It always comes back to the Reuben Gay Place.
On a late January day, mourners gathered at New Hope United Methodist Church to say goodbye to a cherished member of the parish. One of the oldest churches in the county, generations came back for the celebration of life. Many made the short drive back up Weldon Road to the old Reuben Gay Place. For so many years it was a gathering spot for the Inman community, and it was a time for some branches on Reuben Gay’s family tree to get back to their roots.
It all starts with the home built with blood, sweat, and tears by Reuben, his sons, and other family members. The farther Donna Marie Hann dug into the history of her great-great-great grandfather, the more beautiful and vibrant the picture of the homestead and its place in the community became. Together with Stanley Blackburn, a cousin of the Gay lineage from Cherokee County, Alabama, they’ve learned so much about their common ancestor and the community he saw thrive.
Reuben was born in 1828, in South Carolina, a slave serving the Stubbs family in Marlboro County. The Stubbs would relocate to the area with the Gay family, whom they were related. In 1840, when William Stubbs died, William’s wife sold the family’s slaves. Reuben was sold to the Gay family and by that time, he was around 30 years old and had grown children of his own.
Reuben got his freedom in 1865, and census records from 1866 show him working for the Gay Plantation as a laborer.
Records aren’t crystal clear, but Reuben would soon purchase land that once belonged to the Stubbs family, the land he once tilled as a slave. It would be on this land that the Reuben Gay homesite was built. The bell still standing near the house was the same one used to call servants in from the field, and it would become a part of Reuben’s family as the dinner bell.
The oldest section of the home dates back to the early 1880s. It was a two-room structure called a hall and parlor house. An original window and exterior and interior doors remain.
The house started to grow with additions roughly five years later. A fireplace is consistent with those from around 1900, and it could have been a mail-order piece from Sears that would have arrived at the local post office via train.
“I’m just amazed that they kept the house so original,” said Blackburn. While modern necessities like electricity and indoor plumbing were added to bring it up to code, the bulk of home retains the classic feel. “The bones are there. It shows you the craftsmanship of the house.”
At its peak, the grounds included 120 to 130 acres of farm land. They grew corn, potatoes, and cotton and had hogs, chicken, and cows. There was a blacksmith shop that was a source of income for the family.
Reuben Gay’s family thrived. While many recently freed from the bonds of slavery were locked into labor contracts, some until as late as the 1960s, Reuben had used his proficiency as a farmer to break free.
“He wasn’t involved in the sharecropping system. That’s really what allowed him to get ahead and have money to purchase his own land and build a house,” said Blackburn. “He never signed a labor contract like a lot of people had to.”
By 1900, records show they owned the house mortgage free, a feat unheard of at the time.
“This was the only African-American family that had land and a house that was mortgage free,” said Stacy Rieke, a graduate student in the Masters in Heritage Program, helping the family with their search. “Everybody else was renting in the immediate area.”
Reuben was never one to shy away from helping the community.
“He was taking care of anybody. White, poor, if you didn’t have a job, you could come and work here. It wasn’t a problem for him,” said Blackburn. “He was very grounded in the community. He had all of his family members stay here near by.”
He also cut a path for his family to follow.
“His estate was able to pay all his debts off completely and have money leftover, and that was the money he divided among family members and his wife’s family and some of the people in the community,” said Blackburn. “He believed in helping out everybody, and he was one of the few black people to leave trust funds.
“In the trust fund, he stated he was leaving money to his granddaughter because he wanted to set an example for family members to follow to take care of the next generation.”
Records show they followed his lead in thriving among their community. Spencer Gay, one of Reuben’s sons, was one of the founding trustees of the church. Another son, Henry, amassed close to 200 acres of land that he would pass down.
With a lot of land to roam and a house that was bigger than average for the time, the Reuben Gay Place became the natural gathering spot for the community.
“That was where everybody met. No matter what happened, everybody would always come here,” said Donna. “New Hope was the place to meet, and this was the family house here.”
There was a big field for baseball and plenty of room for kids to play hopscotch and jump rope.
“This was a social gathering places. This is where everybody used to gather. This house was the center of the community,” said Blackburn. “Anytime you talked about a landmark, you’d say it’s right over there by the Reuben Gay Place.”
Horace Prayor, a 90-year-old grandson of Rueben Gay Jr., remembers growing up at Reuben Gay Place. He was the last farmer in the Gay family, and he would also find a calling as a professional blues musician. Nicknamed “Guitar Red,” he played at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta and other venues, but before that he was one of Reuben’s many descendants to call Inman home.
One of Horace’s kin, Audrey Prayor Clark, also found music in her heart. She continues the tradition of shape-note singing, a traditional form passed down for generations in the south. Reuben Gay Jr. was also a shape-note singer at New Hope and he donated money to keep the practice alive.
From the blacksmith shop where they shoed mules to using scrap wood for baseball bats and airplane toys, the memories stick with Horace.
“I enjoyed living here. Back in those days, didn’t nobody have nothing, so it didn’t make you feel bad because you didn’t have nothing,” he said.
After church, the home would be the gathering spot.
“People’d come from everywhere to that church out there. They didn’t have to belong to it,but they’d come,” he remembered. “I always figured it was because everybody was kin to each other one way or the other that’s how I know so many people.”
That church the family helped found is where the day’s funeral was held and its where Reuben Sr. is buried, along with several generations of the family. Reuben has been gone since 1898, but his old home is still the place to gather. Generations gather at the home and reminisce in the spirit of Reuben Gay. As the wind rustles the leaves on a winter morning, the branches of his family tree grow strong through the seasons.
Ed. Note: We will continue the story of Reuben Gay’s family and their search through history in next weekend’s paper.