New Black History Trail opens on anniversary of activists’ murder

New Black History Trail opens on anniversary of activists’ murder

A new Black Heritage trail has opened in Columbus showcasing the history of a once thriving, yet almost forgotten black community, weaving through the grassroots of a city long divided by Jim Crow.

The American Auto Association recently announced the inclusion of the trail on their Bi-State Black History Tour.

The stories of the places and individuals highlighted along the trail provide a comprehensive description of how black people, not only endured but made historic triumphs through it all, from pre-emancipation to post desegregation.

Almost 70 years ago this week, a local black physician, civil rights leader and community activist who is honored on the trail was assassinated. His killer was subsequently murdered almost exactly one year later, with nothing left but bare facts, accusations of a cover-up and a closet overflowing with rumor and hearsay. 

Dr. Thomas Hency Brewer, or “Chief” to many of his family and associates, was born on Nov.16, 1894, in Saco, Ala., 69 miles southwest of Columbus. He graduated from high school and college in Selma, Ala. He then went to Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., where he earned his M.D. degree.

In 1920, he came to Columbus to open what would soon become a highly successful medical practice serving black citizens on the 1000 block of First Avenue.

Below Brewer’s office was a department store called the F&B, operated by Locio Flowers, a local white businessman whose brother was a city government official. The nature of the relationship between Brewer, Flowers and city officials is still unclear.

What is known is that a specific area of downtown Columbus was the economic and social hub for black citizens and professionals, providing goods, services, and safety for the black community in the Chattahoochee Valley. As his medical practice grew, Brewer brought together a group of black professionals and other citizens to start a service based-organization called the Social Circle 25 Club. This group of black doctors, lawyers, educators, businessmen, barbers and ministers would later become the second NAACP chapter chartered in Columbus. The charter for the first NAACP chapter in Muscogee County was filed in 1909. 

Between 1920 and 1939, Brewer used his rising success and influence to champion civic issues:

  • He worked to open public spaces to blacks, including pools, gyms, golf courses and parks.
  • He pushed for voting rights, better education and desegregation of schools and the police department.
  • According to an article in The Uproar, in July 1944, Primus King, a local black barber and minister originally from Hatchechubbee, Ala., tried to vote in the Democratic Party primary. King knew that he would be denied despite being a registered voter. Brewer helped raise money to file a lawsuit against the Muscogee County Democratic Party on King’s behalf that became King v. Chapman. King won the case in 1945 in a ruling that struck down “whites only” primaries and freeing freed up black people’s right to vote in Muscogee. Following the case, Brewer registered voters throughout the 1940s until his death.
  • He was instrumental in opening Carver Park for use by the black community.
  • He helped to desegregate the police department. In 1951, four black uniformed officers were added to the police force to patrol the black section of downtown.

In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education decision stoked rising racial tensions. In 1955, the sweeping news of a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., further charged up the public. 

By early 1956, racial tensions were high, not only in Columbus, but all over the nation. Because of his unceasing civil rights efforts, Brewer faced death threats at all-time high, from organized hate groups such as the KKK and even average white citizens. At the time, it was a common practice for doctors to carry a pistol or two for protection. Given the open threats to his life, Brewer made sure he carried.

Amid all this, a documented set of arguments between Dr. Brewer and Luico Flowers had been ongoing. It is rumored that Dr. Brewer used his influence to fill a federal Postmaster position with a black man over a popular white candidate, and that Flowers refused to support the candidate, nearly resulting in a boycott.

Another argument allegedly surrounded a dispute over the handling of a black man, Sylvester Henderson, by an Officer Cannon of the Columbus Police Department. Both Brewer and Flowers allegedly witnessed the assault. Brewer claimed police brutality while Flowers said the man resisted arrest. He refused to go with Brewer to file a complaint. The true nature of the relationship between Brewer and Flowers is still cloudy.

According to the “Notice to Close File” on the case, in the first week of February 1956, Flowers reported to the Columbus Police Department threats allegedly made by Brewer. On Feb. 18, 1956, with two police officers outside and at least one inside, Brewer and Flowers had an argument inside of the F&B Department store, culminating with Flowers shooting Brewer seven times and killing him.

Flowers was admitted to the mental ward at Cobb Memorial Hospital in Phenix City, Ala. The shooting was ruled self-defense, with officials saying Brewer reached in his left pocket (which was later found to contain a pistol) and Flowers responded in fear of his life.

One year later, Flowers was found in front of the Dixie Theater, across the street from the F&B. He had been shot in the head and there were no witnesses. The Columbus Police Department ruled it a suicide and the case went cold.

The case was reopened in 2008 under the Emmett Till Cold Case Investigations and Prosecution Program, but was sealed due to lack of evidence and “other reasons.” 

Brewer’s murder had an immeasurable effect on local black civic and political power in the area, slowing down a burgeoning civil rights movement that preceded the national movement, and pushing back many a move forward towards freedom, justice and equality for black people in Columbus and beyond. Mr. E.E. Farley assumed control over the local NAACP chapter in 1956 but died of a heart attack later that year. Not ten years later, in 1965, Columbus was reported to be the “most racist” metropolitan city in Georgia. A.J. McClung, a friend of Brewer’s and the first black mayor of Columbus, said at the time that the treatment of black people in the Chattahoochee Valley was “appalling.” 

More than 2,500 people attended Brewer’s funeral. He is buried in Green Acres Cemetery, next to the park he helped to open. His stop on the Black Heritage Trail is adjacent to the elementary school named in his honor.

– J.B. Sims

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