The start of February ushers in African American History Month, a time to pay homage to the hardships that African Americans faced on the road to full citizenship. With so many notable African Americans who called Macon their home, it seems most fair to honor their life’s work in no particular order and with great pardon for omissions—to enumerate everyone would call for the writing of a book, or rather many books.
Little Richard Penniman
Born in 1932 in the Pleasant Hill community, Richard Penniman grew up submersed in the church, where he was first influenced musically by Gospel. Penniman took the name Little Richard while performing with the Buster Brown Orchestra and soon began his recording career in Atlanta, laying down such famous tracks as “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. This hit song was the first in a string of hits that topped the Billboard charts. Little Richard’s distinctively captivating personality and his electrifying live shows set him apart from other popular performers of the day, even drawing in mixed-race audiences in the segregated South. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Mercer University in 2013.
He has received many accolades for his music career. “There is no one more influential than Little Richard. He was copied by so many,” said Jeff Bruce, curator at the Tubman African American Museum and contributor in the compilation of the names and histories of the people within this article.
John Oliver Killens
A founder and chairman of the Harlem Writers Guild, John Oliver Killens has been called the “most famous local author that many Maconites have never heard of” by The Macon Telegraph. He graduated from Howard University and did much of his writing in New York, where he met notables like Maya Angelou. His writing explores themes of racial pride and resistance to injustices in a world unready to hear such proclamations. His first novel, “Youngblood,” was published in 1954 and was set in a location meant to resemble Macon. He had a profound impact on fellow Macon author, Tina McElroy Ansa. He died in 1987, still perpetuating the idea that black history should be observed year-round and that Macon was particularly full of an important black heritage.
Now living in Ann Arbor, Mich., Beverly Buchanan spent almost 10 years of her life working as an artist in Macon before moving elsewhere in the state. Buchanan, a sculptor, painter, drawer and photographer, is well known for her depictions of ramshackle buildings that dot the Southern landscape. In 1984, she was the Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. While in Macon, she was the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
A sidewalk artist and window clerk at the Macon Post Office for 30 years, Wilfred Stroud embodied creative expression. He was best known for his portraits, especially the mural that he painted for the Tubman called “From Africa to America.” The wall-sized portrait illustrates a timeline of African Americans with each person’s face meaning to reflect the individual’s story. His mother taught him how to draw in kindergarten, and according to a Macon Herald article dated Dec. 1, 1977, Stroud said, “I kept thinking that someday, if I kept trying, I might become a painter.”
Although born and raised in Fitzgerald, Ga., Minnie Singleton graduated from Beda-Etta College in Macon. She was a talented public speaker and “had the natural gift for newspaper work,” according to an obituary written in The Macon Telegraph in 1949. Singleton served as editor for what was known as the colored page of The Macon Telegraph, and her life motto centered around the responsibility of her work, dealing with it sincerely and holding it sacred.
“For such a life as Mrs. Singleton’s we are confident that the episode which we call Death is not the end… we are confident that He will preserve the spirit of those who do their part in making the world more beautiful and better,” said L. M. Price, a friend of Singleton’s, in a tributary article published by The Macon Telegraph on Oct. 13, 1949.
Rev. Pearly Brown
Blind from birth, Pearly Brown grew up in Americus, Ga, but in due course, he moved to Macon, where he soon became a local fixture on the streets, singing and playing his guitar. A local rumor suggests that Brown mentored Duane Allman and Dickey Betts on the slide guitar.
“The majority of (these) people came up in time of turmoil and still managed to do what they wanted to do with their art,” said Muriel Jackson, who works in the Genealogy Department at Washington Memorial Library and who helped in brainstorming names for this article.
There is so much left to say about the lives of each person listed here, and so many others that were unable to be included in the article. If you have any interest in learning more about prominent African Americans who influenced the Macon community, visit the Washington Memorial Library or the Tubman African American museum, set to open their new location on Cherry Street in May.