Housing project's founder a determined visionary
By James Saxton
They could have talked about his charisma. His high intelligence. His energy.
But when his friends talk about Harold E. Grier, Ph.D., one word continues to surface.
Harold E. Grier of McDonough, 95, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is passionate about providing more resources for the residents of the Blacksville community. Photo by Nick Vassy
“Dr. Grier is one of the most determined individuals I’ve ever known,” said McDonough Mayor Billy Copeland. “He doesn’t give up. I admire him so. He handles himself with such class. He’s a special friend of this city.”
“He is determined to get stuff done,” said McDonough City Councilman Rufus Stewart, who sometimes offers Grier rides to city council meetings and to church. “He talks about ‘back in the day,’ like the Civil Rights days, you had to struggle. He persevered. He comes with a passion to do stuff. He says, ‘I’ve been through it. Now I’m past it. So I want stuff done, and done now.’ He is a good man.”
“Dr. Grier brings so much passion, so much determination,” said Rodney Heard, McDonough’s Community Development Director. “He’s a visionary. For a visionary, things can’t happen quick enough. That’s why phased development is key. Some phases can happen right away, some cannot.”
In speaking of phases, Heard was referring to the Grier Project, which involves developing a 20- to 25-acre tract of land along Old Griffin Road near Georgia Highway 155 in McDonough, in the Blacksville community. The multi-phase project includes a park, a residential building for seniors, a building for a non-profit organization, a mini-mall for retail space and an office building, Heard said.
The Grier Project’s tract of land surrounds the current site for Grier Manor Senior Apartments at 391 Old Griffin Road, a community of 64 apartments built in 2005 for senior adults. The project’s first phase, which may be completed in as little as four to six months, includes a recreation park with green spaces for casual play and outdoor events, and a pavilion that can be used for gatherings.
The centerpiece of later phases is a multi-floor building that adds more units to Grier Manor for not just senior adults, but possibly also single parents, all living and interacting together, Heard said.
The project is named for the man who proposed it, Harold Grier, 95, a retired biochemistry professor and land developer.
A document in the McDonough Probate Court calls him one of the 21 Most Influential in McDonough. But, just who is this Harold Grier?
Born on January 3, 1921, in south Henry County, Grier said his mother told him that when he was just six months old, she’d gently hang him in a shady mulberry tree while she picked cotton.
Grier’s grandparents, Alex and Carrie Weems, were born into slavery and married when they were 15- and 14-year-old slaves on the Weems Plantation near Hampton. After decades of working on the Weems Plantation, in 1913, with their former master’s help, the retired couple bought the land at the 391 Old Griffin Road site and built a house on it in the predominately black community of Blacksville in McDonough, less than two miles south of the Square.
“It was a grand house,” Grier said. “It was modeled after Mr. Weems’ slave house. It had gables and columns. For former slaves, you could say it was quite a house.” The house burned a few decades ago, he said.
Grier said his mother told him that his high intelligence was evident from an early age, and she made sure to send him to school. He attended the all-black Henry County Training School, one of almost 5,000 schools built in 15 Southern states between 1912 and 1937 in the Rural School Building Program of the Julius Rosenwald Fund.
At 14, he tested as possessing high skills for advanced academics, and had garnered interest from two medical schools, but did not opt for it. He had picked cotton every fall throughout his childhood, but, “I didn’t want to be caught up in the cotton mentality for the rest of my life,” Grier said.
So, with straight As and one B at age 16 in the 11th grade, Grier was one of the first acknowledged blacks from the Blacksville community to attend college, Georgia State in Savannah.
After college, Grier lived in Connecticut as WWII broke out. He registered for and was accepted into Harvard Law School in June 1942 but was drafted immediately afterwards by the U.S. Army. A trained gunner and college graduate, he served as a sergeant supervising engineers in Pensacola, Fla., in New Guinea and the Philippines.
After the war he completed graduate school at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill, earning a master’s degree in animal science. For two decades he taught as a professor on the collegiate level in Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Illinois and Georgia. He taught for years at historically black Alcorn A&M College in Mississippi, now known as Alcorn State University.
In 1967, he retrieved a directive from the U.S. Congress that he found posted on the wall of an administration office at Alcorn. The directive said in part, “The U.S. Congress has for the third time asked for a cooperative program between the 1862 (white) and 1890 (black) state-supported institutions of higher learning designed for the physical and academic improvement of both institutions.”
The following year, he asked his Alcorn director for permission to pursue a cooperative program with a Mississippi predominately white university, but was rebuffed. “I was told ‘Mississippi was not ready for that yet.’ Then I was asked if I’d finished yet hoeing the corn.”
In 1969, as a graduate student at Mississippi State University, he inquired the same of the predominately white university, and met with eventual approval, a program to construct fences at Alcorn and mend some at MSU. As he convened in January 1970 for his third oral exam to earn his doctoral degree, he instead asked from MSU administrators a request of the state legislature for implementation of the Congressional directive.
A letter was sent to the legislature, and two months later the landmark 1970 Mississippi education bill passed the state House and Senate, paving the way for $300 million, matched by federal funds, for a cooperative rebuilding program between state-supported white and black colleges and universities.
“That meant so much to me,” Grier said. “It meant a lot for Civil Rights.”
In 1971, he became the first black student to earn a doctoral degree at Mississippi State University, then returned to Alcorn. He learned the procedures for applying for government grants, earning a $3 million grant that his team used as he invented a method for determining the rate of percolation of soil water that is used today by engineers.
Grier taught biochemistry for years at Alcorn State University before returning to his native McDonough. Using the grant-writing skills he’d learned years before, Grier became active in minority housing in Henry County, culminating in 2005’s Grier Manor and this year’s Grier Project.
“I just like to help places like Blacksville,” Grier said, looking back over his 95 years. “The Lord has blessed me. I’ve learned so much over the years. I’ve learned how to dream things up and then how to make them happen. I want these things to happen. I want them to hurry up and happen. People deserve to see things happen as soon as we can make it happen.”