Thomasville: Historian And Crusader

Jack Hadley is on a one-man crusade to preserve the vanishing remnants of black history. In the process, he’s helping put Thomasville on the map.

The Air Force veteran almost didn’t return to his native Thomasville after retirement from the service in 1984, but he couldn’t resist the siren song of his Georgia home.

He likes to say God picked him to do a job no one else would have taken on. That task is carefully preserving the artifacts of black history so younger generations can appreciate what has gone before.

“It’ll be good for the children – black and white – to know how African Americans helped build and shape this country,” he says. “It was not built by the white man alone.”

He began by collecting artifacts and records of black history stretching back to the days of slavery. Thousands of these records are carefully stored in his home. They’re awaiting the opening next year of the Thomasville Black History Museum on the former campus of Douglass High – the segregated black high school that operated from 1902 to 1970 and later, following integration, as a middle school, then an elementary school.

“At 69 years old, I need to get this stuff housed someplace in case the Good Lord calls me home. At least it will be in a museum that a board will be able to move forward on,” Hadley says.

After organizing the Douglass High Alumni Association, Hadley succeeded in getting the school board to sell the campus to his group once the facility closed in 2002. Today it’s being used for after school programs for black youth, but a 5,000-square-foot space is set aside to house historical exhibits.

Opening the museum is the ultimate goal of Hadley’s crusade to gain recognition for the city’s black achievers. Another was organizing the Thomasville Black Heritage Trail. This driving tour of the city is a journey through time that spans the centuries.

The life of Henry O. Flipper, a former slave who became the first black graduate of West Point, figures prominently in the tour. One of the first stops is the home of Flipper’s slave master, now a bed and breakfast. Also on the tour is the home of the nation’s first black railroad inspector. The tour includes cemeteries, churches, schools and the old Imperial Hotel that accommodated guests such as B.B. King, the King Perry Band and other entertainers who couldn’t stay in the city’s white-only hotels.

Hadley began with just 18 sites important to black history; since then the number has risen to 68. A few are on the National Register of Historic Places.

On a drive through a predominantly black neighborhood, Hadley summarizes what he’s working to overcome, “Most of the people walking the streets have no idea what they’re passing by.”

He has conducted many visitors on tours of the trail and regularly visits schools to spread the word of the city’s rich heritage. He’s also a tireless campaigner to gain official recognition for Thomasville’s great citizens – particularly Lt. Flipper. Thanks in large part to Hadley’s efforts, the local library dedicated a room to Lt. Flipper, complete with a bronze bust of the young cavalry officer. After some effort, a branch post office was named in Flipper’s honor and now Hadley is leading the fight to honor him with a stamp.

If Hadley sometimes seems like a man in a hurry, it’s because he realizes he is in a race against time. For every artifact, document or old photo he preserves, much more is slipping away. “A lot of black history is being put in the ground,” he says, but for now, at least some is safe for the generations to come.

Categories: Southwest