KEYSVILLE PROFILES IN EMPOWERMENT
"Keysville: the Town Where Everybody's Somebody." Those are the words that welcome drivers into the 80 percent black hamlet of Keysville, Georgia, population: 300. They are emblazoned on a sparkling white water tower that would not exist except for a band of committed townspeople and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
What happened in Keysville, 40 miles south of Augusta, is what can happen when long-disfranchised minorities finally come into possession of their right to vote and determine their own future by exercising that right.
Ten years ago, no one could have envisioned the changes that would take place in Keysville. Most residents lived in mobile homes or rundown shacks, without bathrooms or running water. Of the town's 10 wells, many were contaminated; only well-off whites could afford to dig new ones. Many blacks caught rainwater in buckets or hauled water from creeks and from neighboring towns. There were no properly paved roads, no streetlights, no firefighting equipment, no playgrounds, no clinics or any of the other services government customarily provides.
For as long as anyone could remember, Keysville had been without a municipal government, and the Burke County government simply ignored the town. Frustration boiled over one day in 1984 when a home burned to the ground because officials at the county fire station, 18 miles away, said Keysville was too far for them to travel to put out a fire.
Banding together as the Keysville Concerned Citizens, a group of residents went to the county courthouse and discovered that Keysville had been incorporated since 1890 and still had a valid city charter. But in 1933, as the Great Depression took its toll on the town, whites simply stopped holding elections. Determined to reactivate their government, the Concerned Citizens posted an unopposed slate of candidates, headed by retired schoolteacher Emma Gresham for mayor, and an all-black city council. Just as the officials were about to take office, local whites went to state court to challenge the validity of the elections. They charged that the boundaries of the town could not be determined because an old school that had marked the city limits had been torn down.
The Concerned Citizens enlisted the support of local state legislators, and legal representation from the ACLU and the Christic Institute. They found 92-year-old Henry Key, the town's oldest resident and a descendant of its founder, who knew exactly where the school had stood. With Key's testimony, the Citizens beat back the election challenge. However, the white minority went back to court, citing a new set of technicalities, and secured a court order that prevented new elections.
The black citizens' group countered by filing their own lawsuit in federal court, charging that the state's failure to preclear the state court order violated the Voting Rights Act. "We were talking about our right as U.S. citizens living in a democracy," says Gresham. "[W]e had a right to decide what we wanted to do in our own town."
On New Year's Eve in 1988, the Concerned Citizens won their lawsuit, and on January 4 new elections were held. Gresham took office as mayor (a volunteer position), and four blacks and one white took seats on the city council. The white challengers continued their legal efforts until a Supreme Court decision put an end to the struggle in 1990.
Meanwhile, the town underwent nothing short of a revolution. In the first year alone, following the Concerned Citizens' victory, a fire station was built just outside of town, street lights were installed, a city charter was adopted and a new post office was established. The well water was tested, and five wells were found to be contaminated. The town then secured federal grants to build a new water system.
Change has continued apace. Paved streets, a new city hall in a donated office building, a clinic, a playground and a recreation center have come to Keysville. General Education Diploma classes are held regularly, remedying a previous lack of educational opportunities. And for the children, there are now a small library, a computer and a van to take them to cultural and other events in Augusta. In addition, the Keysville Junior Concerned Citizens takes an active role the town's renaissance. Presiding over it all is the shining symbol of Keysville's pride and joy, a city water system completed in 1993. For the first time, clean water is piped into every home in town.
At the same time, blacks and whites in the town have come together in a way that had not seemed possible. "We had to get to know one another," says Gresham. "You have to love the hell out of people. You forgive them for not knowing any better, and you just go ahead and make life better for everybody. We wanted the white residents to know that what we do for progress in Keysville will be yours too."
That message got through. The new government's principal opponent was the family that owns the town's most prosperous business, a convalescent home. At first, they wanted no part of the new Keysville and moved their nursing home outside the city limits. But when the pipes were being laid for the water system, they had a change of heart.Recalls Gresham: "I got a letter saying, `we want to be a part of what you're doing. Annex us to the city and we'll be your best customer.'" She agreed, securing another grant to extend the water pipes into the nursing home. The grant required that the home hire area residents, and 12 people got jobs. "The split," says Gresham, "is over."
As for the man who ran for mayor against Gresham, he gradually began stopping by her office "just to talk." When a vacancy came up on the city council, she urged him to run, and he won. "He is now one of my best working city council persons," she says.
Political participation has also skyrocketed in Keysville. Before, the only blacks who voted were a few employees of the convalescent home, whose votes were controlled by their bosses. Now Keysville has a 95 percent voter turnout at every single election.
The changes in Keysville have reverberated around the region. Once compelled to build a fire station in Keysville, for example, Burke County built several more. Now there are fire stations within five to eight miles of every small town in the county.
As for Keysville, plans for the future include updating the sewage system and building a school in town so the younger children won't have to be bused 18 miles. The most important task of all, says Gresham, is "to keep motivating our people. It's so easy to get complacent."
This was sent to me in an email from my friend, and sister, Tami Halimah Rodgers.