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					      Beyond the Wind: Charm & Change in Clayton County, Georgia
                                              By Wanda Mann


The Virginia Reel Deal

                              Dancers in period costumes at Stately Oaks Plantation

Slightly dizzy, I catch glimpses of pretty belles in hoop dresses coyly sipping peach punch as my partner spins
me around the candlelit room. Dressed in the dapper attire of a Southern gentleman of the 1860’s, he is
patient with my clumsy efforts to master that most proper of Victorian party dances, the Virginia Reel. We do-
si-do across the wooden floors of the old one room schoolhouse that shares the grounds of the appropriately
named Stately Oaks plantation house. I find it impossible to completely focus on the dance. The sound of my
own neurotic voice in my head drowns out the sound of the live banjo music. What the hell am I doing? Why in
the world is a New York born, African-American woman and descendent of Southern slaves, partying like it’s
1860 at a plantation in Clayton County, Georgia?

My Mother’s Georgia
Like many African-Americans in their 30’s, I have reaped the benefits of the Civil Rights movement of the
1960’s although I contributed absolutely nothing to the cause. I was not even a thought in my parents’ minds
when Dr. King was marching throughout the South for freedom but my life has been indelibly shaped by the
actions of those brave men and women that put their lives on the line for equality. I was born in New York City
but I always state that I grew up in a very Southern household.

My Mom migrated to New York City from Georgia as a teenager and my Dad from North Carolina. Our
household was in the heart of Manhattan but the soul of our home was Southern. From the foods we ate to the
occasional spankings I received, my parents had left the South but the imprint of their upbringing remained.
Having endured segregated schools and countless indignities in the South, my parents cherished the freedoms

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of New York City but remained true to the core family values that had made it possible to survive during those
dark times.

So imagine my Mom’s surprise when I told her that I would be spending 3 days in Clayton County, Georgia,
which bills itself as “The Official Home of Gone with the Wind.”

“Why, are you going there? Be careful, it’s still the South,” she firmly stated.

Be careful. Those words rang in my ear. Did I really have to be fearful of the South? After all, I kept hearing
about the new South. Atlanta, in particular, was a mecca for Black professionals, students and celebrities. But
I would not actually be staying in the city of Atlanta. Would traveling a mere 15 minutes south on Interstate 75
to Clayton County transport me into a twilight zone of colored only drinking fountains and second class

All Roads Lead to Tara

                                          Exhibition at The Road to Tara Museum

I checked-in to my comfortable room at the Comfort Suites in nearby Stockbridge and began my exploration of
Jonesboro. No trip to Jonesboro would be complete without a visit to The Road to Tara Museum which
celebrates all things Gone with the Wind. Written in 1936 by Margaret Mitchell, this epic Civil War novel was
made into an equally epic movie in 1939 starring Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. Let’s be honest - many Black
people are not big fans of Gone with the Wind and the film evokes a range of emotions from sadness to anger.
Gone with the Wind focuses on the lives of the white slave-owners and the Black characters only purpose in
life is seemingly to joyfully serve their masters. Did Hollywood really think that we would get excited about a
film that perpetuated the myth that Blacks enjoyed slavery?

With this in mind, I enter the Road to Tara Museum with some trepidation. Jonesboro was chosen as the site
for the museum because Margaret Mitchell drew inspiration for her Pulitzer Prize winning book from her
hometown. Her family, the Fitzgeralds, had owned a plantation in Jonesboro and as a little girl Mitchell spent a
great deal of time hearing first hand accounts of the Civil War. (Or the War of Northern Aggression, as it is
sometimes referred to in the Southern states.) However, the plantation named Tara that Mitchell wrote about
does not exist and never did. Tara was inspired by reality but was a fictional portrayal of a plantation home.
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A small museum, many of the objects at the Road to Tara came from the personal collection of local collector
Herb Bridges. I actually had the opportunity to lunch with Mr. Bridges at the lovely Pinehurst Tea Room in
Stockbridge. A charming gentleman of a certain age, Mr. Bridges grew up in rural Georgia and is a former mail
carrier. While sipping sweet tea and dining on salad, Mr. Bridges told me that his comprehensive collection had
started simply enough with a signed first edition copy of the Gone with the Wind. Years later, Bridges had
amassed a collection so impressive that it made $350,000 at an auction at Christies.

Hello Hattie

                                            Hattie Over My Shoulder

Visitors to the Road to Tara Museum can view painstakingly accurate reproductions of the film’s costumes
(including the famous curtain dress), copies of the various international editions of the book, and other
memorabilia. During my visit, the Museum was featuring an exhibition that showcased Hattie McDaniel. The
first African-American to win an Oscar, McDaniel played the role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Boisterous,
big-boned and asexual, Mammy’s world revolved around Miss Scarlett – getting her dressed, feeding her, and
mildly reprimanding her for her bratty ways. Criticized by many African-Americans for her participation in Gone
with the Wind, McDaniel replied, “I would rather play a maid than be one.” Be that as it may, surely McDaniel
must have felt angry and hurt when the racism of the day forbade her from participating in the televised
Academy Awards. Instead, she had to receive her accolade at a separate luncheon. The exhibition includes a
stunning and bittersweet photograph of Ms. McDaniel, dressed to kill with a flower in her hair and smiling
radiantly on the day she received her Oscar. I leave the Road to Tara Museum with mixed feelings but
appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about Ms. McDaniel. Her road was not an easy one to travel. The
Road to Tara Museum reminds me that history is not always pleasant but should not be forgotten.         Stepping
out into the sweet Georgia sunshine, I take a deep breath and leave Tara behind.

Change You Can See

Have things changed? Now more than ever, change has become a buzzword in our country. Barack Obama is
the first African-American to receive the nomination of a major party for President of the United States. Obama
delivered his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin

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Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With eloquence and passion, in 1963 Dr. King wished for an America
where a man would be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. In Jonesboro, I saw
people of all colors, lined around the block to place their early vote for the next American President. In this
small Southern town, in a state that had seceded from the Union over the peculiar institution of slavery, Blacks
and Whites had the option and the right to cast their vote for a Black man. On November 4th, Barack Obama,
won the popular vote and the electoral college and was elected the 44th President of the United States of
America. Change, indeed.

Of Hot Dogs and Icons

                                         Holy Hot Dog! The Varsity in Downtown Atlanta

                                                 (photo courtesy The Varsity)

Georgia and good hearty eating go together like biscuits and butter. I hopped right in the car when 2 of my
colleagues suggested heading into downtown Atlanta for hot dogs at the legendary Varsity. No one seemed to
care that we had just finished gorging on delicious deep-fried goodness at the Chick Fil-A. The world’s largest
drive-in, the Varsity opened in 1928 and can accommodate 600 cars and over 800 people inside. As a young
man, comedy legend Nipsy Russell worked at the Varsity as a car-hop. We enter the Varsity and I am
speechless at the size of the place. I was expecting a humble hot dog stand but the Varsity is a veritable
wiener arena. Really, you could hold a football game in this place. People of all ages and colors are eating
and conversing. Reading the pamphlet that provides a glossary of the Varsity lingo, I can’t help but smile when
I see that even a humble hot dog is not immune from the Civil War -                      a frank with mustard is listed on the
menu as a Yellow or Yankee dog.

Standing in line, I notice that the profile of a man standing in front of me looks vaguely familiar. Where have I
seen that face? Finally, he turns just-so and it becomes crystal clear that it is the former Mayor of Atlanta, first
African-American Ambassador to the United Nations, and Civil Rights pioneer Andrew Young. I am stunned.
Just yesterday, I was transfixed by an exhibition at the National Archives in Morrow, Georgia that included a
photo of Dr. King and Andrew Young marching together in Birmingham in 1963.

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                                            Andrew Young and Dr. King

In a room with many empty tables, I was beyond thrilled when Andrew Young chose to sit at the table right next
to ours. We politely exchanged greetings. Being so close to such an iconic figure from the Civil Rights
movement felt like a positive omen for the rest of my trip. Truly, my journey to Georgia, and the other places I
have traveled without hesitation, were made possible not only by my desire to do so but because brave
individuals like Mr. Young fought inequality and made it possible for African-Americans to experience life
without limitations. I looked at my two dining companions, both white males, and smiled inside. We were simply
colleagues, peers and friends enjoying some laughs and a bite to eat. Our ease together made it hard to
believe that there was a time in this country that we could have been arrested, or worse, for seeing beyond

Back at the hotel in Stockbridge, I stretch out on the bed and close my eyes. One hand on my stomach and
the other on my forehead, I feel full all over. My tummy is bursting from the fried chicken sandwich and hot dog
chaser I had greedily indulged in. My head is about to explode with all that I had experienced. More than
anything, I feel conflicted about the next event on my itinerary – dinner at Stately Oaks Plantation.

Plantation Apprehension

                                             Stately Oaks Plantation

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Plantation. I hate that word. For me it conveys images of sweaty and bedraggled slaves picking cotton,
beatings by heartless overseers, and weary Black families in ramshackle cottages far from the grandeur of the
big house trying to make a delicious meal of scraps. Yet, I came to Clayton County to directly encounter the
past, not just read about it, so a visit to Stately Oaks is a must.

Located in the Margaret Mitchell Historical Park in Jonesboro, Stately Oaks is an 1839 Greek revival
antebellum home. On a superficial level, the home is absolutely lovely and exudes country charm. Sharing
the property is the last one-room schoolhouse used in Clayton County and Juddy’s Country Store where you
can purchase Moonshine Jelly, local honey and ice-cold bottles of Coca-Cola from a vintage cooler. Walking
the dusty grounds, I imagine the steps that my ancestors on other unknown plantations had taken before me.
While they were forced to work the land, I was here as a guest to enjoy dinner and entertainment. Were the
ancestors angry? Or would they be happy to see one of their own being treated as an equal? Didn’t their
unpaid labor and blood, sweat and tears make Stately Oaks, and every other plantation in the South, also a
part of my cultural inheritance?      Hesitating for a moment at the threshold, I step inside Stately Oaks.
Volunteers from Historical Jonesboro are decked out in authentic costumes and lead visitors though the rooms.
I can’t help but admire the simple elegance of the décor – peach colored window treatments, an impressive
walnut canopy bed, precious wooden crib, and even a sublime wedding dress from the era.

Scarlett, Melly, Margaret & Dr. Smith
While all of the re-enactors are superb, it is Scarlett O’Hara the steals the show. Jonesboro native Melly
Meadows has toured the world portraying Scarlett and she brilliantly captures Vivian Leigh’s essence in both
appearance and demeanor. Dolled up in a fetching white dress and dramatic red cape, in true Scarlett fashion
she reprimands me for showing my ankles, a definite no-no for a Southern lady of her time. Of course, during
Scarlett’s time, we wouldn’t be partying together!

                                        Melly Meadows channels Scarlett O’Hara

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After we shared a hearty meal of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and peach cobbler catered by local
favorite Gina’s Restaurant, Scarlett/Melly stands up and takes us back in time. A truly gifted storyteller, she
painted a picture of Margaret Mitchell that was unknown to most. While everyone knows that Mitchell is the
creator of Gone with the Wind, most people don’t realize that in her own life she made significant contributions
to improve the lives of African-Americans.

                                 Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind

In 2002, Mitchell’s estate contributed $1.5 million to Morehouse College – a prestigious historically Black
academic institution for men. However, Mitchell’s ties to the Black community go back much further.
Scarlett/Melly had my undivided attention when she shared how Margaret Mitchell was kicked out of the
Atlanta junior league for volunteering with the city’s Black clinics. It also turns out that Mitchell was the
benefactor of Dr. Otis Smith, the first African American to be certified as a pediatrician in Georgia. As a student
at Meharry Medical College, Smith worked numerous jobs to pay for his education but he ran out of money the
first year. Reluctantly, he told the President of the school that he had to leave as a result of his dire financial
situation. Smith was advised by the President not to worry. Shortly thereafter, Smith was told that his tuition
and living expenses had been paid. 35 years later, Dr. Smith found out that Margaret Mitchell had paid for his
entire medical education. It was later revealed that Mitchell had made similar anonymous scholarships to 40-50
other Black students in her lifetime. Dr. Smith passed away in 2007. Not only was he a physician but a past
president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and founding member and chairman of the Margaret Mitchell
House and Museum. Yes, a Black man ran the organization committed to preserving the legacy of the author
of Gone with the Wind. Powerful. It demonstrates that the personal connections that we forge as humans can
triumph over conventional wisdom and prejudices.

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                    Dr. Otis Smith, Founding Member Margaret Mitchell House and Museum
Nothing to Fear
My three days in Clayton County have come to an end and I am reminded of my mother’s words. Be careful,
she had warned. Instead of fear, I feel empowered and encouraged. Spending time with the past filled me with
a tremendous sense of gratitude for my life today. But my visit was more than a trip down memory lane -
Clayton County is modern, vibrant and bustling. The arts scene in particular can’t be ignored. Spivey Hall,
located on the campus of Clayton State University, is an elegant and acoustically perfect 392-seat gem that
draws diverse musicians of international renown. The Arts Clayton Gallery on South Main Street in Jonesboro
is a thriving example of how the community is committed to preserving the past while celebrating change and
diversity. Before its dazzling transformation in 2004, the gallery’s previous incarnations included a Pure gas
station and a featured appearance as the warehouse location in the 1976 film Smokey and the Bandit. Four
murals on the side of the building chronicle key moments in Clayton’s history but inside the Arts Clayton
Gallery exhibits and sells fascinating art created by Georgia artists of all backgrounds. Looking ahead, Patrick
Duncan, the charming and visionary President of the Clayton County Convention & Visitors Bureau is excited
about long term plans for a multi-cultural center in the county that will highlight the African-American, Native
American and immigrant experience.

                 Spivey Hall                                    Arts Clayton Gallery

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Everyone speaks of Southern hospitality and I was certainly greeted warmly and fed well. But I would also like
to acknowledge Southern adaptability. Change, even when it is for the best, ain’t easy. Yes, Clayton County
does embrace their Gone with the Wind past. More than just a draw for tourists, Margaret Mitchell’s tale of the
South is a part of history and always will be. Not everyone wants to follow the Road to Tara, but Clayton
County is also forging a new path that values and acknowledges the important contributions of those who were
too often forgotten. That’s a road I want to travel.
                                         Helpful Clayton County Websites
                     Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau and The Road to Tara Museum

                                                    Melly Meadows


                                                 Pinehurst Tea Room

                                                       The Varsity

                                                       Stately Oaks

                                                       Art Clayton

                                                       Spivey Hall

                                       National Archives of the Southeast Region

                                                   Georgia Archives

                                             Comfort Suites (Stockbridge)

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