From Corporal Eugene Bullard, the world’s first black combat aviator, Horace King, a former slave and master bridge builder, Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, to the Liberty Theatre, black heritage is an important part of the Heritage of Columbus, Georgia.
Among the many celebrities that have appeared on the stage of the Springer Opera House was a certain Columbus native who is more often than not remembered by her famous stage-name, “Ma” Rainey. Born in Columbus in 1886, young Gertrude Pridgett made her first public appearance at the turn-of-the-century before Springer patrons in a local talent show called “Bunch of Blackberries”. Within the next few years, she married a fellow performer, Will “Pa” Rainey, and they began touring the South, singing and dancing in black minstrel troupes on the Southern vaudeville circuit.
Because Ma Rainey’s “blues” style of singing was so original, she enjoyed success through most of the 1920s as a talent whose voice was immortalized on some ninety-four recordings that were sold around the country. As “Mother of the Blues”, Ma Rainey recorded alongside such “jazz” notables as Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey.
After an impressive career on the road, Ma Rainey returned to her native Columbus in 1935, where she spent the last four years of her life. Gertrude Pridgett Rainey died at the age of fifty-three in 1939 and is buried in Columbus’s Porterdale Cemetery.
Playwright August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a theatrical success on roadway in 1984 and was presented at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1991. The play is based on actual situations in which black artists like Ma Rainey found themselves working during the 1920s. Efforts to bring more attention to the artistic achievements of this great performer continue to be made in Columbus. A plaque, placed in her memory, hangs inside the Springer Opera House.
Her house, located at 805 Fifth Avenue, was nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. It was fully restored in 2006 and is now open to the public.
One of the most extraordinary personalities living in nineteenth century Columbus was a musical prodigy known as “Blind Tom”.
Born near Columbus (on the old Warm Springs Road) in 1849, Thomas Wiggins – later called Thomas G. Bethune – spent his childhood as a slave on the Columbus plantation of General James N. Bethune.
Blind at birth, “Blind Tom” was considered a “human mockingbird” capable of hearing an intricate musical composition and sitting down at the piano to reproduce what he had heard, often without making a single mistake. His expertise at the piano as a child was particularly amazing to those around him, since had been given no musical instruction of any kind.
Local historians believe that “Blind Tom” was only eight years old when he started performing before audiences in the Columbus area. As a young adult, during the Civil War, he toured Europe and is said to have performed before royalty. After the war, he performed in a number of American cities and even thrilled audiences at Columbus?s Springer Opera House.
Considered one of “the most amazing musical prodigies that has ever been known”, “Blind Tom” died in 1908 in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he had been living with a member of the Bethune family.
“Blind Tom” is believed to be buried in the old West family cemetery (a part of Westmoreland plantation) in Midland, Georgia.
A state historic marker stands nearby, on Warm Springs Road, as a memorial to this exceptional talent.
HORACE KING, MASTER BRIDGE BUILDER
Today, it is easy enough to cross the Chattahoochee River in order to go from Columbus to Phenix City; it is simply a matter of choosing the bridge that is most convenient for the traveler. However, bridges have not always spanned the Chattahoochee.
In 1832, a contract for construction of the first public bridge over the river, Dillingham Bridge, was given to a South Carolinian named John Godwin (b.1798-1859). When Godwin began building the bridge that same year, he had at his side a talented black man whose name would become one of the most celebrated in architectural history of East Alabama and West Central Georgia: Horace King.
King, a South Carolina native who was born into slavery in 1807, became known as a master builder of bridges and buildings in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. His freedom from slavery was accomplished by Godwin’s petition submitted to the Alabama General Assembly in 1846.
By the 1870s, King had built his famous “lattice bridges” over the Chattahoochee River (at West Point, Columbus, Ft. Gaines), the Flint River (at Albany), and the Oconee River (at Milledgeville). Before the end of his life, King was even known as a political figure, having served in the post-Civil War Alabama Legislature as a state representative from Russell County.
After John Godwin’s death in 1859, King erected a monument over his grave in the old Godwin cemetery in Phenix City that reads: “This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.”
In the 1870s, King moved to LaGrange, Georgia, where he and his sons prospered through the work of their construction firm. King died in 1887 and is buried in LaGrange’s Stonewall Cemetery.
Dr. William H. Green, an authority on the life and work of Horace King, has said of King: “Laborer and legislator, his life was an astonishing symbolic bridge – a bridge not only between states, but between men. Like one of his stately Town lattice bridges, Horace King'S life soars above the murky waters historical limitations, of human bondage and racial prejudice. He did not change the currents of social history, but he did transcend them and stands as a reminder of our common humanity, the potential of human spirit, the power of human respect.”