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In Rural Georgia Town The Twain Do Meet

Fitzgerald, Ga., an unusual North-South hybrid, rallies the troops for its centenary

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1996



FITZGERALD, GA.

It's not unusual today to find a waiter with a Bronx accent in Atlanta. Or a family from Illinois with a passion for grits and a Birmingham, Ala., address. But 100 years ago, before anyone had heard of Florida sunbirds, this little town amid the pines of southern Georgia was integrating the North with the South.

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In Fitzgerald, Ga., Confederate flags hang from front porches, but there are also streets named after Gens. Sherman and Grant, a cemetery where Union soldiers lie next to Confederates, and a museum called the Blue and Gray. This is, as the brochures say, Georgia's Yank-Reb city.

It's a boast that would be considered unthinkable anywhere else this side of the Mason-Dixon line, but Fitzgerald has always been different. The town of 10,000 was settled in 1896 by Union veterans.

This month, Fitzgerald is holding a centennial celebration centered around a unity parade. The origins of the event and the town are best explained by city historian Beth Davis, who runs the Blue and Gray Museum. As a train whistles outside, she recalls how Fitzgerald came to be. In the 1890s, drought and depression devastated the Midwest, and a call went out for help.

War-ravaged Georgia was the first and the most generous to respond. Impressed, P.H. Fitzgerald, an Indianapolis newspaper editor, began writing editorials of his dream - a colony in the South where aging Union vets could leave Northern hardships behind. Vets responded overwhelmingly, and Georgia Gov. William Northern, a Confederate vet, promised to help.

Land was purchased, and in the summer of 1895 Northerners - including 2,700 Union soldiers - flocked to what was former enemy territory. "Southerners couldn't believe the Yankees were coming back to Georgia ... the former hotbed of the Confederacy," Ms. Davis says.

By the end of the first year, the colonists decided to hold a harvest festival and invited Southerners from the surrounding area. The committee in charge had planned two parades, hours apart, for Confederate, then Union vets. "They didn't want to bring too many people together and maybe start the war again," Davis chuckles.

But on the day of the parade, out came the band and behind them came the vets - "those that had worn the blue and those that had worn the gray, marching as one behind the Stars and Stripes," Davis says. "To me they were saying to Georgia and the nation ... that as far as they were concerned, that old war was done ... and this was again the United States of America."

Next week, soldiers' descendants will reenact this parade. A roll call of the states will acknowledge representatives from all states, and townspeople will perform "Our Friends, The Enemy," a drama written by Davis that is based on the city's history.

Physical evidence of Fitzgerald's past isn't all that obvious. The Lee-Grant hotel once stood in the middle of town, but that is gone now. There are a number of T-shaped Indiana-style homes and, of course, the streets named after Civil War generals. "We put the fire department on Sherman St.," quips Mayor Gerlad Thompson.

Because of its past, Fitzgerald has tried to build on the theme of unity, says Mayor Thompson. About 65 percent of residents are white and 35 percent black, with a growing Hispanic population. School integration was achieved without demonstrations or threats, he says.

"The attitude of the people was a mature one - this is our community, we're not going to tear it up. Obviously there were problems, but no one ever threatened to cause harm," Thompson says.

Despite its Yankee history, sometimes Davis has to set folks straight on things. When some people wanted to have a Confederate encampment, for example, she reminded them they would have to have a Union encampment as well. And so many people are descendants of North-South marriages that some aren't sure what uniform they'll wear during the parade.