Mr. Joe Anderson: Fayetteville’s voting rights ‘rebel’

Rosa and Joe Anderson raised a family on Church Street in Fayetteville and also gave their time to get other black residents out to the polls and involved in local politics.
Rosa and Joe Anderson raised a family on Church Street in Fayetteville and also gave their time to get other black residents out to the polls and involved in local politics.

Rosa Anderson, now 94 years old, still lives in the home her husband Joe built on Church Street in Fayetteville. Having lived almost all her life in Fayette County and with over 35 years of teaching here, Rosa knows well what life was like for the black community that lived there and Church Street.

Today, most residents on Church Street are elderly, but when the Andersons were raising their children—three daughters and son— there were plenty of families in what she described as a “tight knit” community where everyone knew each other and looked out for one another.

Joe Anderson, or Mr. Joe as many knew him, passed away in 2000. His impact on the community remains, though, as he was a leader in urging black residents in Fayetteville to become involved politically and, especially, to get to the polls and vote.

“My father was kind of… he was a rebel,” says his daughter Derryll Anderson. “Because he moved here from Fort Valley, because it was a college town, they had a little bit more freedom as far as participation.”

Derryll says the family moved to the area in the mid forties, following Joe’s time in the military, and found a community that was divided racially.

“It was very segregated at that time, but it didn’t seem to phase him, not terribly,” she says, remembering him as a strong willed man and a gun enthusiast. “My father’s always had guns, he always had a gun with him.”

The family never experienced violence that required him to use it, but there were some incidents that put him on alert. As a man who firmly believed in the importance of voting, Mr. Joe set out to get other black residents of Fayetteville registered and involved in the political process, beginning at his church and branching out from there.

Derryll says Fayette County Historian Carolyn Cary once told her that Joe helped registered more individuals himself than any other single person in the county.

Rosa recalls her husband would lead registration drives, though they weren’t divided along racial lines as he worked side by side with whites in the effort.

“At that time the Democratic party was strong and he was an active member of the Democratic part,” Derryll says. “The majority of the people who registered at first were women, older black women, and the men came later.”

There were obstacles put in his way, Rosa recalls, but he was never intimidated. In one local election year in the mid 1950’s, when Derryll was about 6 years old, she recalls going out to the street with her sister to wave at what she thought was a passing parade of about four or five honking cars.

In truth, the cars were filled with hooded men, and the display down Church Street was meant to intimidate people like Joe from voting the next day.

Rosa says she later learned that her husband got some threatening calls at their home, though he would not tell her at the time.

“They would call, but he would never tell me about it because he didn’t want to frighten me,” Rosa says. Joe told her the callers would say “I heard you had been encouraging blacks to register to vote,” and he would reply cooly, not cowed by their efforts. After being rebuffed enough times, she says, the calls stopped.

She remembers the first time the two went to vote together and were told they could not be in line at the poll with the white voters.

“We went in there and got in line and one of the officials, he came up to us and said, “Joe, you all will have to go outside. You can’t stand in line.” Rosa recalls. “I think he thought he would discourage us, but we went outs and pulled a chair up by the window and had to kind of lean up against the window to check the ballot, and then we hand it to him. My husband stood there and saw that they put it in the box. He didn’t move until he saw them put it in the box.”

Derryll’s admiration for her father shows as she talks about him, how hard he worked, and how invested he was in his family and community. He used to crank his old pickup truck each morning to drive up to Spelman College in Atlanta, where he worked in maintenance for years. On top of that, he repaired televisions in town and built around twenty houses, including their family home which still stands today.

He also made sure his children and the other children in the community got to experience as many aspects of life as possible. He started the first Boy Scout Troop in the black community, took groups of boys up to Atlanta for baseball and football games, and took Derryll and other girls to the YMCA downtown for swimming lessons.

“He tried to expose us to as much as he could afford. We were blessed in that sense,” Derryll says. “He was a very proud, very well respected black man. Although this was a very segregated community and racist community, even those people who hated him respected him.”

The Anderson’s also had a number of firsts among the local black community.

“We were the first black family to ever have a subscription to the Fayette County News, one of the first to have milk delivered to our house, one of the first to have the Atlanta Constitution delivered to our house. We were very, very blessed,” Derryll says.

She and Rosa also laugh about their television. They were similarly blessed to have a television at the time, but Joe had strict rules about viewing.

“If the news was on you either watched the news or you weren’t going to watch television. If there was a football game on you either watched football or you weren’t going to watch television ,” they both laugh at those memories. “we couldn’t watch anything else.”

Today, Derryll still gets around to see the seniors in the community, people that had been friends of her father, and help them get their absentee ballots in around election time.

“A number of people still give Daddy credit that he got them involved in the community and that they understood what was going on in a political sense,” Derryll says. “We have some seniors here that vote almost every election that they can get there.”

The foundation built by Mr. Joe there on church street is still strong, just like the family home Rosa still lives in. Even in building that house Joe went against the grain.

“My father built it from scratch, he dug this whole that is now the basement, and people laughed at him, they thought he was crazy,” Derryll says. “But our house is still standing.”