A familiar experience for anyone whose parents have passed away is the inevitable, and unenviable, chore of sorting through all the items they accumulated over many decades. There are few tasks as bittersweet as clearing out your family home, though in the process you sometimes run across little, unexpected mementos from your life.
During one of these episodes of sorting through stuff, I discovered, buried deep in a cabinet packed with stacks of old Life magazines and other papers, a yellowed newspaper clipping I’d never seen before. It told the story about the time my parents’ house caught on fire, but revealed something else as well.
I’d heard the tale about the house fire many times growing up. When I was still just a baby, my parents had bought a house on the low hilltop where I would spend most of my childhood. Before moving into the house, my parents were having it renovated, which included adding a bathroom. Perhaps it didn’t have one already, which wouldn’t necessarily be unusual for an older house in rural Georgia in those days. One set of my grandparents never had one.
At some point while the work was underway, a fire broke out for some reason and quickly got out of control. According to family lore, the only thing that was saved was a cast-iron bath tub, which one of the workmen rescued by picking up and single-handedly throwing out the window. A least, that’s how I remember the story.
So naturally, it was interesting to see an actual newspaper account of this bit of oral family history.
My parents’ fire was only one of four fires reported in that newspaper story, recapping what must have been a very eventful week in my hometown. In addition to the three other house fires, there was a more dramatic account of how a runaway lumber truck had crashed into a local restaurant. I love some of the details in the description of the damaged caused by the truck:
”The truck demolished the front of the building and wrecked a deep freezer, television set, tables, chairs and a soft drink cooler before finally mowing down a row of counter stools.”
“...mowing down a row of counter stools.” Great visual, there.
Anyway, it was a quaint little window to the past and some small-town events that have now almost faded from living memory.
Turning the clipping over, I found another little window to the past contained in another story. Only a part of that story was visible in the clipping, but it obviously concerned a major issue of Georgia state politics of the day -- voter registration.
In particular, the story discussed a debate over proposed changes that would enforce “tougher qualifications” for citizens wanting to vote in Georgia. In other words, changes that would make it harder for folks to exercise their right to vote. Apparently, as part of this effort the then-governor Marvin Griffin had proposed requiring voters to renew their registration every six months and pay a one-dollar “poll tax”.
As the newspaper article explained, a committee in the state legislature had come out against those two particular changes. The committee found the changes sought by the governor to be too restrictive. The reason, however, for the committee’s opposition is very telling (emphasis added in the passage below).
“Rep. Howard T. Overby of Hall County said he will move to replace Griffin’s proposals with less-far reaching voter registration changes recommended by a special study committee.
“The study committee’s proposals provide tougher qualifications for voting in Georgia but do not include the governor’s plan for a bi-annual re-registration and $1 poll tax.
“There is considerable opposition in the Legislature to Griffin’s proposal – particularly the poll tax and re-registration requirements. The governor’s plan is designed to curb Negro voting but would apply to white voters also.”
Just a reminder, though to modern eyes a pretty glaring one, of how in the Georgia of the mid-1950s -- surely not unlike the Alabama that newly minted and controversial Attorney General Jeff Sessions came of age in -- politicians who wanted to keep African-Americans from voting didn’t have to be coy about it. Not coy at all.