When many people drive up Walton Way and pass the enormous historical homes near Augusta University’s Summerville campus, they’ll immediately say that they have entered “The Hill” area.
But, according to some longtime Augustans, if you haven’t turned down Johns Road and met the people living in the homes along streets such as Fitten Street, Dana Avenue, Mount Auburn Street, Collins Alley, Monte Sano Avenue, Gardner Street and Fleming Avenue, you don’t know “the real Hill.”
In fact, many people from the Sand Hills neighborhood believe they are the heart and soul of the Hill.
“Long ago, the Hill used to be sand before they paved the roads. That’s where they got the name from, Sand Hills,” said Sadie McCoy, a longtime resident of the Sand Hills neighborhood. “What folks don’t know is, a lot of the people on the Hill, the black families, owned their own homes and land. They were hard-working people who wanted better for their families.”
Generations of people who grew up in Sand Hills always knew they could depend on their neighbors for kindness and support, McCoy said.
“In our neighborhood, we all went to the same church, we all went to school together, and a lot of times our school teachers went to the same church, so it was always like a big family,” McCoy said. “Everybody knew everybody, and we would always watch out for each other.”
That kind of close-knit neighborhood is hard to find these days, said longtime Sand Hills resident Stephanie Harrison Neal.
“When we were little, people used to think we were rich and we had money because we lived on the Hill,” Neal said. “We were African-American and we lived on the Hill.
But what people didn’t realize was, our families were the help. We stayed in the row houses and the smaller houses behind the big houses, so those were the things that people didn’t know.”
“It was tough sometimes because we were being prejudged by where we lived,” she added, “but it brought all of us living in the neighborhood closer together.”
About eight years ago, several women who grew up in Sand Hills decided it was time to celebrate their neighborhood and the place they call home.
“One day, we were sitting around and talking about our great history and we decided that we wanted to celebrate the positive aspects of the Hill,” Neal said. “What inspired us was, we were just talking about all the fun we used to have and how the Hill used to be years ago and we said, ‘We ought to have a Hill reunion. We just need to bring back all the people who went away and get them to come on home and celebrate Sand Hills.’ So that’s what we did.”
Starting in 2010, Sand Hills began throwing its own reunion and inviting the entire community to come celebrate the neighborhood’s past and future.
This year, the reunion will be held at the Sand Hills Community Center and surrounding park at 2540 Wheeler Road on Saturday, Sept. 8, starting at 8 a.m.
“The first year’s reunion in 2010 wasn’t that big. It started out with a few people, maybe 75 to 100 people,” McCoy said. “Now, we have about 700 people. It’s a huge event. And we talk about it all year long. Everybody can’t wait until this weekend. People now come from out of town because they don’t want to miss it.”
In fact, by Thursday, Sept. 6, some families will already be marking their spaces around the community center to set up their grills and lawn chairs.
“They might be out there on Wednesday,” Neal said, laughing. “They will already be marking their spots. You’ll see stakes already in the ground.”
THE HISTORY OF ‘THE REAL HILL’
Neal, McCoy and sisters Marla and Carla Choice began organizing the reunion in 2010 to honor Sand Hill’s legacy and help erase some of the negative connotations now associated with their neighborhood.
The late Mary Clark of the Sand Hills neighborhood also was one of the original women who helped organize the reunion.
“We wanted people to see that we had a great representation of wonderful folks who lived on the Hill but some have moved away,” Neal said. “We wanted to bring some of those people back home to let Augusta know what we’re all about.”
The Sand Hills Historic District, which was also once known as Elizabethtown according to the National Park Service, is a historically African-American neighborhood right next to Summerville.
The original name, Elizabethtown, was created by the Summerville neighborhood in the late 1800s in honor of Elizabeth Fleming, who was the daughter of Porter Fleming, a wholesale grocer in Augusta.
The Fleming plantation, called “Westover,” was on the northwest edge of the district, and a number of Summerville residents, including the Cumming and Fleming families and Judge William Watts Montgomery Jr., originally owned the Sand Hills land, according to the National Park Service.
However, soon after the end of the Civil War, African-American residents began settling into the Sand Hills area and many began working for the nearby wealthy homeowners.
There are several historic churches in the neighborhood including Cumming Grove Baptist, built in 1867 and rebuilt in 1915, and the Rock of Ages Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1890.
By 1936, the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works funded construction of Weed School for the children in the neighborhood, according to the National Park Service.
But there’s so much more to Sand Hills than what people can read in the history books, Marla Choice said.
“Everyone is very tight here,” Marla Choice said. “And one of the greatest things about our neighborhood is, we had educators who lived here who truly looked out for our best interests. So if there was a problem at school, they would come to your home and talk to your parents. They knew you and your parents on a first-name basis. As well as all of your siblings, too. They taught generations of people in Sand Hills.”
The neighborhood schools and churches were really invested in the future of the children of Sand Hills, Marla Choice said.
“There are four churches on the Hill and most everyone on the Hill are members of one of those four churches,” Marla Choice said. “There’s Cumming Grove Baptist Church, Rock of Ages CME Church on Johns Road, Elim Baptist Church on Mount Auburn Street and then Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church. So,
while some people might think it’s unusual for a neighborhood to have a reunion, we are all just that close. So, it’s very special to us. Very special.”
The Sand Hills reunion is a day when the entire neighborhood gets together to eat, laugh, visit and simply have fun, Neal said.
“We provide a lot of free, fun activities for the kids, like we have bounce houses and one year we had clowns and we have a woman who does face painting,” Neal said. “We also have an ice cream truck. And we feed the community hot dogs and hamburgers. When we first started out, we were feeding them full-course meals, but it’s gotten so big, we now offer free hot dogs and hamburgers.”
McCoy said it has always been extremely important to the organizers of the reunion that no one ever feels left out of the celebration.
“You won’t leave hungry,” McCoy said, laughing. “We tell people to bring their own grills and food, but we still feed a lot of people. We take care of everybody.”
And people don’t have to live in Sand Hills or be a former resident of the neighborhood to come to the reunion, Neal said.
“It is open to anybody. We don’t discriminate,” Neal said. “Everyone is welcome to come.”
A DAY TO CELEBRATE SAND HILLS
Not only do the organizers make sure everyone is having fun, but they also try to provide residents with valuable information, Neal said.
“We did a health fair inside the community center last year. We had literature set up about different things about their health,” Neal said. “And we also had a station set up for voter registration. We’ll do that again this year.”
In fact, people should not be surprised if they see a few politicians up for re-election attending the reunion, Neal said.
“A lot of politicians come out to our reunions,” Neal said. “In the past, we’ve had Sheriff Richard Roundtree come out as well as other politicians like Eugene Yu and John Barrow. We’ve also had Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick, commissioners Marion Williams and Bill Fennoy, Judge Monique Walker and Marshal Ramone Lamkin.”
“We’ve also had Judge Kellie Kenner McIntyre. She’s actually a Hill-billy,” Neal added, joking that’s a humorous nickname given to current or former residents of Sand Hills.
In fact, there are also several famous “Hill-billies” from Sand Hills, Neal said.
“Will Avery played in the NBA. He’s from the Hill,” Neal said, adding that Avery played for the Minnesota Timberwolves. “And then there’s Ricky Moore.”
Moore played basketball at the University of Connecticut and led the school to its first national championship in 1999. After graduating, Moore played overseas for 11 seasons before becoming an assistant coach at Dartmouth College and eventually UConn.
Another former resident of the Hill is James “Mike” White, who is the head football coach at Benedict College in South Carolina, she said.
“But we are proud of all of our former and current residents of the Hill,” Neal said. “Because we play a big role in this community. A lot of people recognize Sand Hills residents by our uncles and fathers and cousins who were caddies over at the Augusta National.”
There are many former and current caddies of the Augusta National Golf Course who live in Sand Hills, McCoy said.
“My husband caddied for Gary Player,” McCoy said. “And both of my brothers caddied. One of my brothers still is a caddy.”
Neal agreed that many of the men in Sand Hills are extremely familiar with the grounds of the Augusta National.
“My dad was a caddy too, but he died a month ago,” Neal said. “He was Raymond Floyd’s caddy. So, we have a lot to be proud of in the Hill.”
Anyone attending the reunion on Saturday will clearly see how proud the community is by the large number of people sporting this year’s reunion T-shirt designed by Trex Bolick III of Trexco Associates, Neal said.
“Every year, we have a different color T-shirt. This year the color is camouflage and the front says, ‘The REAL Hill’ and the logo we are using is an image of the old Martins Grocery, which was established in 1888,” Neal said. “On the back, we have the wording, ‘Take a walk down memory lane,’ and we list every street that is on the Hill.”
However, Neal admitted that listing the roads within the Sand Hills neighborhood does stir up some controversy every year.
“There are two parts of the Hill,” Neal said. “Some people get upset when they don’t see their street name on the back of the T-shirt. It’s still the Hill, but we’ve been told that this side of Highland Avenue, on the Surrey Center side, is called ‘the country.’”
Neal couldn’t help but chuckle.
“That’s what they used to call it,” Neal said. “Anything from the old WifeSaver on down was the country. So we don’t name those streets, and some people don’t like it.”
But there are a lot of people from Sand Hills who have relocated to “the country,” McCoy said.
“Even me. I moved from that side of the Hill over to this side. I live right across from Surrey Center,” McCoy said, laughing. “In fact, I remember way back when they were building Surrey Center. And I remember when Talbots used to be a Winn-Dixie. But even though I live over here now, I still say I’m from the Hill. It’s just not the real Hill.”
The slogan, “The Real Hill,” is simply a way residents can show their pride in the Sand Hills neighborhood, Neal said. “The reason we call it ‘The Real Hill’ is because there’s Glenn Hills High School off of Glenn Hills Drive and some people try to call that area, ‘the hill.’ And I think some people call the area around FOXIE 103 in North Augusta ‘the hill,’ too,” Neal said. “But that’s not the Hill. This is the real Hill. Sand Hills.”
The Sand Hills Reunion
Saturday, Sept. 8, starting at 8 a.m.
Sand Hills Community Center and Park
2540 Wheeler Road