The Work and Legacies of Athens’ Social Reformers

Residents of Athens have been (and are) active participants in efforts aimed at social and political reform. After the Civil War and during the Progressive era, both Black and white residents worked to improve quality of life for members of their community. Social work in Athens arose to meet the needs of these millworker kids and their families.

This page only begins to tell these stories. Readers are encouraged to help expand the resources and stories on this page over time.

A note: Many documents on this page deploy racial stereotypes and promote white supremacy. They discuss race and slavery in ways that can be painful or uncomfortable for readers today. It may be useful to consider how the past presence of such attitudes continue to affect our lives and communities today.

In this period, Athens’ middle-class white women formed multiple groups, schools, and agencies intended to promote literacy, public health, education for women and rural children—and also to celebrate locate “heroes” of the Civil War and promote the Lost Cause narrative. Overwhelmingly, their efforts focused on improving life for white Athenians and left Black Athenians out completely.

After Emancipation in 1865, Athens’ Black reformers worked to build schools and churches to promote literacy, professionalism, land ownership, and well-being, often relying on mutual aid and aid from northern philanthropists while coping with poverty and the violence of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.

Episodes, policies, reports, and case notes that demonstrate collaboration or interaction between Black and white Athenians will be highlighted. For example, when Mrs. Martha Bass Holsey, a Black Athenian, asked the [white] Athens Women’s Club to help her found a center where Black working parents could leave their children safely during the day in 1907, she challenged the usual order. Unfortunately, we do not have Mrs. Holsey’s account of the episode, but Mrs. Mary Ann Rutherford Lipscomb’s report (on behalf of the Athens Women’s Club) was printed in The Athens Banner and survives.