Sitting around for the last few months while job hunting, I realized there are so many things to do around the city during the day that I could never do when I had a full-time job. So when I’m not freelance writing, working part-time in a retail store, or interviewing for that dream job, I decided I needed to really be a tourist in my own city, and take advantage of all the attractions in town, especially the ones that are free! I am on a budget after all.
Explore Atlanta offers public and custom tours centered around the city’s history and places of historic significance. One of the tours I’ve always wanted to do was of the Georgia State Capitol building, but the tours are only offered on weekdays, and not during federal holidays, which of course, are the only days I ever had off during the week. So when Steve said he was going to bring a group to the Capitol, and also incorporate the Capitol Grounds and some monuments around the Capitol, I jumped aboard.
The Georgia State Capitol is a neoclassical structure completed in March 1889, built with Indiana limestone on the exterior, and white marble floors from Pickens County inside. The Capitol was built on the location of Atlanta’s first City Hall.
The original dome of the Capitol was made of terra cotta, and coated with tin. A 1958 renovation led to the gold leaf coating that the Capitol is now famous for. Although we often hear about the gold coming from Dahlonega, only the original 1958 layer came from Dahlonega. Subsequent added layers have since come from Italy since so little gold is available in Dahlonega now.
A 1997 renovation restored much of the plaster work, several paintings and restored the colors to the 1889 state. The Senate and House chambers include the original desks, and replica carpet to mimic what was originally in the chambers. The desks were updated to include microphones, coasters and the voting machines, but they were made to look antique to match the time period of the desks.
Our tour guide, Kayla, was a wealth of information and juicy tidbits that I’m sure I never learned in my 8th grade Georgia history class. Did you know that a Georgia legislator hung upside down from the spectator gallery to try to remove the clock in order to delay the reapportionment vote in the 1964? I took a picture of the picture just in case you didn’t believe me.
Kayla also told us about James Oglethorpe’s mission to settle Georgia, and how he was driven to make Georgia a debtors’ colony to honor a good friend who died in an English debtors’ prison. We learned about the migration of the state capital locations from Savannah, Augusta, Louisville, Milledgeville and finally, Atlanta, and why the location changed so often. The state kept growing, and it kept being moved to a more central location during the geographic expansion. There was fear that being in a railroad city would ruin the city, but it ended being essential for Atlanta’s growth and in serving the state.
I saw quite a few names in regards to Georgia history that I did not expect to see this morning, including Charles Herty, Moina Michael, Margaret Mitchell, and Crawford Long. They earned their place among governors and legislators by contributing to society to Georgia, our nation, and the world.
I knew of Charles Herty because he brought college football to the University of Georgia, and served as the first football coach in Athens. Herty Field on the North Campus is named for him. He was also a renowned chemistry professor and professional, and perfected a way to collect sap from pine trees to make turpentine and resin without damaging the trees and prolonging their lives. He also improved the process to make newsprint out of southern pine trees, so in a way, he had an impact on journalism as well!
Moina Michael is known for being the “Poppy Lady”. She came up with the idea to use poppies to commemorate fallen soldiers after World War I from the poem In Flanders Field, by John McRae. She is buried in Monroe.
My favorite Georgian, Margaret Mitchell, is remembered in the Capitol for her contributions as the author of Gone With the Wind, and her lifelong contributions to her hometown of Atlanta and as a journalist. As Kayla said, Mitchell embodied what it meant to be an Atlantan and a Georgian. She lived in Midtown, worked as a journalist at The Atlanta Constitution, was hit by a taxi on the way home from The Fox Theatre, and is buried at Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. It doesn’t get any more Atlanta than that.
Crawford Long studied the use of ether to assist in surgeries, and is credited with being the first to use anesthesia on a patient in surgery. He practiced medicine in Jefferson, Georgia, where the first use of ether was administered, and also practiced in Atlanta before finally settling in Athens, where he is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery. His birthday, March 30, is celebrated worldwide as Doctors Day.
Other governors’ portraits were included in the tour included Carl Sanders, Lester Maddox, Jimmy Carter and Zell Miller.
The most interesting story was about Lester Maddox though. I knew of Maddox because of his staunch segregation policy, including closing his restaurant rather than integrate it as the law required. His portrait also featured several curiosities, including a modified state seal to include Maddox on his bicycle, a portrait of his wife, since governors portraits could not include spouses at the time, and a copy of The Atlanta Constitution wrapped around a dead fish. Subtle. I think we understood his feelings about the media.
Other significant portraits and busts that I saw included Sen. Leroy Johnson, George M. Troup and Abraham Baldwin. Sen. Leroy Johnson was the first African-American elected to the Georgia State Senate (1962-1975) since Reconstruction. He served at a time when segregation was still enforced, and especially within the building he worked, the Georgia State Capitol. He brought in the first African-American pages, and stood by the “white only” water fountains to let them drink from the fountains, and escorted them into the “white only” restrooms. He earned so much respect among his colleagues, that nobody dare to stop them. Then Gov. Carl Sanders took note of his newly elected senator, and decided to follow the laws of integration. Sen. Johnson passed last fall, and his body lay in state in the Georgia State Capitol, the building he worked so tirelessly to integrate.
George M. Troup was a former Governor of Georgia, Georgia legistlator, U.S. Representative and Senator, and the man for whom Troup County (where I grew up) is named. Troup supported states’ rights, and also a supporter of slavery, and the removal of indigenous peoples. Interesting fact: Troup’s plantation, Val D’osta, near Dublin, was named after an Italian valley, Valle d’Aosta. The city of Valdosta is named in Troup’s honor.
Abraham Baldwin, signer of the United States Constitution, U.S. Senator, President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate, and founder of my alma mater, the University of Georgia. Baldwin graduated from Yale, whose mascot is also a bulldog. He brought other traditions from Yale to the University of Georgia, including the traditional architecture of the original campus, and its second president, Josiah Meigs, another Yale graduate, who oversaw the first classes. Baldwin was recruited to Georgia to start an education system by yet another Yale alumnus, Lyman Hall, who was Governor at the time.
A portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Atlanta native and Civil Rights leader, hangs among portraits of Georgia governors and busts of Georgia legislators. Lester Maddox was governor when Dr. King was assassinated, and he refused to allow King’s body to lie in state in the Capitol. In fact, he had the state patrol circle the building when the funeral procession passed the Capitol on Washington Street during the 3.5-mile trek from Ebenezer Baptist Church for the private service to Morehouse College for the public service. Dr. King’s portrait was added to the Capitol in 1973 during then Gov. Jimmy Carter’s term (over objections from the still rumbling KKK), and a new portrait was commissioned in 2006. The old portrait is on loan to the Woodruff Library at Atlanta University Center. When Coretta Scott King passed away in 2006, she was the first woman and the first African-American to lie in state in the Georgia Capitol Building.
Once you step outside of the Capitol, bronze statues of prominent Georgia citizens continue, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, U.S. Sen. Richard Russell, Gov. John Gordon Brown, Gov. Joseph E. Brown, Rep. and Sen. Tom Watson and Gov. Eugene Talmadge, as well as a tribute to the African-American legislators who were expelled during Reconstruction, “Expelled Because of Color”. Other than the statue of Dr. King (installed in 2017, just weeks after the Charlottesville protest) and “Expelled Because of Color”, all of the statues are of Georgia leaders who supported segregation.
Like many southern states, Georgia has a checkered reputation in its treatment of African-Americans, and reminders are all over the Capitol of these slights. Some argue that these monuments and portraits should be removed, but I disagree. The statue of John Gordon Brown, Confederate General and former Grand Wizard of the KKK, remind us of the horrible treatment of our fellow citizens, and serve as a warning that history should not repeat itself.
I read a story recently that proposed changing the name of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala. to honor U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who is from nearby Troy, Ala. Before I read this article, I didn’t know who Pettus was, or the significance of a civil rights march being integral to the history of this bridge. Pettus was a Confederate general, and like John Gordon Brown, also a Grand Wizard of the KKK. As quite a few have remarked, leave the bridge as is, explain the wrongs that were done, and let’s honor Lewis and the others who gave so much for the civil rights movement by merely doing what they have asked: granting equal rights for all.
Included in today’s tour were also visits to Liberty Plaza and the Pete Wheeler Georgia War Veterans Memorial Plaza, just across the street from the Capitol. Wheeler served as Commissioner for Georgia’s Department of Veterans Services from 1954 to 2015, and served in the Army Infantry during World War II. Memorials for the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Iraq-Afghanistan are scattered throughout. The memorial was dedicated in 1998. Wheeler passed away in 2015. Liberty Plaza houses a replica of the Liberty Bell; fifty-two other bells are scattered among the other states and territories. The names of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Lyman Hall, Button Gwinnett and George Walton, are inscribed in the plaza wall, and the flags of the original 13 colonies with the dates that they ratified the U.S. Constitution are inscribed on plaques on the flagpoles.
Speaking of freedom, the tour that Steve did for Explore Atlanta today is just the beginning for his “Freedom Trail” – a variety of sites of historic and cultural significance around Atlanta that involve freedom and liberty such as Freedom Park, Liberty Plaza, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, the National Center for Civil & Human Rights, Rodney Cook, Sr. Park, the Carter Center & Presidential Library, Atlanta University Center, the Georgia State Capitol and Sweet Auburn Historic District.