Henry Grady

 1850 - 1889

Born May 24, 1850 in Athens, GA, Henry Woodfin Grady was the son of wealthy, slave-owning plantation aristocrats. He was raised in the culture and philosophies of the South, the Confederacy, and the War for Southern Independence. As a teenager, he witnessed probably the fiercest fighting of that war in his home state and lost his father to a Yankee bullet.

Yet in the tumultous decades following the war when hatreds lingered in many, it was a conciliatory Grady who sought to establish a NEW SOUTH in which the past was put to rest. "There was a South of slavery and secession--that South is dead. There is now a South of union and freedom--that South, thank God, is living, breathing, and growing every hour," he said in an 1886 speech before a spellbound dinner audience in New England that included the likes of J.P. Morgan and H.M. Flagler. From that time on, the flamboyant young journalist from Atlanta had the ear of the nation's most important manipulators of money and public opinion.

At 36, Henry W. Grady had become a nationally acclaimed public speaker, a respected proponent of the South's economic opportunities for northern industrialists, and a cheerleader for a mythical Atlanta in which Blacks and whites lived together in peace, harmony, and mutual respect.

He was educated in the classical tradition befitting a southern gentleman of the time at the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia, where he was especially interested in Greek and Anglo-Saxon Languages, history, and literature. Upon graduation he held a series of brief journalistic jobs with the Rome (GA) Courier, the Atlanta Herald, and the New York Herald.

After New York, Grady returned to the South as a reporter-editor for the Atlanta Constitution. In 1880 with borrowed money, he bought a fourth interest in the paper and began a nine-year career as Georgia's most celebrated journalist. On the business end, he quickly built the newspaper into the state's most influential with a national circulation of 120,000.

But Georgia's economic future was Grady's most fervent mission. He was dedicated to rebuilding a decimated South after the war. When a visit to Florida introduced him to the possibilities of growing citrus fruits, he returned to Atlanta and wrote glowing articles which gave the new industry a decided impetus. He next adopted the watermelon and numerous other truck crops as potential business opportunities for Georgia. One historian noted that Grady's articles on the "mild-eyed Jerseys were prose poems with an ubiquitous quality that made the reader anxious to go into the dairy or cattle business without delay."

Others praised the Grady's great passion for political oratory (he supported Prohibition and a Georgia veterans' home for disabled or elderly Confederate soldiers), commitment to the new peace, and charmingly unihibited sense of humor.

That sense of humor and quick wit got Grady through more than one difficult situation. Once at a banquet of northern elites, he was waxing eloquently about the brilliant prospects for northern investments in a New South determined to rise from the ashes of defeat. Suddenly, Grady spotted in the audience, General William T. Sherman, the celebrated Yankee soldier who was credited with defeating and burning much of Georgia, and particularly Atlanta, on his infamous "march to the sea." Without missing a beat, Grady acknowledged the general by noting that the people of Georgia thought Sherman an able military man, "but a might careless about fire."

In another speech, Grady wanted to chastise gently his Southern audience for what he believed to be Georgia's economic shortcomings. Rather than pounding them with statistics, he entertained them with stories that made the points. He said, "Once I attended an unusually sad funeral in Pickens County. The deceased was an unfortunate fellow of the one-gallus brigade, whose breeches struck him underneath the arm-pits and hit him at the other end at about the knee...They buried him in the midst of a marble quarry. They cut him through solid marble to make his grave, and yet the little headstone they put above him came from Vermont. They buried him in the heart of a pine forest and yet the rude pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in the coffin and the shovel they used was imported from Pittsburgh. They buried him by the side of the best sheep-grazing country on earth, and yet the wool inside the coffin and the wool bands they used in lowering his body were brought from the North. The South furnished nothing for that funeral but the hole in the ground and the corpse."

Grady's prestige reached such a height that he became the only non-member ever to adjourn the Georgia Legislature. It occurred on the election of Grover Cleveland to the presidency. News of the close contest arrived at 11 a.m. during the Legislature's session. In his exhuberance, Grady rushed to the Capitol with the announcement. He brushed past the door keeper and into the chamber shouting in senatorial tones, "Mr. Speaker, a message from the American people."

Sensing the purpose of the intrusion, the Speaker offered Grady a place by his side. However, Grady strode up the aisle to the Speaker's desk, grabbed the Speaker's gavel, and cried out, "In the name of the American people, I declare this House adjourned in honor of the electionof the first Democratic President in twenty-five years."

Although the Grady star rose quickly and shone brightly, it also went out early. By age 39, Henry W. Grady was dead. True to his flare for drama, he was buried on Christmas Day in 1889, the victim of what was believed to have been pneumonia.

Like so many American heroes before him, Grady's reputation plummeted in the late twentieth century. Some recent historians have labeled him a pro-business hack with racist beliefs he was eager to to propagate to all who would listen. He is said to to have promoted the notion of a strong-bodied, compliant Black labor force willing to work for low wages as an enticement for northern business interests.

According to Donald Grant in The Way It Was In the South, written in 1993, Grady believed that Blacks had fared well under the southern post-slavery economic system. He frequently insisted that separate schools, transportation and housing for Blacks and whites were "equal" and that such separation was desired by both races. Grant calls Grady's remarks that "No section shows a more prosperous laboring population than the Southern negroes..."and that "relations of the white southerners and the negroes are close and cordial" either dishonest or stupid. Borrowing from Mark Twain, Grant describes Grady as the "type who would have the dollar as their God, and how-to-get-it their religion."

Thus, opinion on Henry Grady runs the full gamut of history--from saint to sinner. In fact, as with most human beings, the truth about Grady probably runs somewhere in the middle. The Atlanta Journal Constitution's Cynthia Tucker wrote recently, "There is much to know about (Grady). His contributions should be respected not out of some misplaced reverence for the past, but because of his significant role in Atlanta's present. Those who are tempted to dismiss him as just another Dead White Guy should know that he was one of those boosters who helped create the New South's shining city...Grady was no crusader for the equal rights of Black Americans. In fact, he earned the tag "moderate" only because of his belief in the natural superiority of whites was tempered by paternalism. But in the context of the growing threat of the Ku Klux Klan and other immoderate racists, moderation mattered."

To view him in the context of his times also matters.