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A Friendship Bridges Town's Racial Divide

Leaders rebuild black community, one street at a time

THE steel railroad tracks that cross through Barnesville, Ga., divide more than just the main street. For years they have served as a wall that separated the black community from the town's more prosperous white neighborhoods. But in the past several years, the bustling town of 5,300 about 60 miles south of Atlanta, has taken steps to bridge the distance the tracks have fostered and invest in a community it has long ignored. The transformation occurring here provides a snapshot of a shifting South, whose racially divided past is fading in many ways. Barnesville's efforts to bridge the gap between blacks and whites is indicative of what has happened in many small towns in the South, as demographic and sociological shifts spark a new rethinking of entrenched tradition. ''I'm struck by the wide variation between one small town to another,'' says John Shelton Reed, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. ''Some towns are really making an effort to become a community and in others ... the races are perhaps further apart than they've ever been. It seems to me the key ingredient comes down to leadership.'' In Barnesville, that is certainly the case. Much of the impetus to link the communities has its roots in two long-time friends - city manager Kenneth Roberts and Lamar County High School superintendent Dewaine Bell. ''As a matter of history, there hasn't been very good communication between the black and white communities in Barnesville,'' says Mr. Roberts, who is white. ''I think the black community didn't feel like they could'' depend on the city to respond to their needs. Evidence of that neglect can be found on Mill Street, the winding road that leads most visitors into Barnesville from Interstate 75. Shotgun shacks, overgrown lots, and crumbling sidewalks in the past created an eyesore along the dimly lit street. But on the other side of the railroad tracks, the scenery was much different. Sidewalks were maintained, lighting was good, and businesses flourished. Dogwoods planted by a civic organization lined the business district and white areas, while the black side of the street remained treeless. Roberts, Mr. Bell, and other city leaders began discussing ideas for how to revitalize the area and asked residents for input. The outcome was the Mill Street revitalization project. It removed 14 substandard structures and set to building a Habitat for Humanity house on land where three run-down buildings once stood. The city and volunteers planted 110 pear trees as a way to link the communities. They cleared an overgrown, debris-filled field to create a recreation area. The city also decided to erect a police station on Mill Street. Locating the department on that side of town helped dispel suspicions about the police. Many blacks ''didn't think the city would build it in this community,'' says Bell, a well-known black leader. ''You now see police coming around talking to kids, getting more involved in the community.'' The city has also made the police department more reflective of Barnesville's racial population, which is 48 percent black and 52 percent white. In 1993, for instance, only one of the 11 officers was black; now 11 of 16 are minorities. Up the street, the city built a baseball field, erected basketball courts, and installed a walking path. Nearby, a boarded-up schoolhouse is slowly being fixed up as funds become available. The community uses it as an activity center. Roberts and Bell admit much work still needs to be done. Though Mill Street's appearance is greatly improved, some dilapidated housing remains. And only a handful of businesses rent space on the street. Persuading other businesses to invest in the community is key to boosting its image and making it prosper, says George Moore, owner of the Barnesville Marble and Granite Company. The changes so far have meant a lot to the community, says Frank Fletcher, a retired civil service employee, who is black. Barnesville, despite racial riots and boycotts in the 1970s, has been a place where whites and blacks have gotten along fairly well, Mr. Fletcher says. ''The relationship has been good; it's just [the city] hasn't done things they've promised to do. Now they're showing a greater interest in helping the community.... Hopefully [the revitalization effort] will include other streets than just Mill Street.'' Bell and Roberts say the momentum is there to make greater strides. The challenge now is to get more people involved and secure funding. ''We didn't have a crisis when this came up; nobody was mad at one another,'' Bell explains. ''People understand it's time we stopped having a blocked wall at the railroad track separating the two communities.''

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