Shots In The Back (Bonus): People Called Him Charlie
DESCRIPTION: A listener reaches out to share his memories of Charlie Oatman. Fred McBrayer was a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Augusta, who worked with Oatman at his high school.
Host: Hey, it's Sea Stachura, host of "Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 August Riot." By now, you know about the death of Charles Oatman, who had been murdered in his cell in the county jail in 1970. Details about him were hard to come by. But after the first episode dropped, a number of people reached out to us. Some of them had information about the riot. And one had information about Charles. And that person is Fred McBrayer.
Fred was a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Augusta.
McBrayer: I worked with him in conjunction with the teachers in class on work related type activities. I would even set up mock grocery stores and service station set ups and all the different kinds of jobs that, that kids with some mental limitations could do. Then we would get them out into the community, on work stations, that would eventually lead to jobs.
Host: He worked with Charles at his high school. And he and everybody who knew him called him Charlie.
McBrayer: Very quiet. It was, it was hard to get Charlie, Charlie to talk. But he was really well liked. And he had a sort of sly sense of humor. He was a kid that liked to make little jokes.
Host: Like what? Do you remember one?
McBrayer: I can't, I can't think of one in particular. But I just remembered him causing people to laugh and smile a lot. He was a very tiny human being. You would've thought he was in elementary school.
Host: This easily could have made him a target for bullying. But Fred says that, somehow, Charlie was able to get everyone to like him.
McBrayer: Some of the kids in the class behaved a lot like bullies just to compensate for their other shortcomings. And Charlie had a way of — even though he was small — of not being picked on by the bigger kids that were bullies. I can't exactly say how he did that. He just made himself a bit endearing, I think.
Host: Yeah, like — like someone you wanted to protect, maybe.
Host: Fred worked with Charles for about three months before he died. He and Charles' teacher both noticed that his comprehension levels weren't quite as strong as the others.
McBrayer: Very frankly, his teacher Juanita MacIntire and I had met about Charlie — feeling like, that he actually was misplaced in the class. He was more limited than just about any of the kids in the class. And part of that, I'm sure, was his shyness. But both of us felt like he was eligible more for a program that was less than the regular school but more in a trainable program, where somebody just worked with him strictly on, you know, learning work and getting a job that he could do.
Host: But that never happened. On Sunday, March 28, Juanita called Fred to say that Charles had been arrested.
McBrayer: She was just very, very upset. And, naturally, I was too, and we just tried to figure out what we could do about it. And the only thing we could do was to call there and see if he could be transferred to the youth detention program. So we, we, we both called and — neither of us got any satisfactory answer.
Host: While Charles is in jail, Fred is in and out of the hospital. He's dealing with a spinal disease. So he doesn't remember any other interactions that he had with government officials or the jailers at that time. Six weeks later, Fred got another phone call from Juanita. Charles had died. Fred drove to the high school to be with her. He really felt like he had failed Charles.
McBrayer: Because I'm sure Juanita felt the same way I did. Could we have done more?
Host: They walked out of the school together and they were greeted by a crowd of Black Augustans.
McBrayer: So when we went through the double doors and stepped outside together, we were quite shocked — because there were probably a good 30, 35 people there, with various kinds of objects as, as weapons. And, and they were extreme angry. They, I think, saw more cars at the school. And I'm not sure exactly what their plans were, but it didn't look good.
Host: This was most likely the day of the riot. Fred says Juanita told everybody just to back off — that Fred was on their side. And she walked him to his car. After the riot, Fred went back to work. And, by then, everybody knew what had happened to Charles — but the other counselors were not sympathetic. He overheard some of what they said in the lounge.
McBrayer: I found it just impossible to be around it, because some of the things that they were saying: "Well, that's one less" n-word "that we got to worry about."
Host: Fred continued to work with special needs kids and many of them were Black. He couldn't bear the thought that another child would go through what Charles had. And all of that at the hands of racism.
McBrayer: I did, I did a whole lot of thinking and actually within my office I really withdrew a lot from the people there and made a promise to myself that I would do everything possible to see that the kids I work with got the best chance in the world of being successful — and dedicate that Charles.
Host: He often found he was the only white person willing to advocate for their futures. In 1972, he left Augusta for his family's safety. He'd received numerous threats against their lives from whites. They were angry about his work with Black children.
Fred moved to Arizona and then eventually to Minnesota, and that's where he still lives with his kids. He's seen how the death of George Floyd has rocked the state where he lives. The police violence and the protests — they make him think of Charles.
McBrayer: Well, I think it fits right in there with a lot of other stories that we're dealing with at the moment.
Host: You're talking about George Floyd.
McBrayer: Yes. And as you know, we've been dealing with that pretty heavily here.
Host: Yeah. And so it's an echo — I mean, that's what I've noticed. How very closely his story echoes the story of each of these individuals.
McBrayer: It makes you want to say, "How many times does it have to happen?"
Host: For 50 years, Charles' death has weighed on him. He took positions with the Boy Scouts of America and the Methodist Church of the United States — all the time just working to create racial equality where he could and provide more opportunities for Black Americans.
McBrayer: It pretty much represents what drives me.
Host: Say more.
McBrayer: Yeah. So many times when you work with the government, people tell you, "Oh, no. No, you can't do that." And Charlie's memory makes me say, "Well, why can't you?"
Host: I'm Sea Stachura. "This is Shots and Back." It's a co-production of Jessye Norman School of the Arts and Georgia Public Broadcasting. For more of our reporting, visit GPB.org/shots. And catch us next week. We'll be back with a full episode.