For local historian and activist Flemmie Pitts, hardwork has been an integral part in preserving Newton County’s Black history, while also providing opportunities for today’s youth.
As one of the kick-starters for the Washington Street Community Center’s renovations in the 1980s and 1990s, Pitts’ motivation comes from a personal sentiment.
“Through all of my trials and tribulations, I found out what my calling [is],” Pitts said. “That’s what I tell the kids. Once you realize what God created you for, you just do it. He [is] gonna take care of you every day. But other people don’t see it that way.
“Newton County [has] a lot of history,” Pitts said. “A lot of Black and White history but much of the Black history has never been told, which I think that’s what put me as an activist. I call this the rock of the Black community.”
Born in Atlanta in 1941, Pitts’ familial roots in Newton County extends multiple generations, establishing in the early 1800s. Pitts was introduced to the county at four years old, when he began working on his grandfather’s farm, located near what is now labeled as the Hub.
After moving to the area, Pitts attended several schools: Grave’s Chapel, Washington Street School and R.L. Cousins High School. All of said schools provided education to Black students specifically. While in high school, however, Pitts made the decision to drop out.
“My mom was just a day worker,” Pitts said. “Food was slacking in the house. She had four boys. I left [R.L.] Cousins, one of my distant cousins was there. And he really didn’t have to do it, [but] he followed me. I told him, ‘I gotta go, I gotta go find a job, help my mom.’ I could hear her crying at night.”
The day he left school, Pitts hitchhiked up Old Atlanta Highway to the City of Avondale Estates in Atlanta, where he found work at a car lot. Pitts said he will never forget the guy who hired him to clean up the cars.
A lot of [Black people] were educated on this hill. Doctors, professors, lawyers, you name it.Flemmie Pitts
Carpooling to work each day with friends, Pitts’ decision to sacrifice an education to help his family paid off. In 1964, Pitts started working as a janitor at Ford Motor Company’s Hapeville plant. At the time, custodial jobs were the only positions Ford offered to Black people.
“All the [Ford] plants [were] integrated except Louisiana and Atlanta,” Pitts said. “When I went to work out there, we had [a] separate water fountain to drink out of, although we cleaned them all up. But then by 1965, they integrated the plant.”
Following integration, Pitts can recall the changes it brought forth in the workplace.
“It was a big change. Most all the [Black men] at any plant [were] janitors,” Pitts said. “Opportunity opened up, they could then go to production on a lot of other jobs. Some of them did, but I didn’t. I always do the ‘Wait and see attitude.’”
Pitts worked with Ford for 32 years and retired in the mid 1990s.
Upon retirement, rest was not on Pitts’ agenda. The restoration and refurbishment of his former school — now the Washington Street Community Center — was one of his top priorities for the sake of providing others with something he sacrificed.
“A lot of [Black people] were educated on this hill. Doctors, professors, lawyers, you name it,” Pitts said. “You can be educated and still be unemployed, but you [have] a better chance, I guess. I ain’t gonna say I got lucky, God was just on my side. People look out for you. God can make way for people, too.”
Pitts visits the Washington Street Community Center daily, mentoring approximately 42 children. He previously served as the center’s president on the board of directors. Years removed, Pitts’ status as a role model has never deviated.
“I’m everything,” Pitts said. “Somewhere you gotta be disciplined. Some of them we just can’t help. But the one you can, that’s what makes you proud. Many of them you can take off the street and you can help.”
Aside from his service at Washington Street, Pitts has served his community in other facets, such as holding positions as a trustee chairman at his church for 23 years and on the recreation commission in 2000. As a husband and father of one, Pitts — a “people person’’ — continues to find joy in being around the people of Newton County.
“My legacy [is] for youth and older people,” Pitts said. “Being around them and the energy, it helps you and your body and everything. When you’re out there with them, you’re more mobile.
“Everybody’s gotta have a place to call home. And everybody can’t leave home.”