Recognizing Wilkenson

Published 7:22 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dear Editor,

LaGrange will soon debut its first roundabout, says the city’s Twitter feed.

Statistics show roundabouts are safer for drivers. They reduce T-bone collisions and improve the expediency of traffic.

A roundabout is a positive step for America’s Greatest Little City, but something major is missing.

Long before the roundabout, or the adjacent Candler Hall dorms at LaGrange College, Giles Wilkenson owned 4.5 acres at the corner of Broad Street and Country Club Road, where the roundabout is under construction.

Wilkenson, a free black man during the brutal era of Southern slavery, died three years after the Civil War ended, according to Troup County historian Clark Johnson.

“There are deeds from his property records, and a little notice (in the newspaper) from 1868 saying ‘Uncle Giles’ died,” Johnson told me for a May 5, 2016, article when I worked as a reporter for the Daily News.

The story inspired Johnson.

“I’ve suggested to several people — because that’s like a little park over there (where the roundabout will be) — that they should name it Wilkenson Park,” Johnson told me in 2016.

He’s right. That place should be named for Wilkenson.

As a government reporter, I brought this to LaGrange City Manager Meg Kelsey’s attention about two years ago, when the roundabout was in its planning stages. I encouraged her to dedicate a park in the center of the roundabout to honor Wilkenson, and all African Americans who contributed to LaGrange’s success.

LaGrange has made strides in embracing racial equality. I remember U.S. Department of Justice agents, by court order, visiting my high school classes in the early 2000s to check if the school was racially integrated.

Since then, the city has progressed, notably with its January acknowledgement of the lynching of Austin Callaway. The story made national headlines — but it’s not over. The momentum must continue.

City officials have an opportunity to make a statement with the roundabout. Elected and appointed authorities have the chance to show future Grangers that LaGrange knows where it came from, and where it’s going.

The city can build all the amphitheaters and breweries it wants — but until LaGrange builds a culture of racial equality and respect, there will be no true growth.

A Giles Wilkenson Park inside the roundabout would be a start.

Tyler H. Jones