The New York Times and other media outlets last week carried the story of an historic apology made in Troup County, GA. On January 26, 2017, the LaGrange’s police chief, Louis M. Dekmar, who is white, issued a rare apology for a Southern lynching. Seventy-seven years earlier Austin Callaway, a young African American, was snatched from a jail cell by a band of masked white men, then shot and left for dead. Many in the community had never heard of this atrocity but on Thursday evening, wrote the New York Times, “the fatal cruelties inflicted upon Mr. Callaway - long obscured by time, fear, professional malfeasance and a reluctance to investigate the sins of the past - were acknowledged in this city of 31,000 people.”
Chief Dekmar addressed a crowd at a traditionally African American church, “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction. And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
Over the past two years city and county residents, including Chief Dekmar, have been engaged in a program of racial reconciliation and trustbuilding facilitated by Hope in the Cities. Ricky Wolfe, a white former county commission chairman, is an organizer of the program. His partner is former state Rep. Carl Von Epps, who is black. When speaking to county commissioners Wolf said, “People have said, ‘This is a big problem, Ricky, but you shouldn’t be talking about it because it’s going to make it worse.’”
The aim of the program is simple: to bridge racial divides in Troup County through trustbuilding, research, community collaboration and action in order to remove barriers that prevent full access to opportunities for all.
These two community leaders have been unwavering in their commitment. The three city governments of LaGrange, Hogansville and West Point that make up Troup County collectively pledged funds and LaGrange College, which Wolfe said would act as the “hub” of the program, also pledged funds and the use of its facilities.
The LaGrange Daily News quoted Von Epps: “Truth be told, we have a problem. Not only is it a racial divide, it’s an economic divide and a cultural divide. Truth be told, there’s a spiritual division here... Our hope is to bring people together - it’s a trustbuilding effort.”
Hope in the Cities facilitators Tee Turner and Cricket White have made numerous visits to Georgia to provide training and facilitation. Participants in the Troup County Racial Trustbuilding Initiative have included the three city mayors, law enforcement officers, pastors and nonprofit leaders who have met for two-day sessions at LaGrange College. Over a two-year period more than 150 community leaders have been through the program and another 150 are signed up to take part in a second round starting this month. In addition, four from the local group have traveled to take part in Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship in Richmond, VA, for further training.
It was in the course of the program that the hidden history of the 1940 lynching first came to light. It had not been forgotten by many in the black community but was a surprise to most of the white participants. Tee Turner points out that the police chief’s apology for the lynching was only one action taken as part of the process of change. Other steps included the NAACP becoming a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the community celebration of Martin Luther King Holiday as “our” day not just “their” day. The whole community rallied around the NAACP March on Washington.
In 2015 Von Epps and Ricky Wolfe were given the Troup NAACP’s Leadership Award for their work in creating a race reconciliation initiative in Troup County. This award is given to those who have a clear vision for social change and carry out that vision through action. In accepting the award Von Epps said, “This initiative of change - this trustbuilding exercise - is part of an initiative of the three city mayors, Troup County and LaGrange College. It’s long past due. There are many people who say we do not have a racial discord in our community, but all of us gathered here together know that there is, so we thank God for those individuals who support this cause. All we’re doing is building trust in our community.”
The LaGrange Daily News reported on the two-day visit of Dr. John W. Franklin, senior manager of external affairs at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, last month. In addressing a breakfast meeting of more than 200 community leaders he said, “It makes us richer to know the stories of our families.”
Dr. Franklin also spoke to the members of the Racial Trustbuilding Initiative. Ricky Wolfe told him that going through the initiative’s training was eye-opening for him. “I went to learn about black people, and I learned a lot about Ricky Wolfe,” he said. “I was so naïve, I never thought about the majority of black people I know being the descendants of slaves.” The initiative was formed, in part, because every issue he tried to tackle as a commissioner came back to race. He added, “In the South, we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings... A lot of feelings have already been hurt. The collective sum of our attitudes is our culture. I’m asking you to open up your heart.”
This story was drawn from articles in The New York Times and The LaGrange Daily News.