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A life apart
A long-time resident shares her experience of growing up black in Newton County
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From her small home in the historically black Sandhill community in Covington, 78-year-old Emogene Williams has seen it all. She's seen crosses burned by members of the local Ku Klux Klan in neighbors' lawns and she has seen the first black president elected to office.

So great is Williams' memory that she can recall which family owned what plot of land in Sandhill going back many decades. She also vividly recalls what it was like living in a segregated city in the 1930s and 1940s where, for instance, black residents had their own designated entrance at the old courthouse.

"If you had business to attend to you went in the backdoor," said Williams, a retired teacher from Ficquett Elementary School and the great grand-daughter of the Rev. Toney Baker, who founded the first black church in the county – Bethlehem Baptist Church.

While Williams said she "was never mistreated" by white residents in Covington she was aware of the activities of the local Ku Klux Klan who would target local black residents they believed were behaving too familiarly with white residents for punishment and public humiliation.

"The KKK was like the Rotary. Anyone who was anyone belonged to the KKK," Williams said.

Growing up, Williams recalled that all black children knew they needed to be off the streets and inside before nightfall or else risk becoming a target for racial harassment by white residents.

"They burned crosses on Washington Street," Williams said of Klan activities.

Walking to school on Washington Street could sometimes be an ordeal for black children Williams said as they came across white children walking to their own elementary school on Conyers Street.

"The white children, they were just that ignorant. They would call you every name and spit on you and you couldn't fight back," Williams said, adding that black children regularly didn't report the harassment out of a belief that nothing would be done about it by their parents or by Covington law enforcement officials.

The all-black Washington Street School Williams attended mysteriously burned down in 1939 and for a few years, black students had to be educated in local churches before the Washington Street School was rebuilt and opened on School Street in 1941.

"Most blacks and most whites knew the fire was set," Williams said, adding "No one was ever arrested."

When it comes to Covington's history of racism and prejudice, Williams said "this town is no better than any other small town."

Still, despite all of the travails that came with living in a racially segregated society, Williams said the black community in Covington was in some ways stronger and more united then than it is today.

"Blacks went to church on Sunday and they worked all day. Blacks owned property on the [Covington] square," Williams said.

Williams said there was a great sense of identity among black residents because of their shared experiences through church, work and school that gave them a strong sense of identity and shared-community in the face of institutional prejudice and racism.


This is part one of a weekly series exploring Newton County’s black history through the eyes of local residents.