Three leaders of African-American churches in Oconee County called for greater involvement of African-Americans in the county’s future at a meeting of the Oconee County Democrat Party earlier this month.
They also called for a greater appreciation of the contribution of African-Americans to the county’s past.
The goal of that increased involvement, Rev. Joseph Nunnally told Oconee Democrats, is “to make Oconee County one community” sensitive to the views of all its members.
Rev. Nunnally, an Oconee County native, was joined by Rev. J. Ricardo Smith, pastor at Browns Chapel Baptist Church outside Bishop, and Marvin Nunnally, chair of the Board of Bethel Baptist Church in downtown Watkinsville, at the virtual meeting.
Party Co-Chair Eric Gisler introduced the three speakers at the meeting and said he wanted a “conversation” to learn more about the three and their work in the area.
Rev. Smith told the Democrats that Browns Chapel was celebrating its 123rd anniversary this month, emphasizing the deep roots of the church in the community.
That puts the founding of the church at a time when African-Americans made up about half of the population of the county.
The 1890 Census listed the population as 49.7 percent African-American, and that figure increased to 51.3 percent in 1900 before decreasing during the period of the great northern migration of African-Americans.
The percentage has declined steadily to the 5.0 percent in the last Census in 2010, an analysis of Census data shows.
Rev. Nunnally and Marvin Nunnally are cousins who grew up together on Morrison Street, an area of Watkinsville now undergoing development. Marvin Nunnally still lives on Morrison Street, while Rev. Nunnally now lives in the county but outside the city limits of Watkinsville.
Marvin Nunnally in particular focused on the importance of Morrison Street to the history of African-Americans in Watkinsville in the May 20 virtual session of the Democratic Party.
At the candidate forum last Monday (May 24) for Watksinville candidates in the special election on June 15, Nunnally said “A lot of black history’s contributions to Oconee County has been swept under the rug.”
Moderator Tim Bryant, reading Nunnally’s question, asked the candidates “What do you propose to expand the city of Watkinsville’s acknowledgment of these contributions?”
The candidates didn’t have concrete answers.
Bethel Baptist Church joined with the Oconee County Republican Party in sponsoring that forum, which was held at the church.
Only 143 (6.4 percent) of the city’s 2,247 registered voters cast a ballot by the end of the first week of early voting on Friday, according to Assistant Director of Elections and Registration Jennifer Stone.
Early voting will be continue at City Hall from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday and through June 11. No early voting will take place on Saturday or Sunday.
Rev. Nunnally’s Concerns
“Having grown up here, I’ve seen so many changes,” Rev. Nunnally said at the May 20 Democratic Party meeting.
|Rev. Joseph Nunnally|
“I wonder how do we truly work to make Oconee County one community where everyone is taken into consideration regardless of social economic status, regardless of political affiliation?” he asked.
Rev. Nunnally is senior pastor of Rock Hill Baptist Church in White Plains in Greene County and a former middle school principal and assistant superintendent in Greene County Schools.
“How do we find those common grounds where we keep our identity, but at the same time, we serve to make this community a welcome place for all people?” Rev. Nunnally asked.
“Those are the kind of things that are pressing, pressing in my spirit and weigh heavily on my mind,” he said. “Regardless of whether we label ourselves Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party or whatever, we’re humans, human beings first.
“So we have to think about what’s best for the welfare of all people in the midst of the political divide,” he said.
Rev. Smith’s Goals
Rev. Smith said he grew up in Athens, went to school at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and returned to the area nine years ago to be pastor at Browns Chapel.
|Rev. J. Richardo Smith|
Smith said Browns Chapel has “experienced some significant growth” in recent years “but a lot of that growth, up until here recently, a lot of that growth was coming from Clarke County.”
“You know the challenges of what its like being a minority in this community as it relates to political affiliation,” Smith told the Oconee County Democrats.
“We know what its like to be a minority in a number of different ways in this community,” he continued. “That has been a challenge but it is challenge that we preferably take head on.”
“So even though politically and as it relates to race we are the minority,” Smith said, “there needs to be representation in Oconee County.
“I believe some strides are being made in that regard,” he added, “but I think we’d all be lying to ourselves if we said he had got where we wanted to be.”
Marvin Nunnally On History
Marvin Nunnally said he returned to Oconee County after earning his law degree at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta. He currently is coordinator for economic development at Athens Technical.
“I came back here for a purpose,” he said. “And that purpose was to work within my community, work within the confines of Oconee County, the confines of Athens-Clarke County, to try to stimulate change, motivate change.”
Marvin Nunnally had announced his intent to run for the Watkinsville Council in the June 15 special election but did not file qualification papers because of obligations of his work.
“How do we position ourselves–how do we position the Democratic Party, for that matter--to be an instrument of change, to be able to navigate the waters here in Oconee County, Watkinsville, Georgia?” Marvin Nunnally asked.
Marvin Nunnally said he wants something in the county to be named after E.D. Straud School, the black high school formerly located on Morrison Street.
The school replaced the Watkinsville Rosenwald School and was named for Rosenwald School Principal Edwin David Stroud. Both Rosenwald and Straud were segregated schools. The school was renamed Colham Ferry Elementary School in 1996.
Marvin Nunnally said both he and his older cousin Rev. Nunnally graduated from the integrated Oconee County High School.
“I feel like Oconee County has done an injustice in hiding the contributions of people who don’t look like most folks in this county,” Marvin Nunnally said.
Gisler said that Rev. Kevin Daniel, pastor at Bethel Baptist Church, had been invited to the session but could not attend because of a family obligation.
Following the introductory comments by the three invited speakers, Gisler opened the session for discussion.
“Overall I think there is a certain design for a certain social class to move into Oconee County,” Rev. Nunnally said. “There’s an emphasis on if you can afford a half a million dollar home, then this is the place for you.”
Rev. Nunnally said affordable housing “is an area that we must address in some fashion.”
Rev. Smith said his church has adopted a school in Clarke County, where about 60 percent of his congregation lives.
“I reached out to Oconee County Schools,” Rev. Smith said. “I never got a response. It’s not that we don’t want to do more in Oconee. It’s that often times those doors aren’t open.”
“I’ve yet to have a conversation with the mayor of Bishop,” he said.
“Our goal is to build relationships,” Party Co-Chair Melissa Hopkinson said, “build relationships between the different, disparate components of our county.
“We’re all in our little bubbles,” she added. “Our goal tonight and all of our work is hopefully to create connections between the parts of our community that are separated right now. That is kind of the general hope.”
I had begun downloading historical Census Bureau reports for Georgia prior to the May 20 Democratic Party meeting in anticipation of the release of the 2020 Census data and to help me understand the impact of the Great Migration on Oconee County.
While many of these decennial Census reports include data from the previous year and occasionally from further back in time, there is no cumulative file at the county level that shows changes by race.
I worked through the individual reports back through 1880 for Oconee, Clarke, and Greene counties.
Oconee County and Clarke County divided in 1875, so the 1880 Census was the first for Oconee County as a separate entity.
I looked at the data for Clarke and Greene for comparisons, since they are linked to Oconee county on the north and south historically by road and rail.
Overall Trends, Racial Categories
Clarke County had 11,702 residents in the 1880 Census, and Oconee County had 6,351. Greene County had 17,547.
In the 2010 Census, Oconee County’s number had grown to 32,808 and Clarke’s had grown to 116,714. Greene County, in contrast had lost population, ending with 15,994 residents.
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Those figures will change with the 2020 Census. Oconee County is projected in the latest Census Bureau estimate for 2019 to have 40,280 residents. For Clarke, that projection is 128,31. For Greene it is 18,324.
I have not been able to find racial data at the county level for the 1880 Census.
Beginning in 1890, data are reported for Whites and Negroes. In 1920 though 1940, the category was Whites, Negroes, and Others, but there were no Others in Oconee County.
In 1950 and 1960, Negroes and Others were combined. In 1970, Negroes were separated from Others, but there were only two Others in Oconee County. From 1980 to 2010, Blacks/African Americans were separate from Others.
I have combined the Negro and Other data for 1890 to 1970 and used the term African-American throughout in the Charts.
Two Waves Of Migration
The Census Bureau refers to two waves of the Great Migration, from 1910 to 1940 and from 1940 to 1970.
Georgia’s African-American population dropped from 45.1 in 1910 to 34.7 in 1940 and dropped to 25.9 in 1970. The percentage has increased each Census since and stood at 30.5 in 2010.
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Clarke County looks similar to the state, with a decrease from 50.6 percent African-American in 1910 to 35.4 in 1940 and a continued decrease to 19.6 in 1970. The percentage has increased each 10 years since.
Greene County saw a drop from 62.9 percent African-American in 1910 to 52.2 percent in 1940 but then saw little change to 1970 (51.8 percent) and then sharp declines from 1970 to 2010.
Oconee County had a sharp drop from 46.5 percent in 1910 to 29.8 percent in 1940 and a further drop to 16.1 percent in 1970. The percent African-American has continued to decrease from 1970 to 2010.
In 1890 the percentage of Oconee County that was African-American was 51.3, and that figure dropped to 5.0 in 2010.
To say that Oconee County changed dramatically is an understatement, and the change made the county different from the two neighboring counties in a striking way.
The change is striking in raw numbers as well as in percentages.
Oconee County had 3,832 African-Americans living within its boundaries in 1890. That number increased to 5,162 in 1910.
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Since 1910, however, the number of African-Americans has dropped and reached 1,635 in 2010.
This gave Browns Chapel a much larger group of Oconee County residents from which to draw congregants at the time of its founding in 1898 than it has today.
The number of Whites has increased from 3,881 in 1890 to 29,004 in 2010.
Oconee County has gotten more diverse, that is, less White, in the last two Censuses, going from 89.6 percent to 88.4 percent White.
The percentage of the population that is Asian has increased from 1.4 percent to 3.1, and the percentage that is two or more races has increased from 0.9 percent to 1.4 percent.
The percentage that was labeled as African-American, however, decreased from 6.4 percent to 5.0 percent.
The Nunnallys were particularly focused on Watkinsville, and I have been able to locate only small amounts of data on the population of Watkinsville from the Census Bureau reports.
Based on those data, 13.1 percent of Watkinsville was African-American in 1980.
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That figure dropped in each of the subsequent Censuses to 6.3 in 2010.
The actual number of African-Americans has increased from 163 in 1980 to 179 in 2010.
The total number of Watkinsville residents increased from 1,240 in 1980 to 2,832 in 2010.
The late Albert Ward, in his self-published collection of his columns from The Oconee Enterprise, “In Good Hands: Growing Up In Depression and War,” reported that the 1920 Census counted 445 residents of Watkinsville, with "a quarter" of them Negro.
That would translate to 111 African-Americans in 1920, compared with 179 in the 2010 Census.
The first video below is from the Democratic Party meeting of May 20.
Gisler introduced the three speakers at 10:54 in the video, beginning with Rev. Nunnally, followed by Melvin Nunnally and then Rev. Smith.
The video was recorded via Zoom.
The video below is of the April 15, 2021, meeting of the Oconee County Democrats.
Nunnally referred to the meeting in his comments, and I had not uploaded this video until now.
A Young Democrat from Oconee County High School and a Young Democrat from North Oconee High School spoke at the meeting.