the campuses honoring the Black people who dedicated their lives to the university.

“This is a beautiful campus,” Williams said. “The flowers, and all of that through the years, have been kept up mainly by people who operate under the radar.”

The university has initiated 18 engagement sessions to get community input on the monuments, which Williams said could range anywhere from a forest to a stream.

Additionally, she fondly remembered her grandmother, Maggie May Scott Williams — nicknamed “Ms. B” — as a “champion for the people” for her dedication to her church community and as a special education teacher.

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed which outlawed the barriers many southern states used to stop Blacks from voting, her grandmother worked as a poll worker and sought to increase voting awareness and participation.

This dedication to civic engagement influenced Williams’ own view of voting as a “responsibility and a privilege.”

“I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote since I was 18,” Williams said. “If two people vote, I’m one of them; if one person votes, it was me.”

The segregated city and unequal treatment of Black people “was the law of the land” when she grew up, she said. At home, however, her grandmother gave her “freedom,” encouraging her to take advantage of her educational opportunities. 

This environment helped her eventually attend the college alongside her childhood friend, the late Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. 

The pair had grown up across the street from each other and shared close family bonds. Johnson made history in the county, becoming the first Black Superior Court judge in the Alcovy Judicial District. After he died in 2020, the college in 2021 rededicated Language Hall in his name, a tribute Williams called “wonderful.”

Williams said that Johnson’s achievements are proof that “change and transformation” can come out of Covington, despite its racist past.

Oxford today

The city remains the site of many remnants of the Confederate South. Historical plaques in Oxford have sparked outrage among community members for the ways they portray the experiences of enslaved people during the university’s founding.

At Kitty’s Cottage, the 1840s residence of Catherine “Kitty” Andrew Boyd — who was enslaved by the college’s first Board of Trustees chairman James O. Andrew — a plaque states that her enslaver offered to free her to Liberia but that she “preferred to remain with the Andrew family.”

This sign, which was placed only 22 years ago, symbolizes what Auslander calls a “white fixation” with fictionalized stories about enslavement, used to alleviate guilt about this time period.

“An excessive focus on the Catherine Boyd story does a kind of violence to the broader story of race and power and justice in Newton County, precisely because the whole obsession with Ms. Kitty by white people was that it made them feel better about slavery,” Auslander said.

“Because, they could say, in their misreading of the historical record, that here is somebody who chose to stay enslaved; therefore, by implication, slavery wasn’t so bad. Well, that’s a nonsensical version of the story anyway, but it’s also a misuse of a piece of history.”

Wright, who helped turn the cottage into a museum, said the sign’s language overstates the autonomy of Catherine Boyd to make this decision, as she was enslaved and, some believe, also a concubine.

While some people refuse to enter the structure due to the controversy, Wright said he believes it’s important “to keep the history” and “tell the part we do know” about the past.

In an attempt to address their history of enslavement and displacement of Black and native people, the university hosted a symposium in the fall of 2021 in which people from the college and city engaged in conversation about the school’s founding and the present-day inequities.

Still, signage around the city reiterates the controversial story about Boyd.

Additionally, the Confederate cemetery at the college has sparked controversy for the words “our soldiers” that are engraved into a monument at the site.

Looking forward

The Oxford City Council voted to remove the signage on Whatcoat Street, across from Old Church, at “Kitty’s Cottage,” in front of City Hall and at the Oxford Historical Cemetery on April 4. The monument at the Confederate cemetery was not included in this vote, as the plaque is on the college’s property and therefore not under direct city government jurisdiction.

Mayor David Eady said in an April 21 email that no date has been set for the sign’s removal but that they’re “coming down soon.” Additionally, the city is in the process of identifying a third party group to facilitate community dialogues from late summer through November or December, which will be used to develop language for new signs.

Williams, who lives in Oxford today and previously served on the city council, said that she “is pleased” with this decision.

“The tenor of the conversation from the Black community has been there are enough signs that point to the fact that our people were enslaved,” Williams said. “When we have the opportunity to righten the situation — if it’s within our power — let’s do so.”

Now, Williams said she’s looking forward.

“Personally, I think there have been enough discussions,” Williams said. “It’s time to take a step back and not continue to point to enslavement. Let’s move on with building a more unified community."