Histories of Athens

Visitors to the Heritage Room, “regulars” or otherwise, have likely come across several general histories of Athens found in our book stacks, some of them worn by years of persistent use. A few others are newer, waiting shining on the shelf. Most of these general histories are well known to local history buffs and even may be immediately obvious to novices browsing the shelves. They include the following:

Antebellum Athens and Clarke County Georgia, by Ernest Hynds; published in 1974.

Annals of Athens, Georgia 1801-1901, by Augustus Hull; first published in 1906 and consisting mostly of short pieces the author wrote for the Southern Watchman newspaper.

Strolls About Athens During the Early Seventies by Sylvanus Morris; originally published in 1912 but consisting of articles written for the Athens Banner in the 1870s.

Athens: A Pictorial History, by James K. Reap, first published in 1982 with second edition and third editions following in 1985 and 2001, respectively.

Remembering Athens, by Susan Frances Barrow Tate; 1996, consisting of articles published in local publications.

Strolls Around Athens, by William Tate; 1975, originally published as a series in the weekly Athens Observer that same year; its title echoing the book noted above.

A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History by Michael Thurmond; first published in 1978, with second and third editions following in 2001 and 2019, respectively.

The newer books include:

Across the River: The People, Places, and Culture of East Athens by Maxine Easom and Patsy Arnold; published in 2019.

A Postcard History of Athens, Georgia, by Gary L. Doster; published in 2002.

Transition to an Industrial South: Athens, Georgia, 1830-1870 by Michael J. Gagnon; published in 2012 but originally completed as a dissertation in 1999.

A Portrait of Historic Athens & Clarke County, by Frances Taliaferro Thomas; originally published in 1992, updated in 2009.

The Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia, a multiple-author work published in 2014, with contributions from Charlotte Thomas Marshall, Hubert McAlexander, Milton Leathers, Mary Anne Martin Hodgson, and Patricia Irwin Cooper among others. Not to be missed is a section on “Vanished Prince Avenue” and a history of the Hill, the site of several historic homes, moved there to save them from demolition, off Jefferson Road.

Multi-author works like The Tangible Past prove to be especially important in local and genealogical history. An older book of this ilk of common use in the Heritage Room is the History of Athens and Clarke County published by H. J. Rowe in 1923, featuring contributions from J. W. Barnett, D. C. Barrow, Andrew M. Soule, E. S. Sell (offering a brief summary of the book he wrote about the Normal School—see below), Mildred Rutherford, T. L. Gannt, E. W. Carroll, Frank A. Holden, William A. Carlton, and the aforementioned Sylvanus Morris. In addition, there are short histories of several local churches, notes about the Georgian Hotel and two local banks, and no less than 55 profiles of prominent local residents.

There are many other books, less well known, that on the surface do not announce themselves to be histories of Athens. Some of these books have particular subject matter, but the subjects in question are important enough to the city’s history that the books bring forth information of value to more than those interested in that particular subject. A good example is Sketches of the Beusse and Evans Families by Jesse Beusse; this family history includes a wealth of information about the Beusse family that played several instrumental roles in Athens business and politics, especially the police and fire departments, for a period spanning more than six decades.

Al Hester, the journalism professor who in his later years became a prolific historian of Athens, writing books about the Reconstruction era and helping to document and preserve Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, also edited a volume of interviews done by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. Entitled Athens Memories: The WPA Federal Writers’ Project Interviews, among those whose interviews are included are quilter Harriet Powers, Omie Epps (the widow of Ben Epps), and local man-about-town and college football player George Shaw Crane.

Official histories comprise a similar category of books. Churches often publish histories of themselves, as do schools, large businesses, and philanthropic groups. A good example to be found in the Heritage Room is the History of the State Normal School, Athens, Georgia, as noted above written by E. S. Sell and published by the school in 1923.

Another kind of general history book is produced for promotional purposes; aimed at tourists, or those visiting on business, or perhaps those who have recently moved to the city. These books tend to be published by governmental authorities, or chambers of commerce and similar organizations. We may consider them to be too utilitarian to be of much value to historical research, but any secondary source no longer being used in its original function becomes a primary source, telling us something about the way people in the past thought and acted.

A good example of these obscure books is Athens, Ga. The Classic City — Tradition With Progress, published by the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce in the early 1960s (no exact date is provided). It offers numerous photographs accompanying a text written by none other than local historical and genealogical researcher Mary Bondurant Warren, whose publishing house Heritage Papers has been responsible for the Family Puzzlers newsletter and countless other resources. The text evokes the past but makes clear that a new Athens is emerging, one in accord with the social and economic changes underway in Cold War, consumerist America.

Books, pamphlets, maps, brochures, and other artifacts of local “boosterism” can be especially useful in supplying photographic evidence of the past. Two pages from this book have been scanned and are presented here. Facing northward from the University campus, the photograph on the first page shows the now-Bank of America building when it was C & S Bank, with its sizable signage on the roof. Framing the shot on the right is the true peculiarity of the Athens skyline for many years, the skyscraper-parking deck later transformed into an apartment building that’s still with us today.

The page below offers a bounty of information to a viewer already somewhat familiar with the areas pictured. In the aerial shot of downtown, we can see among other things the soon-to-be-demolished Samaritan building (on the same block as the Morton Theatre), part of the old Y. M. C. A. building (where the Holiday Inn now stands), and portions of the “Hot Corner” district that sadly stood in the way of the First Methodist Church.

In addition to limited shots of the Beechwood shopping center and the now-gone East Plaza Shopping Center, we also get an expansive view of the Alps Shopping Center, looking almost nothing like it does today. Having only recently replaced a drive-in movie theater that occupied the lot until the early 1960s, the shopping center looks brand new, with a bevy of automobiles carrying customers to the Miller’s Department Store. (Right-click on the images to open larger versions for easier viewing.)

A few other similar books will be highlighted in future posts here at Athens: In Time.

Don’t forget that, while Heritage Room copies of books do not circulate, many of these books are available in the library’s regular non-fiction section so that you can check them out to read at your leisure.

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