Columnist: A fresh outlook on LaGrange

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 11, 2016

I used to look at this city as an outsider. Now it’s my home.

I have visited LaGrange all my life. I lived in Montgomery as a child, and I went to high school in suburban Atlanta, but LaGrange was often the place for family gatherings.

My mother grew up in Troup County, and her Aunt Betty and cousins Louise and Maureen lived here. Back in those days, everyone within a 40-mile radius of LaGrange shopped at Mansour’s.

Later my parents retired in LaGrange, so I visited more often – enjoying Thanksgiving meals at Callaway Gardens and candlelight Christmas services at First Baptist. I shopped in antique stores downtown, ate many Southern meals at Mama Sherry’s Buffet and jogged along the edge of West Point Lake.

But I am now a LaGrange resident. I moved into my new home on Sept. 2. And I have to say I’ve discovered a new side to this sleepy Southern town.

First impressions are not always accurate.

During my earlier visits to LaGrange, I misjudged this city as slow, old-fashioned and racially segregated. Maybe it was the Georgia humidity, but LaGrange seemed stuck in a time warp. The Southern drawls seemed thicker, progress moved at the pace of molasses and people even seemed to drive slower!

It also seemed racially divided. Nobody said it out loud, but it seemed there were still black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods – along with black churches and white churches. That made me uncomfortable.

I never imagined I would live here. But because my dad fell in his backyard in May and is now recovering from a traumatic brain injury, my wife and I moved to LaGrange to care for him and my mother. We bought a house, I set up my office in town and we are adjusting to life in west Georgia.

Now that I live here, I see LaGrange from a different perspective. And I like what I see:

• In my new neighborhood, my closest neighbors are African-American and Korean;

• At my new gym, Planet Fitness on Commerce Avenue, blacks, whites and Koreans are lifting weights together;

• At the first church my wife and I visited last Sunday, City Light Church, the congregation was racially diverse;

• At LaGrange Nursing and Rehab where my father is recovering, black and white nurses work happily side-by-side, and the African-American man who sits with my dad in the evenings, Bobby Bridges, has become like a part of my family.

I moved here from Central Florida, and I lived just a few miles from the neighborhood where Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012. I have grown weary of the recent wave of racial violence that has plagued this country.

But it gives me great hope to see what is happening in this community. LaGrange is 49 percent black, 43 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. And more change is coming. As LaGrange’s economy improves, and more people hear about what a great place this is to live, our population is likely to become even more diverse.

I’m excited to be a part of the change.

As much as I hate to see the old Mansour’s department store demolished to make room for a new hotel, I believe we need to let go of old attitudes to embrace a new day. We can still enjoy all the Southern charm this city offers: the fishing, the humidity, the front porches, the casseroles and cornbread, the iced tea – and of course the football!

But now we can enjoy it together. We are demolishing the walls that divide us.

Thank you for welcoming me, LaGrange. I am glad to call this place my home.

J. Lee Grady Lee Grady

J. Lee Grady

Guest columnist

J. Lee Grady is an author and former editor of Charisma magazine. He and his wife moved to LaGrange from Longwood, Florida. Lee is the director of The Mordecai Project, a Christian charitable organization that is confronting gender-based violence in nations where women and girls suffer from abuse and cultural oppression.