AARN has been engaged with the Freemantown Historical Foundation (FHF) and Angela James to coordinate organizing efforts around the preservation and reinvigoration of a community in Rome, Georgia. The city of Rome is the largest metropolitan area in Floyd County, Georgia. It is home to dairy farms, agriculture, a bustling downtown corridor, and the largest private college in the United States—Berry College. Berry has a history that is contested by the descendants of Freemantown. The ancestors of the FHF board members and Angela James had lived on land that is now owned by Berry College. There were two communities, Freemantown and Possum-Trot on sections of the land owned by Berry College.The local historical context surrounding the acquisition of thousands of acres of land by the schools founder is largely absent. The school has presented a public facing narrative that focuses on the mission of Martha Berry, founder, to educate poor children. As a result of initial engagement with the community AARN’s Director of Community Engagement and Strategic Planning (Corey Shaw Jr) and Director of Projects and Public Affairs (Erica Ivins) were invited to attend the Freemantown Family Reunion in Georgia. What follows is an account of their attendance.
Upon driving into Rome, Georgia, it was immediately clear that we were not in a traditional rural community. We had seen the rolling hills and mountain peaks that held dairy farms and corn fields. The surreal beauty of this place had initially captivated our hearts and minds. However, as we made it into the unincorporated community of Mt. Berry, the site of Berry College. Leading up to this trip we had heard extensively of the sheer vastness of the campus. No amount of discussion could have prepared us for the grotesque grandeur of Berry and its facilities. Arriving on July 21, 2023—the AARN team participated in the meet and greet at the Fairfield Inn Suites located adjacent to the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College, which claims to be the largest hardcourt tennis facility in the United States. Interviews were conducted with two individuals.
Arthur Montgomery, descended from the Montgomery lineage, presented with extreme clarity and wisdom key elements of his family history. In accordance with the methodology employed by AARN, he began with his own early life and how he came to reside in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He recalled his research, documenting the sales of land with tax and deed records which indicated that thousands of acres were purchased for a small fraction of their worth. Mr. Montgomery went further and charted the trajectory of the family after the loss of the land. It was clear that he knew this history deeply. More importantly, it was clear that his role as an arbiter of the family history was appreciated and reinforced a deep love of family which was reciprocated during our conversation. As we talked, relatives began converging in the common area which, progressively, had grown louder. The laughter of the room paired with the joyous energy counteracted the despair and silent pain which enveloped the city. As Arthur continued chronicling his family’s story, the team was told another relative had arrived and wished to speak to us.
Elisa, a family descendant, spoke at length about how she came to learn the history of her family that resided at Freemantown. Highlighting the importance of the history, Elisa stressed the urgency for uncovering the history. What she notes, akin to the broader family’s general disposition, is that it is critical that the younger generation learns and understands the gravity of their family history. We concurred, as we were living witnesses to the spirit of perseverance, determination, and love displayed by every relative we met.
On Sunday, we both attended the full reunion program at Berry College:
- Family Luncheon & Awards Ceremony
- Her Name was Hester Film Screening
- Prayer @ Freemantown Cemetery (at Berry College)
- Prayer @ Shelton Cemetery & Possum Trot Church
- Dinner & Sneaker Ball
The Luncheon was filled with camaraderie. The Board, which is represented by members of each family, welcomed family, friends, and university staff to the event. The history was synopsized and stories were told regarding the wealth of wisdom these lineages are endowed with. Amongst the family were their special invited guests: Sherre Harrington and Jennifer Dickey. Sherre Harrington was a faculty member at Berry until recently when she retired. Dickey was a full-time faculty member but now works for Kennesaw State University and works part-time for Berry College as their lead historic preservation consultant. Both women have been close allies to the FHF and have worked diligently and intentionally to preserve and uplift the histories of these families on the campus. We spoke with them at length and secured their commitment to sharing any historic resources they might have. Ms. Harrington made it clear that most of what she has is available in the previously created lib-guides. Ms. Dickey offered to connect us with local archives, the school librarian, and other data sources. As we spoke, they were called up to the deus to be honored amongst the family members who have fought to preserve this history.
The film screening featured a white woman reckoning with her family’s own history of owning seven enslaved people; one of whom was named Hester. Hester was responsible for nursing all the children of W.D. Scoggins. Her Name was Hester presents a unique opportunity for collaboration, Haley Smith, featured prominently in the film is now Berry College’s Chief Diversity and Belonging Officer. She is involved with Hester’s Heritage Foundation which is born of the labor portrayed in the film.
Both site visits to the cemeteries were incredibly moving and insightful. On one hand, the campus was simply breathtaking. Deer frolicked through fields and woods presenting an air of innocence and simplicity. As we left the Krannert Center bound for Freemantown, the veil of the campus’ mystique was slowly peeled back. Familiar names like Henry Ford adorned halls of the castle-esque buildings. Berry College’s Winshape Camp was in full swing, as campers parroused the wide expanse before them. Signage indicated that we were entering the “Berry College Refuge ” which was a Buffer zone to the 15,000 acre WildLife Management area where hunting is allowed.
As we processed the influx of information, we grappled with the manufactured frontier before us. The trees on either side of the road sheltered us from the harshness of the Georgia sun as we drove along lengthy rutted roads. As we arrived in Freemantown, the veneer of beauty began to peel away. There we were, in a historic African American burial site which had previously functioned as a horse pen as part of the Equine center at Berry College. Headstones had clear signs of erosion. The ground was littered with depressions and unmarked grave sites. We could feel the anguish. Yet, the atmosphere was not sorrowful. There, at Freemantown Cemetery, was our first inkling of what endowed the campus with its reverence and beauty. There, on contested lands, was the source of the sacred and hallowed spirit embodied in the promotion of Berry. Beyond the hill that rested behind the cemetery sat rolling hills which housed the enclave and family farms once known as Freemantown. As we departed, we waited eagerly to arrive at the Shelton Family Cemetery and the adjoining Possum Trot cemetery.
Once again, we were faced with the displays of wealth and power on our journey to another well spring of beauty. We drove around the campus until we reached a gravel road. As we turned onto the rocky terrain, we were presented with the heart of the equine center at Berry. On either side were rolling hills of plains and tall grass. In front of us, a tree line that seemed to hide the gems of African American history. Across streams and through wetlands, we journeyed a fair distance before emerging from the dense woods to see a tree sitting at the heart of a full circle dirt road. Across from the tree sat the original structure of Possum Trot Church. The church harkened back to stories told by our elders. As we entered, a military issue wood heater sat on the right of the sanctuary. Rows of wooden pews sat on either side of the structure and at the center, an integrated wooden pedestal and podium. The energy was unearthly as this small space stuffed with artifacts of a community that was long erased remained and seemed to stand with a certain pride. The cemetery, which sat on the backside behind newer additions to the church, was a kin to Freemantown. Small, partially enclosed, and filled with an energy that reached out for the souls of its visitors.
Similarly, both sites convey the same principle paradox. Berry College, the present home to these historic sites, is out of place. The grand display of the campus does not mix with the simplicity and wholesome intent of both Freeman and Shelton family settlements. And yet, Berry—seemingly as a matter of public relations—is engaging with the families and has made strides to addressing the minimum needs and desires of the families and their ancestors. The future of our engagement with the families must focus on verifying the studies conducted by Berry College on site, conducting ongoing archival research, and assisting in the realization of the 5-10 year plan.