Virginia Grogan Williams is a fast-talking 88-year-old woman with a big cackle of a laugh. She lives on Grogan Street, named after her grandfather.
Shake her hand, meet her 99-year-old sister, Mary Frances Mahan, sit down on her front porch, and here’s what you learn in the first 20 seconds:
“I will tell you what I can. I’m an old-time citizen. First, I’ll start with this house. You can see it’s old. It’s over 100 years old.
“Our father was named Eugene Grogan. His father’s name was Richard Grogan; his mother was named Molly Grogan. They lived here in this house and reared up all their children.
“My father was born in this house. And so were all of us–his children. My mother’s name was Mazie Loyal Grogan.
“There were six of us in all–one boy and five girls. Three of us are left. We were all born in this house.”
The small home, full of photos and mementos of the generations that have lived there, sits on an acre of land at the corner of Grogan and Manget streets, a half-block from busy South Marietta Parkway.
It is a piece of property that developers have lusted after over the years, but the Grogans and their children were never interested in selling, even during the last boom before the housing bubble burst.
“I think they wanted to purchase this whole block,” Williams said. “They got as far as Haley Street [one block north of Grogan], and they ran out of money. After the recession came they couldn’t go any farther.
“We had told them we didn’t think it was wise but they wouldn’t listen to us. We said this was a family-oriented community–people living in houses, and it looked better that way. But they said they needed to make progress. We told them it wouldn’t be right.
“I learned from a book from my daughter. She had this book about the elderly and in that book it says that a healthy community is one with adults, children and the elderly. That’s a healthy community. The children are the progress for the future. The adults, they’re the present. The elderly have the wisdom.
“So they didn’t know that wisdom of the neighborhood. We told them.
“I believe in change. I believe in progress. You need it. But not to the extent that you hurt people who have been there for a long time and they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The Grogan house was built around 1900. Williams grew up during the Depression in what was then a small, rural African-American community about a mile southwest of the Marietta Square.
“Our daddy had all the things you were allowed to have back then–cows, chickens, hogs,” Williams remembered over the hum of traffic on the South Loop. Crops were grown along the side of the house. Remnants of the original family barn are still on the property, along with the meat house and the base of a long-capped well.
“We got our mail down on the corner, Williams, said, pointing south past the parkway. “The thing about it, there was a creek there that had a deep bank, so my daddy put a log so we could go across the creek.”
When Williams was a child the neighborhood, just three houses on Grogan (then called Franklin Street) and a few more on Haley Street, was called “Racetrack.”
“They called us the Racetrack Girls, as a matter of fact,” Williams said with one of her hearty laughs. “They had some place, over near where the Civic Center is now, where they would race cars and things. It was either horses or cars that they raced over there, I don’t want to tell you which.
“I never went over there. Our parents didn’t allow us to get too far. They would watch over us.”
A bit farther down the road was a prison farm, Williams said. “All the land beyond Fairground [Street] on toward where Southern Tech is, that was their farm land. They made the prisoners raise their own vegetables and meat.
“We would sit on the porch. They would work the prisoners up and down the road. It was dirt back then. They would have to clean off the banks and maintain it. It used to be Clay Street, now it’s May-retta South Parkway.”
(Virginia Grogan Williams never says “Marietta.” She’s been here too long for that.)
Her father, Eugene Grogan, worked for Georgia Power maintaining the electric street car line that ran into Atlanta. Everyone called him “Hustle,” Williams said, because he was always working at something.
“He had a great relationship with a lot of people in this town. During Depression times they shared with us. Anything they had they shared with us.
“We lived on this corner and we lived in peace. And we had a lot of white friends. I never knew what segregation was, really, because we played together. We got along.”
As she got older, Williams remembers, she learned about the Ku Klux Klan. “They would be burning crosses off in the woods,” she said, “but I never saw them.”
The Marietta school system was not integrated until 1967, so Williams and her sisters and brother went to all-black schools, including Lemon Street High. Nearby was Cole Street Missionary Baptist Church, a focal point for the family to this day.
“I’ve been in that church all my life,” Williams said. “I was baptized when I was nine years old. All my sisters and my brother were baptized there, too.”
Williams’ son, Clyde, who works at Lockheed, is a lay minister at the church.
“My son helps me a great deal with this place,” Williams said. “He’s a good child. Well, he’s not a child, he’s 51 years old. But to a mother, you know, you’re always a child.”
Williams left Marietta for about 13 years when her husband went into the ministry and took positions to lead churches in Rome and Gainesville. The couple separated, and Williams moved back into her parents’ home in 1971. She worked for many years as an aide at a daycare center, near her church.
“I moved back with my sister, Eleanor. She died about two years ago. Then we encouraged my sister [Mary Frances] to come back home. I’ve been kind of looking after her.
“I have two daughters. One is in South Carolina, Colombia. And my daughter here is Wanda Bennett. They are very, very sweet girls, and they want me to remain alert as long as I can, so there are some things they will not do for me. They let me pay my bills and do all that stuff. There’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lost it.’ They are available to help but they want me to do it.”
Williams was once known in the neighborhood for her “prayer walking.”
“I got to where I can’t walk as far as I’d like to, but every time I’d ever go to the post office or doctor or anywhere, I walked. And anywhere I went I’d be praying for the neighbors, the neighborhood, God’s protection, God’s unity, God’s peace.”
Sitting on her porch with her sister, who turns 100 in July, Williams looks out at quite a different view from when she was a child. What was once a creek and crops is now the back of a Shell gas station. She hopes the place will be remembered in a better light.
“My daddy left this to his children,” Williams said. “And whenever we leave here it still will be in the hands of our children. They want to keep it as a historic place. And it is historic. They say Frasier Street is historic. Some of us have been over here longer than people on Frasier. All of this is historic. All of it.
“This is my heritage,” she adds. “I’m proud of this house. This is a house of peace.”