Sunday, July 9, 2017

Primer on The Terry

My grandfather was born in Augusta, the corner room of his mother's tea-room back in 1920. It was a boarding house she owned for medical students. The labor went so long that she invited the medical students in to witness the birth of James. Weighing in at over 13 pounds, he was the last baby my great grandmother would birth. And to think he wasn't the heaviest baby; Aunt Helen weighed 14 pounds.

Sometimes I think that my grandfather grew up very, very poor- he would say how he lived in the orphanage for a few years during the Great Depression as his family could not afford to care for him. Other times, I think he was on the wealthier side as he introduced me to his valet, an African-American gentleman who lived in a small house with no air conditioning and a television with bunny rabbit ears in the late 1980s.

This has nothing to do with my grandfather, rather where that tea room was located. On Railroad Avenue, just a step from the railroad tracks- those tracks being the only thing that separated my family from "The Terry." Short for "The Territory" or "The Verdery's Terry" was where the negroes [sic] of this time lived. It was loosely bound by 15th Street, Gwinnett Street and the train tracks. As late as 1938, the streets were still unpaved and there was no electricity. Imagine stepping back in time... and then stepping further back in time.

At the southeast corner of Gwinnett and 11th Street, the church of the Immaculate Conception provided mass for the Black Catholics of the area. My Southern Uncles, Griggs and Billy, were the only white babies to ever be baptized at the Immaculate Conception as that was the closest church to where their mother lived.

Southern Aunts and Uncles are those people called "Aunt" or "Uncle" who were not the parents' siblings. Griggs was my grandfather's nephew. That being said, Griggs' mother- James' oldest sister- raised my grandfather for several years.

I digress...

The Terry was on the southeast side of town and there were many, many churches there. All members of any church had to pay dues to offset funeral expenses of the departed members. Through The Terry, there were signs, misspelled and grammatically poor:

"Ugly but Honest" Grocery
"Char-coal for sail here" 
"Miners for fish bait here" [minnows]

The rank and file negroes [sic] of unskilled labor called "The Terry" home. The homes rented in 1938 for $5-$8.50/month with no electricity, but they did have running water. In the dollars of today, that would be $85-$150/month for running water and a leaky roof.

The last of my grandfather's generation died a few years ago and I wish I could just ask him a few more questions... Reaching out to Griggs, the next oldest family member, he recommended calling his oldest brother's widow, Mary. Mary lives in Pensacola and is 90 years old, making her 17 years younger than the Hickman murder. She's as close as I can get, so I set to call.

"Mary, I doubt you remember me, but please give me a moment and let me explain who I am..."
[your husband's uncle's granddaughter]

"Dahlin', how could I ever forget you and your precious brother? R-A-C-H-E-L. Do you remember that?"

I laugh, remembering the story from years ago-- all 4 years of me telling Mary that I could spell my name.

Mary's grandfather founded the Augusta Herald in the early 1890s. Today, she has 11 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. After some updates on my family, I tell her why I am calling.

"The Terry," a pause, "Oh yes. I know about it."

It was the way she said it that clearly gave me more information about The Terry than any research I could have done.

We went in and out of conversation about The Terry and little reminders of her family. She would say things like, "It ran along D'Antignac Street-- that was an old Augusta name from Colonial times and the American Revolution," "There was a murder almost every week in The Terry. Or maybe there was almost a murder every week? Regardless, we did not go down there."

Mary grew up over on Ellis Street, closer to Sacred Heart Catholic Church and not at the outskirts of The Terry. "Our black people were members of our family. They lived behind our church. They tore those dog trots down off 13th street years ago. Progress or something..." she trails off.

As we concluded our conversation, she told me that her people didn't say in Augusta and she said the nicest thing, I don't even think she knew what she was saying when she said it: "They could not tough it out like the Brennans did."

Those Brennans-- they're hard as nails and tough as rocks. Just ask any one of them.

Now, you know what I know about "The Terry" and we can get back to 1910 and Dr. Hickman's murder.

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