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New black mayors make a difference, one Georgia town at a time

Communities in the so-called New South are increasingly electing African-American leaders, amid reverse migration wave

ATLANTA — If you stand on the wooden floors of the Book Worm used bookstore and look out the front windows onto downtown Powder Springs, Georgia, it is easy to see the Southern past lingering.

Store owner Susan Smelser stands by the window and points across the street to a nearby building. “That’s where the Ku Klux Klan used to meet,” she says.

But down the road a few blocks, at Powder Springs City Hall, history was made recently, as the city’s first black mayor, Al Thurman, took office.

He has not been alone this year. Only 10 miles south, Douglasville saw Rochelle Robinson, also its first female mayor, do the same. And a bit farther downstate, Fayetteville swore in its first African-American mayor, Ed Johnson.

Other towns and cities across Georgia have also voted their first black mayors into office in recent years — places with names like Camilla, Adairsville and Brunswick. The number of black mayors in Georgia has increased markedly in the last decade, going from 42 to 64, according to Willie Burns, the executive director of the Georgia Conference of Black Mayors.

“There’s been a rash of black local elected officials, with demographic shifts in recent times that have brought a return of African-Americans to urban Southern areas,” said William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University.

The shifts include nearly 1 million blacks migrating South in the quarter-century leading up to 2010, reversing a trend that began at the turn of the 20th century, according to William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 2005 to 2010, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas saw the greatest increase in the key voting bloc of black people 55 years or older, due to migration.

Much of the return migration has been to urban areas, as economic opportunities, together with family and cultural ties, have drawn hundreds of thousands to the South in recent years. Powder Springs and Douglasville are less than 25 miles from downtown Atlanta, and both have seen marked growth in the last decade or so.

‘There’s been a rash of black local elected officials, with demographic shifts in recent times that have brought a return of African-Americans to urban Southern areas.’

William Boone

political science professor, Clark Atlanta Univ.

But Camilla, a town of fewer than 6,000 residents, is 210 miles south of Atlanta, and Adairsville, with under 5,000 residents, is 60 miles northwest of it.

Allan Lipsett, the publisher and editor of The Bright Side, a newspaper serving Powder Springs and several other small cities, says another reason for electoral racial breakthroughs in towns and cities across Georgia is “people’s ideas … changing about allowing a thought like that.”

That has been slowly occurring since the 1960s, adds Lipsett, 65, who was born and raised in Georgia. “Before that,” he says, “neither side [of the race barrier] thought it was possible” to elect black mayors.

Stephanie Mash Sykes, the executive director of the African-American Mayors Association, a group based in Washington, D.C., says that Barack Obama’s presidency as well as “issues every day [in the news] that are affecting African-Americans … are energizing folks to have people in office that look like them.”

But in some of these elections, says Boone, it may simply be a question of local politics favoring a black candidate for the mayor’s office. Smelser, who has lived in Powder Springs for 22 years, says that many of the fewer than 2,000 citizens who cast votes in the recent mayoral election saw Thurman as a sign of change, after going sour on the previous mayor, who was elected to three consecutive terms.

In a recent conversation at Thurman’s still bare City Hall office, he mostly wanted to talk about municipal issues facing Powder Springs, not broader societal themes of race and the region’s troubled past. He owns a landscaping business and served on the City Council for 13 years. After a visitor remarks on the town’s striking historic downtown, he says, beaming, “If you talk to any citizen, they’ll tell you that part of the reason they moved here is the small-town feel.” At the same time, he says, the many closed businesses along Marietta Street were a chief concern during his campaign, and he hopes to “make it easier [for businesses] to operate” in the city.

He deflects most questions or comments about becoming the first black mayor in the town’s long history. “People wanted change,” he offers. The only nod he gives to his historic achievement comes in an anecdote from the campaign trail. He recalls the look of surprise on the faces of well-heeled black residents of Powder Springs when he knocked on their doors to announce his candidacy. “They would exclaim, ‘For real?’” he says, laughing.

Thurman speaks of ample support from white voters and declines to comment directly on whether he is concerned about any of his white constituents judging him by the color of his skin. “I was raised in the South. You know who’s racist, and I like that,” he says, laughing again. “In the North, it’s hard to tell.”

Lipsett, who is white, says he is “impressed by Al Thurman … [because] he’s not the one saying, ‘I’m the first black mayor.’ Everyone else is saying that. That means he’s going to do the job for the people of Powder Springs, not one group or another.”

‘If you talk to any citizen, they’ll tell you that part of the reason they moved here is the small-town feel.’

Al Thurman

mayor, Powder Springs

Willie Burns became the first black mayor of Washington, Georgia, in 2004. He went on to serve two terms before being voted out in an election that he still believes was “about race,” he says. That election, in which he lost to a white candidate by 90 votes, was the subject of a Washington Post story. He says white voters at the time spoke of wanting to “take our town back.”

“You have to tell it like it is,” he says. “I grew up in Washington. It’s a slave plantation mentality.” The town, with fewer than 5,000 residents, was chartered in 1780. “You’ll find this in small towns outside Atlanta.” 

The Post story drew nearly 700 comments, many from present and former Washington residents who identified themselves as white and rejected the idea that the town was racist. “I got along with my African-American schoolmates,” wrote one reader about her youth. “I did not feel the racial tension that everyone spoke of so strongly in this story.”

Still, Burns says he hopes that his organization helps black mayors in his state to become better mayors, period. “They need to focus and not get caught up in the black-white stuff,” he says. “They need to dial in on issues like economic development and understanding your budget.”

Boone points to Robinson’s Douglasville, which made national news a few months ago when several pickup trucks full of white men drove by a child’s birthday party hosted by a black family, waving Confederate flags and shouting racial abuse. In places like this, tension between past and present bubbles up from time to time, he says.

“There are folks trying to hold on to what appears, in their mind, to be evaporating,” he says. “Waving the flag … and calling folks the N-word is just a way of holding on. It will be a long time for tensions around issues of race to dissolve.”

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