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Historymakers in our midst: Inaugural AFRICAMERICA event celebrates Fayette’s firsts

AFRICAMERICA celebrated its inauguration with a recognition of history in our home. On February 1, the newly-launched group hosted its first event, “Historymakers in our midst,” as a celebration of those that broke ground and pushed for positive change in Fayette County. 

AFRICAMERICA is a concept created by John E. Jones. Disappointed by the lack of African-American history taught in his school classes, Jones, a retired military and commercial airline pilot, was inspired to create a powerful name that would capture the essence of what he calls the Colored, Negro, Black, African-American experience. 

“I spent a lot of time sitting in my airplane with the autopilot on crossing this country and crossing oceans, and I had a lot of time to think,” Jones said to the crowd. 

The mission is to become a powerful, unifying image that represents the advancement, presence, and common interest of people of African-American heritage, their longterm positive impact on American society, their collective economic impact, and their voting strength. 

The event coming on the first day of Black History Month was a poignant choice. 

“Some people may feel ashamed that their ancestors were enslaved, but they sacrificed their freedom so that we could have ours, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Jones. “We should be very thankful and celebrate.”

The gathering celebrated groundbreakers, both living and gone on, from around the area, including Valencia Seay, the first black State Senator to serve Fayette, Chuck Floyd, the first black judge to serve in Fayette courts, Virgil Fludd, the first black State Representative to serve Fayette, Ed Johnson, the first black Mayor of Fayetteville, Pota Coston, the first black County Commissioner, Charles Rousseau, the first black male County Commissioner, Mario Avery, the first black Mayor of Fairburn, Shelley “Butch” Anthony, the first black owner of a restaurant chain, Chris Snell, the first black female to serve as director of the Fayette County Library, and Melinda Sylvester, the first black magazine publisher serving Fayette. 

Rousseau thanked those that paved the road before them, so that they could make positive change. 

“So much of the history of our people is planting seeds that all of us sitting here have the opportunity to reap the harvest,” he said. “Us being the ‘firsts’ did not come without hard work or challenging oppressive systems that were in place designed to prevent us from elevating, yet we still rise.”

Featured speakers were Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson, Shelley “Butch” Anthony, owner of the This is It restaurant chain, and Linda McQueen, a retired flight attendant and founder of the Heart-Burn Foundation, and also included book signings, voter registration, and a representative from Fair Count, a group dedicated to ensuring a fair and accurate counting of all people in Georgia for the 2020 Census.

City of Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson (foreground) speaks at the first AFRICAMERICA event, organized by John E. Jones (background). The gathering, dubbed “Historymakers in our midst,” honered African Americans who broke ground locally.            
(Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

Mayor Johnson, a retired U.S. Navy commander, shared a message of battling through adversity that might otherwise have kept him from achieving his dreams. 

“I have always been taught from a very young age by my father, who first got me inspired about being in the military, that I’m always going to fall under that scrutiny, but I should not ever let that scrutiny deter me from doing my best in whatever I do because it is doing that that changes the mindset, not just of people of color,” said Johnson. 

He recounted attending officer candidate school in Pensacola as one of only three African-Americans in the other class. The other two quit, but Johnson had support who helped him push through. 

“I had a girlfriend at the time who constantly told me, ‘Don’t let them get you down. You know from which you come. You know who you are,’” he said. “I constantly got inspiration from my family and my girlfriend, and that girlfriend is now my wife of 51 years, Dr. Vanessa Johnson.”

He urged the audience to look to those around them doing great things. 

“You always had someone to inspire you, and that is what we are lacking today is to have somebody to tell our young people in the numbers that they need ‘Don’t worry about what somebody else thinks about you, worry about what God has created you to be, and if you are sure of your divine destiny, no weapon formed against you shall prosper.”

Anthony told his story of branching out on his own and building an empire from nothing in starting the This Is It restaurant chain. 

“My daddy gave me his last thousand dollars and told me to go and make the family proud,” he said. “It was a very very hard road to travel.”

This is It has grown to 11 locations around the state, and it now calls Fayetteville home. When looking for a building in Fayette to house corporate headquarters, Anthony was met with resistance, including being told by one person he would not sell to black man, but he persisted. 

“One thing about growing a business is you’ve got to be willing to change. Growth and change makes you uncomfortable before it blesses you,” he said. “Success is using uncommon practices because it gets uncommon results. You can’t do the same thing that your brother does.”

Shelley “Butch” Anthony talks about building the This Is It restaurant empire from the ground up.

McQueen, who recently released a book “Taking Flight,” recounted her fight to become a flight attendant against long odds. Even after she achieved her dream, she had to keep fighting. While on the job, an oxygen tank exploded, leaving her badly injured. Despite a grim prognosis from doctors, she battled back. When the airline told her she could no longer work with the public because of her scars, she took them to task and won her job back, paving the way for others to do the same. 

Her experience led her to found the Heart-Burn Foundation that assists uninsured persons who have been victimized due to a devastating fire in their home or apartment.

Anthony expressed hope that the community will rally around AFRICAMERICA. 

“When we’re unified and we come together, can’t nobody do it like we can. Nobody has the strength that we have. Nobody has the courage that we have,” he said. “Let’s all get behind this effort. It’s the first, but it ain’t the last. I think this is a great, great thing.”

Jones left the crowd with a message that they should be inspired by what they had heard. 

“We’ve heard some stories here today, and I hope we’re all better for it.”

For more information on AFRICAMERICA, email AFRICAMERICA@aol.com. 

By Christopher Dunn

Managing Editor Christopher Dunn has been with the Fayette County News since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Victory magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.