200 Years of History, 90 Feet of Paper
On a hot August Saturday, Johnny Waits stood with two assistants outside of the historic T. A. Bryant, Sr. Homestead, unrolling a 90-foot-long sheet of paper. Waits is President and Co-Founder of the Flat Rock Archives, an organization that preserves the history of one of Flat Rock, one of the oldest African-American communities in Georgia. Unrolling across a long line of tables was the Flat Rock family tree, updated after six years of meticulous research. The Waits family has resided in DeKalb County for nearly 200 years, remaining close-knit even as some members of the family left for the North during the Great Migration. Today, the family tree reveals the story of one of the oldest African-American communities in Georgia.
The African-American community of Flat Rock arose from the bounds of enslavement as, after the Civil War, community members such as T. A. Bryant, Sr. sought to keep the community together. While other rural southern black communities shrunk in the years following the Civil War, as African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South for opportunity and equality in the urban centers of the North, Flat Rock actually grew because of the work of Bryant, Sr. and others. Bryant, Sr.’s efforts were central to keeping the community together: after buying a large plot of farmland, he sold and leased small parcels of the land to other community members. Land ownership gave people a stake in the welfare of the community as a whole and kept them together in the face of immense adversity. The Waits family was one of those that became a mainstay in the Flat Rock community.
At the Family Tree Unveiling, members of the Waits family examined the document, admiring their roots and finding themselves on the massive tree. “This is where I am, right here,” Johnny Waits said, pointing to his name on the tree: “Johnny Waits, Sr. was my father, Billy Waits was his father, and go back to the slaves, John Waits was his father, and his mother was Eliza [Waits]. That’s as far as we can go back – 1833.” Other family members pointed to their own names, including Patsy Moon, the mother of NFL quarterback Warren Moon and the oldest attendee at the family reunion. As well as Warren Moon, notable descendants of the Flat Rock community include actor and comedian Chris Tucker. Flat Rock’s legacy of resilience has produced a rich story that spans generations and which continues today.
Want to discover the history of Flat Rock for yourself? You can join one of the Flat Rock Archives tours here, or you can head over to the DeKalb History Center to see the exhibit Deep Roots in DeKalb, which depicts the history of Flat Rock with artifacts on loan from the Archives.