The story of how James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) went from being a slave trader to abolitionist serves as a beacon for Georgia to celebrate its founding values.
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who has held numerous roles in local and state government since 1986, has spent the last 27 years researching and writing his latest book: “James Oglethorpe, Father of Georgia: A Founder’s Journey from Slave Trader to Abolitionist.” The book, already available to buy, will be released by early next year.
For Thurmond, the story of Oglethorpe can change Georgia’s historical narrative.
“This book will be the most significant contribution I can make to the state that I love,” Thurmond said in his first interview about his latest work. “It is how I maintain my emotional and mental stability as an elected official. It is politics illuminated by history.”
Thurmond admits to being “obsessed” with Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as a British colony on Feb. 12, 1733.
“I first embraced Oglethorpe when I was DFCS [Division of Family & Children’s Services] director during welfare reform,” said Thurmond, who was appointed to that post in 1994 by then-Gov. Zell Miller. “We had portraits of Oglethorpe in every one of the 159 DFCS’ offices around the state.”
History tells us Oglethorpe established Georgia to relieve the plight of debtor prisoners.
“That’s what motivated Oglethorpe to establish Georgia. He expanded opportunities way beyond debtors. It was about creating a new life in a new world,” said Thurmond, who viewed welfare recipients the same way. “All they needed was a second chance to achieve self-sufficiency — go to work and support their families.”
But the real moment of discovery occurred in 1996 when Miller and Thurmond were among 57 Georgians invited to England to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Oglethorpe’s birth.
They visited the Parish Church of All Saints in Cranham, England, where Oglethorpe is buried. Thurmond read the lengthy white marble plaque in the church located above Oglethorpe’s resting place.
“There was one line in the plaque: ‘He was a friend of the oppressed Negro,’” Thurmond recalled reading. “I had never heard him described as a friend of the oppressed Negro. It mesmerized me. Oglethorpe was six feet under me. This can’t be true. The founder of my home state was a friend of the oppressed Negro? That set me on a 27-year quest to find out if it was true.”
Thurmond’s second book: “Freedom: Georgia’s Anti-Slavery Heritage 1733-1865,” published in 2003, was about how Georgia was the only one of the original 13 British colonies to prohibit slavery. Other states viewed enslaved Blacks as commodities or livestock that could be bought and sold. One of Oglethorpe’s allies was John Wesley, an evangelist who was anti-slavery.
“John Wesley believed Black people had souls,” Thurmond said. “Oglethorpe recruited Wesley to come to Georgia and evangelize enslaved Blacks.”
But Thurmond explores an even more amazing story about Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an educated Muslim who was sold into slavery in 1730 to a property owner in Maryland. Diallo convinced his owner to let him write a letter to his father back in Africa in what is now Senegal.
“I have a copy of that letter,” Thurmond said of Diallo’s letter, which made its way to England and to Oglethorpe in 1733. Writing in Arabic, Diallo spoke of his two wives, his children and his faith.
“Oglethorpe was so impacted by the letter that he arranged to purchase Diallo and pay for his passage to England,” Thurmond said.
At the time, Oglethorpe was deputy governor of the Royal African Co., an entity that captured and traded slaves — reinforcing the fact that Oglethorpe had been a slave trader.
“The letter impacts him so much that he sells his stock and resigns his position with Royal African Co. He severs all ties,” Thurmond said. “And hence begins his journey towards becoming an abolitionist.”
To Thurmond, Oglethorpe cared about humanity, and he considered Blacks to be human.
“That’s why Oglethorpe is so important now,” Thurmond said. “He was a humanist. He understood universal human rights. He embraced the humanity of this young man. James Oglethorpe, the father of Georgia, was one of the first white men in North America to speak out against the slave trade. That’s something all Georgians should celebrate and emulate.”
Thurmond also chronicled Oglethorpe’s efforts to allow Jews to come to Georgia, to respect Native Americans and to support the rights of women.
“We should be working to fulfill that original vision for Georgia — a state not divided by race and class,” Thurmond said. “James Oglethorpe should be our north star. It’s not the three guys on Stone Mountain. It’s James Oglethorpe.”
For Thurmond, it’s important that today’s Georgia leaders understand the state’s history began long before the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” Quite the reverse.
“The three guys on Stone Mountain represent the antithesis of what James Oglethorpe wanted for our state,” said Thurmond, who hopes his fact-based book will help change the narrative of Georgia’s history.
“I’m a better historian than I am a politician. I’m more at peace with being a historian. I’m not a good politician,” Thurmond continued. “Look at all the history wars that are raging. I think history properly researched and taught brings people together as opposed to being a flashpoint of controversy and conflict. This is who we should all aspire to be.”
It also is important for Georgians to take the long view of Oglethorpe and his vision for the state.
“We live in a slave-free Georgia today,” Thurmond said. “I think history redeems Oglethorpe. History casts the final ballot. History always casts the final ballot.”