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75th Anniversary of Columbia Race Riot Acknowledges a Troubled Past and Celebrates a Promising Future

“By challenging the racial norm in Maury County, the African American community leaders and World War II veterans called national attention to the need for full civil rights for all Americans.”

By Teree Caruthers on September 20, 2021

Today, newcomers are drawn to Maury County’s welcoming, diverse and accessible community, but it hasn’t always been this way. 
Like many Southern regions, 
the county was plagued for decades by Jim Crow laws, segregation and racial tension.
That tension came to a head 
in 1946 when a dispute over a broken radio between a Black veteran, his mother and a white store clerk led to the Columbia Race Riot, a turning point in the community’s history.

“By challenging the racial norm in Maury County, the African American community leaders and World War 
II veterans called national attention to the need for full civil rights for all Americans,” says Jo Ann McClellan, Maury County historian and president and founder of the African American Heritage Society of Maury County. “Many historians believe that this event was the beginning 
of the Civil Rights Movement of 
the 1950s and 1960s.”

Critical Conversations

McClellan was one of several presenters at a program in February 2021 that marked the 75th anniversary of this pivotal moment. Hosted by Stand Together Fellowship, a group of religious and civic leaders committed to bridging Columbia’s racial divide, the event allowed community members to reflect 
on the city’s past while exploring 
the possibilities of the future.

“I am a firm believer that we must acknowledge our history so that we can understand how far we’ve come, but also realize that we have so far yet to go,” says Columbia’s Mayor Chaz Molder, one of the program speakers. “I believe it is vital that 
we not just celebrate the history that we are proud of, but also confront the history that we are not proud 
of so that it not be forgotten, lest 
it be repeated.”

Using the lessons of the past to avoid future mistakes was a main theme 
of the event, says Trent Ogilvie, pastor of Bethel Chapel AME Church in Columbia and one of the founders of Stand Together Fellowship.

“This was a painful time in our history, and even though it happened many years ago, it still impacted our community,” he says. “We felt we needed to take this opportunity 
to educate people who may not be aware of this part of our history, 
but also to look at where we are 
today as a community.”

“I am a firm believer that we must acknowledge our history so that we can understand how far we’ve come, but also realize that we have so far yet to go.”

Chaz Molder

Mayor of Columbia

Marking History, Making History

McClellan and the African American Heritage Society of Maury County have played a major role in educating the community on the contributions Blacks have made to Maury County’s history. The group curated the Path to Freedom traveling exhibit, which chronicles the education of Blacks 
in the county during the Reconstruction Period. The group also sponsors a quarterly lecture series with regional historians 
and authors and works to have official Tennessee State markers placed at Black historical sites.
McClellan says while it is important to add to the historical narrative of this growing and vibrant community, it’s also important to celebrate the progress to date and acknowledge what is possible in the future.

“Yes, Maury County has changed. The change is evident by the number of African Americans who have and are still serving on the school board and in the city and county governments,” she says. “Currently, the vice mayor of Columbia is an African American. African Americans have served as mayor and vice mayor of the city 
of Mt. Pleasant as well as on the 
Mt. Pleasant City Board of Commissioners.”

Like McClellan, Molder, too, looks to the county’s past as well as its future.

“We are a special place because we 
can celebrate our past, acknowledge our history and look forward to the future,” Molder says. “We know that our future is shaped by the actions of today. We must never hesitate to speak up and speak out for what is right.”

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