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Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Descendant of prominent Maconites ‘shocked’ by family’s hidden secret

Oby Brown | Historic Macon Foundation
Nicole Persley

Nicole Persley unearthed life-changing information during her first visit to Macon about 30 years ago.

Fair-skinned and freckled with curly auburn hair, Persley grew up in rural, white northern Virginia.

She was 24, a recent college graduate, when she visited the Washington Memorial Library with her mother on what she recalls as “epiphany day.”

“I knew a lot about my grandfather,” Persley said. “But the one small detail that was left out was that my grandfather was African American. We were both just shocked that we uncovered that secret.”

Records showed her grandfather, Alonzo Bond Persley Sr., was the brother of Louis Persley, the first registered Black architect in Georgia. Pursley Street in Pleasant Hill – a variant spelling of Persley – was named in his honor.

Louis Persley died from kidney disease on July 13, 1932. Nicole, an artist and real estate investor who lives in Tampa, returned to Macon Thursday on the 91st anniversary of her great uncle’s death.

Her visit was sanctioned as an official “Macon 200” event, planned for and organized by Pleasant Hill’s Yolanda Latimore and Dr. Thomas Duval in addition to Nicole’s friend and co-researcher, Gloria Jean Royster.

Latimore is president of Macon Cemetery Preservation Corporation, a nonprofit created in 2001 to restore and maintain the historic Linwood Cemetery where her family, the Persleys and many other Black people whose legacy left an indelible mark on Macon are buried. The Georgia Department of Transportation acquired part of the cemetery in the mid ‘60s as it constructed Interstate 75 straight through the heart of Pleasant Hill.

In honor of Nicole Persley’s great uncle’s life and contributions, Macon-Bibb County Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark presented Nicole with a proclamation at the Booker T. Washington Center on Thursday.

In an interview before the proclamation, Nicole Persley recalled the near quarter century she lived under the assumption she was white. She had little exposure to Black culture growing up even though she often enjoyed tuning in to hip-hop on the Howard University radio station.

“People would ask me, ‘Which one of your parents is Black?’ …  and I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But that is really what inspired me to start researching,” Nicole said. “It answered a lot of questions and confirmed and validated a lot of intuition and feelings. Really, it was like an epiphany.”

Nicole said she knew her great uncle was an architect, but she had little more information besides his name. That was all she needed for archivists at the Macon library to produce thick folders pulled from the archives containing volumes of information about her ancestry.

Louis Persley grew up in Pleasant Hill, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in Macon. He is buried in the neighborhood at Linwood Cemetery between Pursley Street and Grant Avenue.

Louis attended Lincoln University and graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology. He fought in World War I and was then hired by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty and design buildings on the Tuskegee Institute’s campus — now Tuskegee University-  in Macon County, Alabama.

He met his colleague Robert Taylor, another esteemed Black architect and MIT’s first Black graduate at Tuskegee. The two men created Taylor & Persley Architects, a firm that was likely the country’s first-ever formal partnership of two Black architects.

Alonzo Persley Sr., Nicole’s grandfather, was a Detroit physician who studied medicine at the University of Michigan. He moved north after World War I and started “passing for white,” Nicole said.

“I’m not 100% clear if he passed 100% of the time, or professionally, or, I don’t know. And there’s really no way to prove this other than census records,” Nicole said of her grandfather. “There was no oral history relayed to me.”

As Nicole dug deeper into her heritage, she found evidence suggesting her ancestor is possibly the illegitimate son of Joseph Bond, a slave owner and one of the South’s wealthiest cotton planters whose grave in Rose Hill Cemetery is marked with a giant obelisk overlooking the Ocmulgee River. Bond listed Alonzo Bond Persley as inventory in his will and the two are listed as residing at the same address, Nicole said.

“We don’t know what the connection was. … We are digging. I mean, I’m not gonna stop,” she said. “It’s astounding to me that this history was kept from me. I think that’s kind of why I’m like, ‘Everybody listen to my story’ …  I just won’t shut up about it.”

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected].

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