As remembered by Annette Jones
February 20, 2013
Ten days before Christmas in 1916, Samuel Benjamin Wells was born. He grew up in my home town of Albany, Georgia in Dougherty County where he was destined to become a guiding force in the lives of many in Albany and in other areas of southwest Georgia. He and his wife, the former Bessie Blakely, welcomed four children into their union: Cynthia, Samuel Jr., Sherman, and Deborah.
I did not meet Rev. Wells until 1957 when I was a junior in high school. One day while I was visiting a friend, Rev. Wells bounded up her front porch steps wearing one of the biggest and brightest smiles I had ever seen. After my friend and her family greeted him warmly and invited him in, he looked at me and asked, "And who is this young lady?" My friend's mother introduced us and said he was a deacon at Mt. Olive Baptist Church Number II. He immediately asked me what church I belonged to, if I attended regularly and if I participated in church activities. He was energetic, friendly and outgoing, asking questions about my classes at school and about my plans for the future. What impressed me about him was that he really listened to what I had to say.
I did not see him again until October, 1961 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Albany and opened an office. I saw him more and more after the beginning of The Albany Movement — November, 1961 — an organization formed by the coming together of SNCC and other civic groups in Albany. I remembered him right away. He appeared to be even more energetic than before. He was one of the first ministers to accept and welcome SNCC and its policies (community organization, voter registration, direct action and jail no bail) into Albany's Black community. He was excited about SNCC's intentions to start a massive voter registration project in southwest Georgia and he was excited about The Albany Movement and its intentions to launch a full scale battle against segregation and racism in Albany.
By then, he had become a minister. For twenty years he served as the pastor of Blue Springs Baptist Church in Sylvester, Georgia, a town near Albany, in Worth County. By all accounts, he was well-liked and respected by his congregation to whom he delivered dynamic sermons in his unique down to earth style.
I remember how he reached out to young people and how he and I often talked. A WW II veteran, he once told me that not only was he disturbed about the discrimination and segregation that Black people were subjected to in Albany, but he still was disturbed about the way he and other Black veterans had been treated when they came home from the war (That was during the time when Black soldiers were often beaten and harassed by White racists if they appeared in public in uniform.) He said that he resented the fact that after having fought for his country, he came home and was treated like a second class citizen. He gave me the impression that he had been waiting for the right time to take a bold step against segregation and discrimination. In 1961, SNCC and The Albany Movement became the channels through which he would work for civil and human rights in Albany and southwest Georgia. Rev. Wells was fired up and good and ready to be in the thick of everything that the Albany Movement advocated.
I remember him as a self-motivated man of vision with many talents that he used with intensity and purpose in everything he undertook. He was an excellent organizer and planner who understood the importance of keeping records. And keep records he did, with an artistic flair, whether in journals, scrapbooks, posters or note pads. He canvassed tirelessly searching for citizens who were not registered to vote. He coordinated schedules for them to go and register and he arranged transportation for them. He also arranged for transportation for voters to and from the polls on election days. Very often, he drove future voters to register and he drove voters to the polls. He was everywhere, always in the thick of things, urging the crowds at mass meetings to do more and showing them how by example. He was efficient in managing all of his civil rights activities — voter registration, marches, pickets, sit-ins, prayer vigils, youth counseling, recruitment of mass meeting attendees, preaching encouragement to the "choir" and taking up the slack wherever needed. His versatility and adaptability allowed him to be a part of everything that was going on in The Albany Movement.
In January of 1962, Albany State College student Ola Mae Quartimon was arrested when she sat at the front of one of Albany's city transit buses and refused to move when asked to do so by the driver. Albany's Black citizens boycotted the bus company out of business. Rev. Wells was among those who helped organize and drive in car pools to transport people to and from work until the bus company resumed operation on a desegregated basis.
At a mass meeting in July, 1962, it was announced that there was a federal injunction against specifically named leaders of the Albany Movement and Dr. King forbidding them to participate in mass demonstrations. Rev. Wells, a smart and quick thinker with the ability to get to the solution of a problem right away, spoke up. "I don't see my name on that injunction," he said. Right then and there, he led a march from the church to City Hall where he and over 160 others, including his teenage daughter, were arrested. He had already led marches (some in which he was physically abused) that led to arrests so he was no stranger to the jails in Albany.
In late summer of 1963, Rev. Wells rescued me and other SNCC workers from certain arrest. Most of the college students who had come to Albany in spring and early summer as volunteers in SNCC's Summer Project had gone back to college or to other southern states to volunteer. The Albany Police Department was trying to defuse SNCC's effectiveness by arresting all of its workers. They had arrested all but 13 of us who were scattered around Albany. One day around 6 pm, I received a call at home informing me that SNCC's office, on Madison Street, was almost surrounded by police cars and officers who appeared to be waiting for an order to arrest the workers inside. I immediately hurried to SNCC's office.
I saw policemen in parked cars with flashing lights and policemen driving cars up and down the alley that ran on the side of the duplex in which SNCC's office was housed. When I entered the office, the four workers asked me why I had come. I told them about the call I had received, and they urged me to go back home. I told them that I could not do that because they were all volunteers who had come to Albany to support us in our struggle for human and civil rights and that as an Albanian I could not let them face police chief Laurie Pritchett and his men alone.
Suddenly there was a loud knock at the door. We froze and a worker yelled, "Who is it?" The reply sounded like "Pritchett." With hearts pounding and breaths rapid, we stood staring until with relief we heard the reply, "It's Richard, Richard Morris." We let him in and were glad to see him, but he did not stay. After about an hour, a call came from an Albany Movement leader who said that arrangements were being made to get us to safety; but first, we had to get ourselves to a certain nearby safe house. I devised a plan that got us there, but it was complicated, took a long time and involved taking all of the office files, via the back door, to the lady next door, dressing in dark winter coats, (on hand from the Friends of SNCC in New York to be taken to Mississippi), darkening White faces with soot, skulking in the dark across neighbor's back yards, and cowering from a barking dog whose barks caused its owner to turn on floodlights that stayed on for nearly an hour while we sweated, crouched behind a fence, waiting for the lights to be turned off. Our fears mounted and our nerves were on edge as we waited while watching the police train their spotlights on the office each time they drove up and down the alley.
When we reached the house, I still felt that the police might burst in at any minute. We were given food and then, to prevent my mother from worrying when I did not come home, I called her and told her that I was spending the night at the home of a friend.
At about midnight, a car, our transportation to safety, arrived at the back of the house. It was our hero, Rev. Wells, and my former high school French teacher McCree Harris. After the ordeal of our escape from SNCC's office and our arrival at the house, I felt relieved and was sure that everything would be all right with Rev. Wells in our corner. In the dark, we crammed ourselves into the back of his car with the three White workers on the floor and the other two of us each sitting next to a window. I knew that if the police stopped us and saw Black males in a car with White females, then they would treat us worse than usual. But I was confident that would not happen because, although he sometimes drove fast, Rev. Wells would not take any chances at a time like this. He drove slowly and obeyed all traffic signs and lights to the letter of the law to avoid being stopped by police. We did pass and stop next to several police cars. That was unnerving; but the police did not stop us.
Rev. Wells talked calmly, encouraging us to relax. He said that the other SNCC workers were en route to the same place we were going — Beulah Baptist Church. The pastor and members had opened its doors to us for sanctuary. When we arrived, Rev. Wells drove to the unlit back door of the church, led us inside and placed us in the hands of the deacons and deaconesses. We profusely thanked him and Miss Harris for rescuing us, and they left. All females were housed in one room with the deaconesses and all males in the other room with the deacons. The rest of the SNCC workers had already arrived and were settled in. We spent the night and part of the next morning at Beulah. After learning that the group would be driven to Shiloh Baptist Church for sanctuary and would be among other Albany activists who would remain on around-the-clock guard, I walked home. However, I went to Shiloh everyday, sometimes taking food. The SNCC workers remained at Shiloh for about a week, although a few ventured out and were arrested.
Not satisfied just to be active in The Albany Movement, Rev. Wells also traveled to and spoke at mass meetings in surrounding counties which included Lee, Terrell and Sumter.
During the time in 1963 when Slater King, vice president of The Albany Movement, ran for mayor of Albany, Rev. Wells was one of the featured speakers at a mass meeting. He talked about the mayoral race and laid out the strategy that should be used in the campaign. He urged the audience to unite and use all means available (radio, television, newspapers, flyers, word of mouth) to tell the story of oppression in Albany and to get the people out to vote for King. He asked affluent Black citizens to spearhead the financial support of King. He worked tirelessly in King's campaign, but King lost the election.
Rev. Wells was among nine Albany leaders indicted by the Justice Department in 1963 for "conspiring to obstruct justice" in connection with the picketing of a grocery store owned by a former juror who had voted guilty in a controversial case involving a Black man in another county. After the trials and convictions of five of the defendants, including Rev. wells, the case, ruled a mistrial in 1965, was dropped.
When Black students desegregated Albany High School, Rev. Wells was very supportive of them. He made sure that they were able to attend after-hours sports events by driving them to the events, remaining with them and driving them home afterwards.
The last time I saw Rev. Wells was in 1963, before he moved to Atlanta. I was downtown, and I saw a large crowd of people walking behind Rev. Wells. He had brought the crowd to register to vote. He and I greeted each other and I commented that he was "still on the job and still going strong." He flashed that remarkable smile and moved on with the crowd.
In 1970, Rev. Wells worked tirelessly in the campaign of Albany Attorney C.B. King who was the first Black person to run for governor of the State of Georgia.
After The Albany Movement reached its peak and leveled off, Rev. Wells continued to be active as Albany began its lengthy transition towards desegregation. Then he and his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia and remained there for 20 years. He joined SCLC, working as a field secretary in Georgia and Alabama where he was a victim of violence and where he participated in the march to Montgomery, Alabama. He was arrested during the demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida. All the while, he was commuting to Worth County where he was still pastor of Blue Springs Church. He did this until the late l980s, after the death of Mrs. Wells. Then he went back to Albany and resumed his work in civil and human rights.
On April 24, 1998, at the Ritz Cultural Center in Albany, "Deep Wells," a play written by playwright Curtis L. Williams, was presented to honor Rev. Wells. The play, written especially for a two-day tribute to Rev. Wells, tells the story of Rev. Wells in his own words. A one man show with off-stage singers, the play presents the character of Rev. Wells reflecting on his earlier life and his work in the Civil Rights Movement. The play was a positive and powerful statement about a man who made a positive and powerful statement with his life and his dedicated work in the Civil Rights Movement.
Rev. Wells remained in Albany until his health began to fail. At that time he returned to Atlanta and to his family.
In November, 2003, Rev. Wells returned to Albany to receive The Fifth Anniversary Gala Award of the Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum in recognition of his tremendous contribution to The Albany Movement and to the Civil Rights Movement. In his lifetime, he wore many hats, and wore them well — soldier, civil servant at the Marine Base in Albany, deacon, minister, civil rights activist, community leader, youth counselor, organizer, teacher, mentor, artist — and was an inspiration to all whose lives he touched.
Copyright © Annette Jones White, 2013