Turner County was a much different place in 1952.
For most travelers, Ashburn and Sycamore were not mere exit signs and a peanut statue on I-75. Mainly because I-75 did not exist. To see an Ashburn sign was to be on US 41 or GA 32. Downtown had a theater. Fast food chains were not available, but a variety of local places were.
In 1952, there were high schools in Ashburn and Sycamore and the one in Rebecca had recently closed. They would not unify to form Turner County High until 1957. Those were the major white schools.
Over on Lee Street, there was another building. It was small, wooden and painted white. It was also a school, one called Eureka. Schools operated in Georgia — and most of the south — under the law of "separate but equal" which enforced segregation. The Supreme Court outlawed it in 1954, but no major changes hit the area until the Civil Rights Act 10 years later, which forced school systems to act.
That is the building where John Dye started his teaching and coaching career.
Eureka was also not a unified school when he began. There were county schools. "Sycamore and Rebecca," he remembered. They would also unify in 1957, the year that Eureka received a brand new brick building on Washington Street.
Dye is not a Turner native. He was raised in Brooks County and graduated from Fort Valley State. That's when he received an offer, he said, to go to Ashburn.
"Jobs at that time were hard to come by," he said. He accepted. That was in 1952. Dye stayed in Ashburn through the closure of Eureka and total integration of schools and became part of the coaching staff at Turner County High.
When he arrived, he found a bit of a sports program. "[They had] basketball, a little track and a little baseball they'd tried to play."
Dye had been a football player at Brooks High and wanted to start a team at Eureka. The sport had long been established in Quitman, but not in Turner County, where it was a bit of a mystery. Even white Ashburn High did not play. They had cancelled their program following the 1940 season and would not resume until 1955.
Finding potential players was not a problem. He said several were interested in forming a team.
"But they didn't know anything about football."
Few had even seen a game, he said. "The boys didn't know how to hold a football. [They'd hold it] with both hands, up and down."
After fixing that issue and with a bit of training, he began scheduling games in 1953. Their first game was Oct. 26 at Gillespie-Selden, one of two private schools for African-Americans operating in Cordele. It was a 12-0 loss, but the Tigers would not have to wait too long to even their record.
On Nov. 11, they defeated the other Cordele team, Holsey-Cobb, 19-6. They would win another against the same team two weeks later.
Several African-American schools in that era had a certain amount of cooperation from their white counterparts, be it sharing fields or old equipment and uniforms.
Since the team started before Ashburn's resumed, Dye did not have that luxury.
The games with Holsey-Cobb were at a local baseball field. Equipment came from a more unlikely source.
"The college over here at Norman Park, they were disbanding [their football team] and that's how we got a chance to get a lot of our equipment." He said the community soon banded together to build a field behind the school. Likewise, he said local donations were used to buy equipment after the Norman College gear wore out.
He would also have to deal with deficits in other sports. He coached boys basketball, but quickly had to learn to deal with one major obstacle: the school did not have a gymnasium. None would even be built with the new school, so games had to be played outside. Of course, that meant they were at the mercy of the weather.
If it rained, "you had to postpone. In the cold, you had to postpone."
He admits they had a home dirt advantage, but when they played schools with hardwood and roofs, that posed a problem.
"We had some great little boys and you know, we could have done well. In other words, we were on par, as long as the majority of them were playing outdoors, you know. Until we went to the tournaments, we were all in about the same shape."
Even so, the Tigers had at least one state appearance in the Georgia Interscholastic Association, the state league for black schools.
The 1957 Class B tournament that was played at Waycross City Auditorium. They defeated Whitman Street of Toccoa in the first round, but lost to Boggs Academy in the second.
Dye also said they won a state track championship, but could not remember the year, except that it was in Class C. Very few GIA records were preserved over the ages, most presumably being lost when the schools closed. That includes championships.
Football would be his main sport, though, and those young Tigers that once had to be taught how to hold the pigskin began to dominate competition.
Given a bus to hit the road, he remembered them going off as far as Lyons, Claxton, Donalsonville and Eastman for games.
The times being what they were, schools like Eureka could not simply walk into the nearest diner after games for a late meal.
"A lot of time when you played teams away from home, schools would feed the teams. You'd go play a ballgame away from home, they would feed the teams. Come to Ashburn and play and we'd feed the team."
Eureka first made the semifinals in 1963 and were matched up with Wayne County Training, one of the state's powerhouse programs. When reminded of Wayne, Dye's first reaction was, "They kept me out for years, didn't they?"
That was the case in their first meeting. Wayne won, 13-7.
The next year, the honor belonged to Evans County. The Tigers held their offense scoreless, but surrendered a safety and were beaten, 2-0.
They finally broke through. In 1965, they toppled Wayne 20-7 in the semis and finally had a chance at a championship. They were to face Boggs and while it would not be played at Boggs' home in the woods near Keysville, they would have to go to nearby Waynesboro. That itself was an adventure.
With the two located far enough, Dye said they packed a lunch for the trip. "We had a can full of salmon coquettes and biscuits." That would hold them until Waynesboro.
It must have been a good meal. Slim Walker scored on a 4th quarter pass from Fox Fields to give them a 6-6 tie for the title. Even better the trophy returned with them. Only one had been made and after the game, its possession was decided on a coin flip.
The next year, they were even better. Given a chance to play the biggest games of the year at their own Camilla Jones Memorial Stadium, they shut out Evans County 20-0 in the semifinals. Boggs had made it back, too, and no coin flip would be needed.
Fox Bolden scored the first touchdown and Workhorse Jackson crossed the goal for the second and they had a 13-0 victory.
Eureka would play its last season in 1969. Transfers under the Freedom of Choice plan and school closures had taken their toll on the GIA, which grouped all the teams into a single football classification. The league shut down in 1970, with all schools either shutting down completely as high schools and small handful transferred to the GHSA. Only 10 of those are left.
The building became a middle school and later added kindergarten. When new schools were built, Eureka would be abandoned. Dye admitted sadness as it he saw it fall into decay. It has since been demolished.
Looking back at his teams, he talked of what he was able to accomplish. He had a few players, he said, play collegiately, including a pair at Edward Waters. It was also a chance to show them life beyond Turner County.
"A lot of these places, they probably wouldn't have known about if they weren't on the football team or basketball team. But it helped them get themselves together and know more about things, to how other people react, how other people live."
Editorial Note: John Dye was originally interviewed in February 2013. The conversation with him was recorded and saved, originally intended for use for Black History Month then. With other things popping up, the piece was set aside. A week ago, the audio file was found and transcribed.