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African-American Heritage
Historical Jonesboro, National Archives showcase Clayton families

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Virginia Freeman Ford beamed with pride, as she looked at an undated photo of her great-great-grandfather, Anderson Freeman, and his brother, Austin Freeman.

The two slaves, born in the 1830s, pose proudly in their best clothes. They would eventually go on to do better things.

"They were very strong minded," said Ford. "They were farmers, and they believed in working."

After the end of slavery, members of the Freeman family became prominent sharecroppers and landowners in the Clayton County area. Freeman Road, in the south end of the county, was named in honor of the family, according to Ted Key, a historian, teacher and member of Historical Jonesboro.

While many freed slaves migrated to Atlanta and to the north from Clayton County after the Civil War, several black families - including the Wilborn, Starr, Arnold, and Turnipseed families - stayed and made their own marks on the county. The pictures, traditions, stories, and oral accounts of those families, and others, will be on display on Feb. 28 at the National Archives, Southeast Region, during Historical Jonesboro/Clayton County, Inc.'s annual African-American Heritage Day.

Key has coordinated the celebration of local African-American history and culture for seven years running. For the first time ever, the celebration will move from the Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro to the National Archives in Morrow.

According to Key, the move will give the program a chance to be appreciated by a wider audience. "The reason we do it is to highlight the contributions of African Americans to our county, our state, and our nation," he said. "We've never had the attendance we want to have, because of advertising. It adds a lot of importance to us to say that we're moving it to the National Archives. Facility wise, it's more room, there are more audio/visual aids, and there is more display area."

According to Key, the black population of Clayton County was around 6 percent from the 1860s to the 1960s. Despite that, several black families were able to make an impact. He said the Eula Wilborn Ponds Perry Learning Center and Arnold Elementary School were named after members of the Wilborn and Arnold families, respectively. The Turnipseed family members became successful farmers, and members of the Starr family integrated Jonesboro High School in the 1960s.

The accounts and histories of those families will be shared through music, a sampling of traditional African food, recorded interviews, and original documents. A gallery of old photographs and artifacts will be on display, as well as a collection of recorded interviews with more than a dozen Jonesboro residents, past and present. The interviews, collected over the course of seven years, will be on public display for the first time.

Jim McSweeney, regional administrator of the National Archives, said hosting the event at the National Archives may encourage locals to begin researching their own family histories at the center. "This is fantastic," said McSweeney. "The National Archives bills themselves as a national resource in a local setting. This is a nice bookend for black history month.

"Teachers, parents, grandparents ... part of their own history, living, breathing documents, are in the archives," he said. "We want to get these people intrigued and excited and [encourage them to] come back and do research."

Ford encouraged the community to come to the event and reconnect with a rarely-shared piece of Clayton County's history. "Just being able to go there and pull information about your family, and show them that they can do that, too ... When I talk about it, I get chills, I get excited," said Ford. "History is very important. We need to pull families together and do more of this."

African-American Heritage Day will take place at the National Archives, Southeast Region, located at 5780 Jonesboro Road in Morrow, on Feb. 28, from 10 a.m., to 2 p.m. Donations will be accepted. For more information, call (770) 473-0197.