Macon’s 2023 Bicentennial events will honor city’s history with indigenous, slave contributions

Yearlong celebration kicks off in December with Mayor’s Sneaker Ball and debut of movie chronicling the struggles, accomplishments and foundation for future greatness


Liz Fabian

Members of the Macon-Bibb County Bicentennial Committee look over sample logos during their September meeting at City Hall. The diverse group of local leaders is planning events to commemorate the city’s 200th anniversary in 2023.

In literature, the image of a burning flame can represent passion, rebirth, hope, death and eternity.

As teams of historians and community leaders research more than 200 years of Macon history, fire will represent Macon’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2023.

As the Macon-Bibb County Bicentennial Committee prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city’s 1823 founding, they want to honor the Native Americans who lived here first and the enslaved people who helped build this community.

Wednesday, the committee got its first look at potential logos for next year’s celebration, which includes the image of fire that is of great importance to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma whose ancestors lived along the banks of the Ocmulgee River for centuries.

Through this month’s Indigenous Celebration at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical State Park, many learned for the first time that as the Native Americans were relocated to Oklahoma, they took a pot of fire with them.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

The story resonated with committee member Susan Cable who, attended festival events featuring Muscogee leaders and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first indigenous person to serve on a presidential cabinet.

“That just jerked me to realize the Muscogee Nation left here with a pot full of fire and now they’re coming back home,” Cable said during the meeting. “They decided Macon, Georgia, was where that pot was going to come back to, where it started.”

Visit Macon Executive Director Gary Wheat explained the multi-faceted symbolism of including the flame in the Bicentennial logo.

“The fire not only reflects of the Muscogee that were here, but is also the internal fire that burns with each and every person that tries to make Macon better each day,” Wheat said.

As the committee met, local leaders were in Washington, D.C., lobbying to have the Ocmulgee Moundsdesignated Georgia’s first national park, possibly before the end of this year which would be perfect timing for the Bicentennial.

“I feel like one of the biggest things going on in this community right now is the fact that we are building a bridge with the community that preceded us. And having that as a theme that runs through the Bicentennial, I think is important,” said Wes Griffith, who co-chairs the committee with Alex Habersham.

Andrea Cooke, who also serves on the diverse, 20-member board created by the Macon-Bibb County Commission earlier this year, stressed the need to also recognize the contributions made by enslaved people and their descendants who built many of the city’s oldest buildings.

“I think the last thing everybody on this committee wants to do is, you know, whitewash history,” Griffith said.

Karla Redding Andrews noted the diversity of the Bicentennial Board, which was selected by Mayor Lester Miller to plan and coordinate the celebrations for the whole community.

“With the diversity of this commission… I think the community will know that we will cover every facet of this history, not just our indigenous people, but our African American people that go way back,” Redding-Andrews said. “I think with the people in this room that’s involved in this commission, they will know that it will be our point to tell all of the history, not just parts of the history.”

Bibb County School Board Chairman Thelma Dillard, whose family battled segregationist policies in the early ‘60s, said Macon’s history shows how the community overcame its challenges. She intends to share that message in panel discussions next year.

“I’m bringing out a lot of things that happened that weren’t so good, but how we fixed it, how it changed, and how it made our community better,” Dillard explained.

Celebrating Macon’s history and culture

The mission of the Bicentennial Committee is to “strengthen civic pride by educating the community about our history, celebrating our accomplishments, acknowledging our past and promoting a harmonious future.”

In recent weeks, history teams have been compiling photographs and information to tell Macon’s story in a 12-part series at various events throughout the year. Similarly, a century ago, some of the community’s best writers spent five years gathering and presenting a thorough history of the city’s first 100 years.

The Bicentennial Celebration will kick off Dec. 9 with the Mayor’s Sneaker Ball at the Macon City Auditorium, which was built to commemorate the city’s Centennial in 1923.

Guests are encouraged to mix formal attire with sneakers or comfortable shoes as a fashion hodge-podge. Batches of complimentary tickets will be distributed throughout the community and an effort is underway to secure donated gowns, suits and tuxedos for those who might not be able to afford them.

While plans for the evening are still being finalized, the aim is to be an inclusive event to draw people from all over the community to enjoy an evening together, Cooke said.

A 15-minute movie about Macon’s history will likely debut at the ball and coincide with the annual Christmas Light Extravaganza in the weeks following.

Through 3-D mapping technology, the film will be projected onto the side of the limestone auditorium building to be viewed from Rosa Parks Square throughout the holiday season. A large New Year’s Eve celebration is planned to usher in the Bicentennial year.

A 12-part lecture series also is planned with hundreds of historic photographs being blown up to be transported to different venues and schools to educate the public about the community’s 200-year history and its origins as a civilization. A similar power point presentation also will circulate throughout the year.

The committee also plans seasonal signature events by partnering with next year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, Juneteenth commemoration and the fall’s Indigenous Celebration which could include a film festival and art show featuring Native American artists.

A Bicentennial Arts Show will feature a signature work by Macon textile artist Wini McQueen and award-winning art from Bibb County school students that will be on display at Macon Mall.

Curators from the community will be coordinating and changing out displays during the year.

The linear park that lines Clinton Street at East Macon’s Mill Hill Community Arts Village will be getting a million-dollar makeover and renamed Bicentennial Park. Plans for the park include a history walk, art and a meditative garden. In the high probability that the Ocmulgee Mounds will become a national park, that area will celebrate the coming together of the native people and modern-day Macon to forge that initiative.

Wheat recalled seeing tears rolling down Secretary Haaland’s face after she held a private ceremony atop the Great Temple Mound during her visit.

“So, she understands what we’re trying to do and what this place means to not only us, but to their people, the Muscogee people,” Wheat said. “So going forward we feel very confident that we’re going to see some movement within the next year.”

HGOR laid out plans for a new hotel, residences and office space in what could be a $350 million dollar investment in east Macon.

At the last county commission meeting, Mayor Miller unveiled the county’s plan to spend $14 million dollars to purchase land along Coliseum Drive from Interstate 16 to Clinton Street to market to developers. The county has commissioned speculative plans for a sprawling development featuring a new hotel, restaurants, office and multi-family residential units that is expected to be an investment of at least $350 million dollars to serve as a new tourist gateway to the Ocmulgee Mounds.

Public invited to help plan events

The entire business, education and cultural community is encouraged to plan Bicentennial-themed events throughout the year.

World-renowned violinist and composer Robert McDuffie is composing a Bicentennial piece that is expected to be performed at the Grand Opera House next fall.

Newly-tapped Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce President Jessica Walden also is expected to reprise her Macon Music Live history one-act play during the year.

The finale to the 12-month celebration will be an entertainment spectacular commemorating Macon’s 200 years of song and dance. The event is planned for the new 10,000-capacity amphitheater that will be built in the coming months in the parking lot of Macon Mall.

As celebration plans develop, the public is encouraged to collaborate and submit ideas by emailing [email protected].

The committee is hiring an executive director to coordinate and lead the effort through the end of April 2024.

Before adjourning Wednesday’s meeting, co-chairman Alex Habersham shared his enthusiasm for what the coming months will bring and the promise of forging and even better community.

“You know, it’s very, very exciting,” Habersham said. “People are working hard and with the addition of the administrator, I think we’re on the way.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Jarvis Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government news and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.