Rev. T.A. Bryant, Jr.

Rev. T.A. Bryant, Jr.

Volunteer archivist JoyEllen Freeman and President Johnny Waits organize archival material.

Volunteer archivist JoyEllen Freeman and President Johnny Waits organize archival material.

The South River at Flat Rock

The South River at Flat Rock

Price, Vivian, The History of DeKalb County, Georgia, 1822-1900. Fernandina Beach, FL:  Wolfe Publishing Company, 1997.

Price, Vivian, The History of DeKalb County, Georgia, 1822-1900. Fernandina Beach, FL:  Wolfe Publishing Company, 1997.

The Lyon farm

The Lyon farm

President Johnny Waits at Flat Rock Cemetery

President Johnny Waits at Flat Rock Cemetery

1846 Mitchell map of Georgia showing Flat Rock

1916 Flat Rock Methodist Church

1916 Flat Rock Methodist Church

Ella King Waits

Ella King Waits

1903 Flat Rock School picture

1903 Flat Rock School picture

1944 Flat Rock School picture (photo courtesy Narvie Jordan Harris)

1944 Flat Rock School picture (photo courtesy Narvie Jordan Harris)

Flat Rock Archives

Flat Rock Archives

History of Flat Rock Archives

In 1981, Flat Rock native, Johnny Waits, developed the vision for an archives dedicated to the history of Flat Rock. This vision was realized in December 2006 when the Flat Rock Archives was officially opened to the public. Its founders included Johnny Waits, Vera L. Whitaker, and Rev. T.A. Bryant Jr., the son of  T.A. Bryant, Sr., and the donor of the 1917 Georgian cottage that houses the Flat Rock Archives. Rev. T.A. Bryant Jr. is also the grandfather of actor and comedian Chris Tucker.

The Flat Rock Archives contains a wide range of archival material, including genealogical records, newspapers, photographs, maps, church records, school records, rare books, and various artifacts relating to African American history and Georgia history. The Archives also maintains the original farmland, barn, smokehouse, and outhouse that were built along with the home in the early twentieth century. The Flat Rock Archives has received both local and national recognition for its heritage preservation efforts, including awards from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, The Society of Georgia Archivists, and a special feature on African American Lives featuring Dr. Henry Louis, Gates Jr.

JoyEllen Freeman, the Outreach/Special Collections Archivist at Kennesaw State University, is currently helping the Archives organize its material.

 

 

 

 

 

 

History of Flat Rock Community

The unincorporated community of Flat Rock, Georgia, is one of the oldest continuously occupied African American communities in Georgia, beginning in the waning days of slavery and surviving war, Jim Crow, depression, the KKK, and the Great Migration of African Americans to the north in the twentieth century. The remarkable story of Flat Rock is preserved at Flat Rock Archives and shared with all those interested in the rural African American experience.

There is a place in the South River, which flows from present-day Atlanta southeast and empties into the Ocmulgee, where the underlying granite bedrock is exposed, providing an excellent river crossing. The Native Americans, who called the river Weelahnee, crossed here and the first European Americans followed their trails. Today that stretch is called Panola Road and the area around it unincorporated Flat Rock Community.

In 1821 the area was lightly settled by the Native Americans. Cherokee towns lay to the northwest on the Chattahoochee River. Creek towns lay to the south. DeKalb County (formed in 1822 from Henry County to the south) was within Creek territory but functioned essentially as a buffer area between the two tribes. In 1821, after the Native Americans were forced to cede the land,  European Americans held a land lottery and began to establish farms in the area and brought with them their African American enslaved people.

Although the South River here is now the dividing line between DeKalb and Rockdale Counties, the crossing has seemed to unite the people on both sides of the river in the past. A town grew up at the natural crossing and in 1836 a post office was established called Flat Rock[1] which served both sides of the river. This place became a crossing for many subsequent roads radiating out from there and is one of the few places marked on most antebellum maps of Georgia.

The terrain did not lend itself to the large cotton plantations of the coast or even the Black Belt just south of DeKalb County, hence the farms were more modest and the number of slaves per farm was smaller. The exception was the 725-acre Panola Plantation assembled by Charles Latimer.[2] The Lyon farm, just south of the Archive along the PATH, is one of the small farms that has survived the passage of time and remains the oldest house in DeKalb County. The cellar contains a hearth and, according to oral history, housed some of the enslaved people who worked on the Lyon farm. DeKalb County was primarily rural until the 1960s and this southern part remained rural until suburbs began to supplant farm fields and forests in the 1990s.

Just north of the Lyon farm, on a knoll above a small tributary of the South River was a spot too rocky to easily till and with a reputation as an Indian graveyard. It may have become a place where only slaves were buried that is now called Flat Rock Cemetery and half of it is owned by the Flat Rock Archives. Tours of the cemetery are available by appointment.

By 1846 Flat Rock was becoming somewhat of a backwater as the old roads gave way to the new organizing principle of the railroad. In the somewhat skewed 1846 August Mitchell “A New Map of Georgia With Its Roads & Distances,” Flat Rock is bypassed by major roads and railroads.[3] All roads lead to Decatur and Covington, both served by the railroad.

By the 1850s the pressure of abolitionists had made the south very self conscious about the treatment of its slaves. Some of the more devout masters reacted by bringing slaves into their churches (as in nearby Rock Chapel Methodist Church), formed slave churches that they controlled (as in Mount Pleasant in north DeKalb County), or allowed slaves to form their own. Bentley Hill Methodist Church was formed just south of Flat Rock in 1859 and served the enslaved population on both sides of the river. Frustrated by high water on the South River too many times, congregants on the north side formed their own church, Flat Rock Methodist, in 1860 on Flat Rock Road. These slave churches rarely involved an actual building, although there were exceptions (Rocky Mount Baptist in Henry County). Often church histories tell of a “brush arbor” sometimes followed by a “tabernacle,” a large covered area with open sides, and this is the case with Flat Rock. That tabernacle stood until the 1930s. In 1870, the congregation was able to erect a fine wood church which stood until 1970 when a more modern brick building (still extant) was built on the property.

The Civil War brought little military action to Flat Rock, but the natural river crossing did serve Sherman’s men who foraged the area in 1864. They stripped it of all of its corn reserves and added to the impoverishment of the inhabitants, including the newly freed slaves.

However, the vacuum left by the departing European American power structure in Flat Rock was filled by a new community, the emerging African Americans. After the war, the freedmen’s churches were the institutional center of African American life, providing spiritual and material help. The families of Waits, McKnight, Henderson, Bryant, Reid, and Holt were prominent in the early Flat Rock Methodist Church.

A photograph of schoolchildren likely taken in 1903, indicates that there was a formal school in the Flat Rock Church at that time. In 1908 land was acquired across the road from the church for the Flat Rock School.[4] Built by the community, Reverend T.A. Bryant, Jr., born in 1922, remembers tagging along with his siblings at age 4 to school and thought “it was old then.” It was a two-story wood structure with space for the Riverside#454 Masonic Lodge in the second story. This was a common arrangement in rural Georgia.[5] The Lodge was another important institution for African Americans in the Flat Rock Community that provided scholarships for students, insurance and death benefits, and helped widows and orphans or anyone who needed help. The young women’s auxiliary group was called the Eastern Star and the older women’s group the Royal Arch.

Although many families make up the Flat Rock Community, Reverend Bryant’s family embodies it. His grandfather Spencer Bryant (1864-1946) was a trustee in Flat Rock Methodist Church. His father, T.A. Bryant, Sr. (1894-1987), was also a trustee, as well as a high-ranking Wishful Master in the Masonic Lodge. T.A. Bryant, Sr., played an important role in keeping the community together when so many African Americans were leaving the south for jobs elsewhere. In the documentary “Where Home Is” and in the Chris Tucker segment of Henry Louis Gates’ series “African American Lives” it is described how he managed to buy 43 acres of land for 600 dollars from E.J. Evans in 1925.[6] In 1946 T.A. Bryant, Sr., managed to buy the house and land on Crossvale Road that he and his family had rented from the Souths for 75 dollars a year since 1916.[7]  In subsequent years, he sold off parts of his property to African American members of the community in order to give them a stake and an opportunity to improve their circumstances here, rather than leaving.

But the forces of racism also shaped the Flat Rock Community. African Americans were not allowed to own property on major roads; roads where they lived were not maintained by the county; by law, their schooling could not exceed the seventh grade and they were not allowed to attend the white schools nor were schools provided. In 1933 or 1934, T. A. Bryant, Sr.’s barn burned under mysterious circumstances, killing his prize mules, Cora and Dora. In 1935 three African American schools in the area were burned in one night--County Line, Miller Grove, and Flat Rock. Flat Rock School was held in Flat Rock Methodist Church across the road for the next 12 years .

Flat Rock Community in the early twentieth century was a rural farming community, growing cotton, corn, wheat, oats, produce, sorghum cane, peanuts, as well as cows, chickens, and pigs.[8] What was not used by the family was bartered with neighbors or sold in Lithonia or Atlanta for cash. The boys and some of the girls would miss months of school in the spring and fall helping the family plant and harvest. Although automobiles were adopted by many in the 1920s, electricity, running water, and telephones did not reach most homes until after World War II. Reverend Bryant remembers that the Depression made very little difference in their lives, since they grew most of their food, bartered with surplus, and needed little cash.

The fourth weekend of August was Homecoming at Flat Rock Methodist Church followed by five nights of revival, bringing families together whose members might have moved out of the community. Many Sundays after church, baseball was played at the field on T.A. Bryant, Sr.’s land on Crossvale Road, hosting teams from Richard’s Chapel and Livingston Chapel in Newton County, and other African American churches in surrounding counties. On those days, Joe Kelley’s store was a popular meeting place on Evans Mill Road. He sold kerosene, cold drinks, ice, crackers, candy, produce, and other items.  In 1943 the Flat Rock Café was built of granite on Crossvale Road and, with a jukebox, was a gathering place for young people until the late 1950s or early 1960s. It has served as storage and a residence since, and is now overgrown but still standing.

In 1947 the Flat Rock School was rebuilt across the road from Flat Rock Methodist Church and the Masonic Lodge once again inhabited the second floor. But only three months after it was built, the DeKalb County African American schools were consolidated under the Jeanes plan to give students access to better resources.[9] Thenceforth, Flat Rock Community students were bused to Lithonia Colored School, which had been built in 1938. (It was subsequently renamed Bruce Street School when textbooks intended for the white school were erroneously delivered there.) Flat Rock students had to ride in the back of the bus which also took white students to school in Lithonia. The lodge continued to meet in the old school building until it was burned in 1981, presumably by white youths seen leaving the area.

The 1990s brought big changes to the area as Atlanta suburbs expanded and subdivisions popped up on every road.  In 2005, Flat Rock United Methodist Church purchased land around the corner on Evans Mill Road and once again built a more modern structure. In 2006 Flat Rock Archive was incorporated as a non-profit in the Bryant home on Crossvale Road. The same year the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area was formed to encompass the many natural and man made wonders of the area. And in 2007 Flat Rock Elementary School was dedicated on Evans Mill Road, not far from the original school on Flat Rock Road.

Although Flat Rock Community officially became part of Lithonia, it still retains its own identity within the black community and proudly maintains its heritage.

[1] http://www.postalhistory.com/postoffices.asp?task=display&state=GA&county=Henry accessed 1/15/2013.

[2] Garrett, Franklin. Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events 1880s-1930s. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011, p. 112.

[3] http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/histcountymaps/ga1846map.htm

[4] Book 994, p. 130, DeKalb County Deeds.

[5] Merritt, Carole. Historic Black Resources: A Handbook for the Identification, Documentation, and Evaluation of Historic African-American Properties in Georgia. Atlanta, GA: Historic Preservation Section, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 1984, p. 47.

[6] Book 1684, p. 231, DeKalb County Deeds.

[7] Book 2402, p. 431, DeKalb County Deeds.

[8] This and the following from taped interviews of Reverend T. A. Bryant, Jr. (2007, 2008), Martha Wise Williams (2007), Stella Stanford Sanford (2007), George and Betty Lyon (2006). Flat Rock Archives.

[9] Mason, Herman “Skip,” Jr. African-American Life in DeKalb County, 1823-1970. Images of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1998, p. 67. 

The Flat Rock Archives is open to the public on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment.  

Reverend T.A. Bryant Jr.at age 19.

Reverend T.A. Bryant Jr.at age 19.