As people drive through the small city of Porterdale to get to and from the city of Covington and to their homes and businesses within the county, they may not realize that the city — which was one of several booming mill towns in Georgia for much of the early 1900’s — is home to the historic black community of Rosehill.
The community sits in the northeast section of Porterdale, and in the early 1900’s was a cluster of homes built for blacks who worked in the mills owned by the Bibb Manufacturing Company— a cotton and textile industry that originated from Macon in 1876, which thrived for more than a century and was one of Georgia’s largest employers by the mid-1950’s before it’s decline in 1998.
As the community of Porterdale developed for all those who worked at the Bibb, so did the community of Rosehill, which many have fond memories of.
Kay Coggin, president of the Friends of Porterdale and the daughter of the late Lucille Ivey Shaw, flipped through the pages of her mother’s book, “Diary of a Cotton Mill Girl,” and reminisced this week about the once-thriving mill community.
According to Shaw’s writings, in 1937, Bibb decided to build a school for black children that lived in Rosehill. The school also served as a church. Bibb hired a teacher and secured the services of a minister for the new building in the community.
“The residents of that small community were proud of their new building and took pride in keeping it clean,” Shaw wrote.
The little brick building, which once housed school children and echoed religion through its walls, still remains today. Shaw also wrote that the Bibb officials and town officials always attended the special programs they were invited to attend in Rosehill.
“Bibb decided to let the residents of Rosehill have one of the houses in their community for a club house. They had a very good (base)ball team that made the Porter team look sad in comparison,” Shaw wrote. “Later, the Porterdale Woman’s club, under the leadership of Mrs. John Turner, helped the women in Rosehill organize a woman’s club. One of the best friends this community had was their leader and pastor, (the) Rev. James Brown.”
Coggin said she has few memories about Rose Hill, but she remembered that the entire town of Porterdale, including Rosehill, was well kept by crews who mowed the lawns and painted the houses. It’s a memory Coggin shares with others who worked with Bibb or grew up in the Rosehill and Porterdale communities.
Local civil rights icon Richard Johnson, 74, who worked in the mill during his early 20’s, also remembered Porterdale and Rosehill being a beautiful, well-kept town. Johnson said the mill was segregated within and that many blacks only had the jobs of sweeping the floors. However, Johnson said Bibb had a great reputation for taking care of everyone in the mill community.
At the peak of the hill on which Rosehill sits are several homes, which still house the descendants of one family who lives to tell the story of how simple and pleasing life used to be in the tight-knit community.
Xavier McKnight Sr., 52, said his paternal great grandmother Pearlie H. McKnight, who was born in 1889, settled in the community of Rosehill more than 100 years ago and worked for the mill for 45 years; and his maternal great grandfather Genie Brewer, who was born in 1889, also lived in the community of Rosehill and worked as plumber for the community of Porterdale.
Xavier said the house he lives in today was his great grandfather’s house. He said the home once served as a schoolhouse and church, before several other homes were developed in the community and the brick building was built by Bibb as a school and church.
Though Xavier was born in the 1960’s, he said he had the opportunity to work at the mill in the late 1970’s. Based off of his memories and the stories told by his great grandparents and grandparents, he shared what it was like to live in the community of Rosehill.
“In the village we had a grocery store, we had a clothing store, we had a theatre, we had a swimming pool, we had a doctor, we had a little hospital, we had a gymnasium, we had school, we had churches, all this was in the village within a mile,” Xavier said. “The Bibb took care of the entire community.
“I like the family ties out here. We had a baseball team out here my granddaddy [Carlton McKnight] did and that motivated summer time and the community get-togethers.”
“I lot of people that came, they came from slave plantations. This was one of the first industrialized places that allowed some of the blacks to come out of the cotton fields and work in machinery and stuff,” Xavier said. “Most blacks had to past through this little town in order to go to the next step in life. If you didn’t work in the mill, you couldn’t stay up here in the village. If you were a trouble maker up here in the village you got put out.”
Next door, one generation above Xavier, two of his aunts — Camille McKnight and Nadia McKnight, relax in one of the first houses built in the Rosehill community. Camille and Nadia are two of nine children of Carlton and Bessie Kate McKnight.
Camille, one of the middle children of the McKnight family, thinks back to what Rosehill used to be. She remembers her family telling her stories of how her grandfather helped build the mill and attending school in the brick building across the street from her house.
“I remember going to elementary school there when I turned six. They had church in there on Sunday and then they had this big bell and on Sunday morning around 10 o’clock the bell went off for Sunday school,” Camille said.
“The house right there by the church, that was a community house and that’s where we ate breakfast and lunch.”
Camille and her sister, Dorothy McKnight Blackshear, 77, who lives in California, both said many people in the community of Rosehill looked forward to Christmas, when Bibb would distribute edible gifts to families.
“They took care of us, and at Christmas time it was really the only time that blacks and whites got together,” Camille said. “They would have a Christmas program down at that gym and they had shoe boxes decorated and each child would get a box with two apples, two oranges, two tangerines peppermint sticks and all that.”
Blackshear and Camille said overall, her family and other black families who lived in the community of Rosehill had a good life. They said children were provided with an education, families were fed and everyone kept to themselves.
“We had it good. They took care of the black people and even though it was a different look than the downtown area in the black section, they took care of the houses and the people there,” Blackshear said.
“I thought I was rich until I left from here and saw how other people lived because we didn’t have anything to worry about,” Camille said.