Charlotte Frazier: Champion for the Preservation of African American Resources in Columbus
This history spotlight was taken from
the 2004 Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award script and Volunteer Preserves Columbus' Black History by Angelique Soenaire for the Ledger-Enquirer (2006).
Charlotte Hawkins Frazier (1932 – 2014) was an advocate for African American history and historic preservation in Columbus and throughout the State of Georgia. She was born in 1932 in Columbus, attended the public schools in Muscogee County, and graduated from Spencer High School. In her living room in 1972 is where her volunteer work would begin. She and several women began a discussion that day on how they could give back to their community. “It got started with Ethel Spencer,” said Frazier. The group of women that gathered in her living room were all graduates of Spencer High School and they would start a new organization, the William H. Spencer Golden Owlettes.
The original members of the Golden Owlettes were Charlotte Frazier, Maretta Habersham, Maretta Taylor, Bertha Manns, Elizabeth Scott, and Emma Cooksey. Their mission was to not only to preserve Mr. Spencer’s home and Black history in Columbus, but also to help the students at Spencer High School. Her friend, Ethel, was the daughter of William H. Spencer. In the 1900s Ethel’s father served as a teacher, principal, and Supervisor for Colored Schools. Before the integration of schools, a high school was established in 1930 for Blacks and the school was named for him. During the Owlette’s first year, members provided a partial scholarship and a trunk full of toiletries to help a Spencer High School senior go to Albany State University, an historic Black college about an hour from Columbus. The group also rented a bus that would take students to ASU.
Next, was the restoration of the Spencer House. “Ms. Spencer asked me how would I like the Spencer House for our meetings? I said, ‘oh, that would be great,’” said Frazier, who later learned her friend’s mother willed the Spencer House to the school board to be used as a library. Because there was already the Mildred Terry Library, the MCSD made the decision to put the house on the market and the Golden Owlettes were able to purchase it. With the help of city and state grants, the Spencer House was refurbished and restored by 1981.
Pictured to the right are Leonard Leavell, Charlotte Frazier, and Calvin Smyre in front of the newly restored Spencer House.
Ethel Spencer is in the center of the photo with (L - R) Charlotte Frazier, Leonard Leavell, Albert Thompson and Calving Smyre standing behind her (1980).
This spawned Charlotte’s interest in historic preservation. She did most of the foot work filling out grant applications and finding sources of funding for this project and two others that quickly became a priority for her time – the Liberty Theatre and the Ma Rainey House. All three preservation efforts were incredibly supported by elected officials Rep. Calvin Smyre and US Congressman Sanford Bishop. In 1980, she implemented the initiative to save the Liberty Theatre when Roy Martin III donated the theatre to the Golden Owlettes. Charlotte also supported its nomination and listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. She would also lead the development of the Liberty Theatre Cultural Center, Inc.
Above is the historic Liberty Theatre in 1955. Efforts to find funding to restore the theatre began in 1992 with a ground-breaking ceremony in 1995, pictured to the right. The funding for the preservation of the theatre came from a variety of people and sources. The project also received $1 Million in funding as a beneficiary of the Columbus Challenge in 1997. Historic Columbus has also been fortunate to have been a part of this significant preservation effort.
Also during this same time period, Mrs. Frazier secured the initial funds to restore the Ma Rainey house on 5th Avenue (pictured below) and she promoted Ma Rainey’s national recognition through the issuance of her stamp. She would also get proper recognition for Ma Rainey’s grave site.
For most of her adult life, Charlotte was a tireless worker for the local, state, and national Democratic Party and was awarded the prestigious Brinkley Award. She was a lifetime member of the Order of the Eastern Star and the founder of Princess Chapter #194 of Modern Free and Accepted Masons of the World, Inc. She was instrumental in acquiring the present site and building for Modern Free. She was a faithful member of First African Baptist Church and served in many capacities. In 1993, Mrs. Frazier was selected as one of the 50 most influential African Americans in Columbus, Phenix City and Ft. Benning. On a statewide level, Mrs. Frazier served on Georgia’s National Register Review Board and two terms on Columbus’s Board of Historic and Architectural Review. She also held the position of Chairman of the Georgia African American Heritage Preservation Network. Mrs. Frazier worked diligently at the state level to develop linkages between various sites associated with the “Chitlin Circuit” of theatres where African American performers played during the first half of the twentieth century. Statewide and locally, she was known for her passion and commitment to preservation. She received accolades from the Historic Chattahoochee Commission, Historic Columbus, and the Georgia Historic Preservation Division for her work. She brought long over due recognition to properties of historical and architectural significance in Columbus’s African American community. Her advocacy and perseverance would also be the driving force behind the local designation of the Liberty Heritage Historic District in 2001.
For her tireless efforts in preservation, she was awarded the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2004. Charlotte joined other outstanding Columbusites who previously received the award - Donald Beall, Janice Biggers, Alfonso Biggs, Fred Fussell, Clason Kyle, John Lupold, Mayor Bob Poydasheff, and Billy Winn. Charlotte Frazier was a retired manager for the Columbus State Farmers Market on 10th Avenue and never dreamed that her volunteer work that began in 1972 would turn into decades of service, but it did. Charlotte hoped the younger generation would visit some of the landmarks that recognize Columbus’ Black history. She said, “I can’t say I had a dream because I didn’t dream up any of that. I just more or less walked into it. Young people now can get an education and education is the most important thing…You’re constantly learning. Don’t let it slip through your fingers.”
In looking through articles about Charlotte, two words kept popping up – driving force – and she was. She was tireless in her work for the benefit of preserving our community’s Black history. I can’t express to you how thankful I am to have known her and to have worked with her. I know as former colleagues in the trenches of preservation, Janice Biggers and Virginia Peebles share the same gratitude I have for Charlotte and her work. Charlotte received Historic Columbus’ highest honor, the Sarah Turner Butler Heritage Award, in 2004. It was more than deserved. Elizabeth B. Walden, HCF Executive Director
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Historic Columbus is celebrating Women's History Month by sharing some of our community's history through the stories of individuals in our town. There is so much history that needs to be shared, and what you will see this coming month is just the beginning. More stories will continue to be shared each week throughout the year. Our community and our people have incredible stories, and Historic Columbus certainly doesn't know everything. We hope you will help us learn the rest of the story...your story, your family's story. Please consider sharing these stories with HCF to help create an oral history collection. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't worry, we will keep asking for your stories each month!