As Ruben Gay Place was a place for the community to gather together, many faces are coming together to help tell its story.
Donna Marie Hann, great-great-great granddaughter of Reuben Gay, Sr., is one of the engines of the search, but it crosses generations. One of the youngest branches on the tree is Isaiah, a seventh generation descendent of Reuben, who is also interested in history. He goes to school just down at the road at Inman Elementary, and he too feels the pull of the Reuben Gay Place.
“He loves the house,” said Stanley Blackburn.
While Donna has led the way here, a relative on the other side of the family tree was doing the same in another state. Her cousin, Stanley Blackburn, a genealogist and historian, traces his roots to Reuben’s children that moved to Cherokee County, Alabama, to take advantage of the Homestead Act. The family flourished.
“When they came to Cherokee County, they already had farm equipment, they had the skills, they knew how to farm,” he said. “We still own over a thousand acres of land ourselves in Cherokee County.”
The hunger to know more about his history would lead Stanley to Georgia.
“We knew about the Gay family, but we didn’t know exactly where they were,” he said. “The biggest mystery in our family was where’s our relatives.”
For more than two decades, he worked to piece everything together. Along the way he made discoveries he never expected. While searching through archives, he met a white member of the Gay family. They would connect and realize Stanley could trace his lineage to through them, and he even attended a family reunion.
On one trip, he made it to the crossroads of Inman and Woolsey. He thought about turning around, but he followed his instincts.
“I’m at the crossroads now. I’ve been looking for these people for almost 20 years,” he thought. “If I would’ve went back home, I probably would’ve forgotten about looking for them for a while. When I came back to Woolsey it rejuvenated me.”
Fate brought Stanley New Hope United Methodist Church.
On a return trip to Woolsey, he went to search for Reuben Gay, Sr.’s grave at the church. After taking it in for a while, he started getting hot and thought it might be time to leave, but something told him to sit down and cool off. Feeling better, he wanted to see the grave one more time before heading on his way. A car pulled up, and a man working security for the church got out to talk to Stanley.
“I said can I ask you a few questions. I said have you ever heard of Reuben Gay,” remembered Stanley. “He said I’ve heard of Reuben Gay. We’re kin to him.”
That man is Donna’s father Don. Don introduced Stanley to his sister, Rachel, and they visited the Reuben Gay, Sr. home site.
“They knew the house was in the family for over 150 years. They didn’t know the history, but they knew they had to take care of it and keep it in the family,” said Stanley. He told them, “I’d like to share the history of the family with you because I’ve been looking for y’all for over 25 years.
It was such a beautiful coincidence to have met at the exact right moment in time.
“I feel like it was meant to be because it was just too many things that had to line up for that to happen,” said Stanley. “Imagine, the family I’ve been looking for for years and he says I’m kin to Reuben Gay. What are the odds of that happening?”
It reignited his fire to dig into the family’s history.
“All of a sudden, the great wall I had faced trying to combine the family from Alabama and Georgia started tumbling down,” he said. “I was able to piece the family back together. The first thing I did was call my relatives back in Alabama and said y’all are not going to believe it.”
The importance wasn’t just recognized by Reuben’s blood. So many from the area are eager to help flesh out its history.
While many splintered off and went to other churches over the years, they all trace back to a familiar point.
“I just can’t believe that all those people come from so many different churches and they’re learning about what we were doing and they want to be a part of it too,” said Donna. “In the end, they all end up at New Hope.”
The story intrigued a professor at Georgia State who encouraged his students to aid in the search. One of them, Stacy Rieke, a graduate student in the Masters in Heritage Program, has been integral to fleshing out the home’s story.
Rieke is helping the family put the puzzle pieces together for their application for the National Register of Historic Places.
“There’s still so much that we have questions about, and we’re trying to nail down everything,” said Rieke, noting that it went through the first review by the state office who sent back questions. “We’ve started to answer those questions which only led to more questions.”
What started as just an application for the home site is growing to including more of the surrounding community. They’re finding more with each new search how much there is to learn about the history of Inman.
“It’s a whole different story about who lived in this county and where these communities grew up and how they grew up,” Rieke said. “Their ties to the community in Inman run deep.”
Currently, there are just three buildings in the county on the National Register of Historic Places: the old courthouse, the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House, and the Tandy King House, believed to be the oldest house in Fayette. The Reuben Gay, Sr. home site and the Inman community would be the first African-American landmark on the list for Fayette.
The process of trying to get the homesite on the national register started in 2015. Hours upon hours of work on the passion project have helped piece together the story. They hope to resubmit the application in May, and if all goes according to plan, it will be included on the register by December 2018.
The deep dive into history has been an eye-opening one for the descendants of Reuben Gay, Sr. The world may be growing more divided, but maybe that could change if we open our eyes and see one another.
“The more we learn about each other, the closer we get. We’ve all got similar stories,” said Stanley. “We can’t change history, but we can come together and enjoy each other.”