The East Atlanta resident was born in the little 1917 house that is now home to Lithonia’s Flat Rock Archive, a museum that showcases the history of DeKalb County’s oldest black community.
Bryant, who will be 90 years old on Nov. 24, heads back to his birth home every Tuesday to mingle with family, friends and archive visitors for a few hours.
The museum has been open to visitors one day a week, on Tuesdays, since its launch in 2006.
That was one year after Bryant and his sole surviving sibling, Zella Bryant Guthrie, donated the house at 3979 Crossvale Road to the Flat Rock Archive. Guthrie turned 97 in October.
Bryant has missed just three Tuesdays in six years – once for a funeral, another time because the archive was closed due to washed out roads, and on Tuesday, Oct. 9, to see his doctor.
“It’s like going back home,” he said. “Plus, I got hooked on family history and I want to be there to be able to help other people with their family history if possible. Most of us can’t go farther back than slavery.”
Bryant, a Navy veteran, will be in the spotlight on Nov. 10 when he serves as grand marshal of the city of Lithonia’s inaugural Veterans Day parade.
Col. Brent Bracewell, director of the Joint Staff of the Georgia National Guard, is the speaker. The marching bands of Cross Keys, Stone Mountain and Clarkston high schools will perform as will ROTC units from Lithonia and Miller Grove high schools.
Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson said she met Bryant at community meetings for the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, which encompasses the Lithonia area.
“We see him as one of the elder statesmen of the community,” she said. “There’s a historic relationship between the city of Lithonia and the Flat Rock Community.”
The history of Flat Rock has been featured on a PBS special, “African American Lives,” as one of the oldest slave settlements in America.
On Oct. 16, Bryant sat in the archive’s front room, surrounded by historical photos and artifacts. A “Colored Waiting Room” sign rested on a table behind him.
His father, Theodore Arthur Bryant Sr., built the house. In those days of racial segregation throughout the South, land that fronted roads was not sold to blacks. He rented it until 1945, when he was finally allowed to purchase the land.
On this Tuesday, Bryant sat at a table that had been his family’s dining room table to tell the story of his 90 years, a story that spanned living down the road from a grandfather who had been a slave to Bryant now carrying a cell phone in his pocket.
He looks nothing near his age.
Johnny Waits, president of the Flat Rock Archive, said his unlined face is the envy of those who know him.
“You don’t see a wrinkle until he smiles,” said Waits, who is also Bryant’s cousin.
Bryant summed up the secret to his fountain of youth with one word: love.
“Carry love in your heart, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” he said. “Love everybody, even people you don’t like. Hatred will stress you out.”
Despite all outward appearances – smooth skin, black hair just moderately tinged with gray – time is taking its toll on Bryant.
“I appreciate the attention,” Bryant said, “but I’m getting tired.”
Bryant grew up in the early 1900s in a world centered around the family farm and Flat Rock Methodist Episcopal Church.
Founded by slaves in 1860, the original church building is buried on the grounds where it stood at 4250 Flat Rock Road.
Bryant was one of five children who helped their parents tend the 40 acres of land they rented and the 45 acres they owned behind them, purchased in 1925.
They grew cotton and corn, wheat and oats to feed the animals, and all kinds of vegetables, from beans and peas to potatoes.
His mother, Zudia Waits Bryant, would say he became a minister at about the same time he started school at Flat Rock Elementary.
“I was a preacher at home,” Bryant said. “We’d go to church every Sunday, and I’d come back home and preach the same sermon the minister preached all over again.”
An education interrupted
Getting to the eighth grade meant traveling to Lithonia’s Bruce Street Elementary School six miles away in an age when automobiles were not widely owned by blacks and public transportation wasn’t available.
Bryant’s mind took him back to a time when buses carried only white children to school – watching those buses pass him, with children who weren’t very friendly toward him.
“I had to ride an old broken-down bicycle every day to school,” Bryant said. “Six miles one way.”
“On a dirt road,” his daughter added, for good measure.
Patricia Bryant Hughes sat next to her father, listening to a story that never gets old for her. It’s a story that has been repeated through the generations of Bryant’s nine children, 19 grandchildren, more than 20 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild.
The story gets to the essence of a man who wanted an education so badly that he traveled many more miles away to Booker T. Washington in southwest Atlanta, the closest high school for blacks.
Living the farm life meant Bryant could only go to school when it wasn’t planting season or harvesting season, limiting him to school just in November through March.
He’d ride in his father’s truck, usually after a day of working the farm, to attend night school. In the winters, when he wasn’t needed on the farm, he lived with a relative who lived near the school.
Bryant was forced to quit school after the 10th grade when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy at the age of 21.
But before he left, he fathered a daughter, Mary Bryant Tucker.
In 1971, she gave birth to a son, Chris Tucker, who would become a pretty famous actor and comedian. Tucker is scheduled to appear in “Chris Tucker Live,” a one-man show, at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Nov. 9 and 10. Bryant and Tucker were featured together on the PBS special about Flat Rock.
After two years in the military, Bryant returned to Flat Rock and in 1947, at the age of 25, he was finally able to earn his high school diploma, from the Lithonia High School for Negroes.
That same year, he married Lila Minter. They would have eight children and were together for 52 years until she died in 1999.
In 1960, Bryant went to ministerial school at Gammon Theological Seminary, the predecessor to the Interdenominational Theological Center.
He was an associate minister of three churches in the area, including Flat Rock, for about five years. He then spent the next 20 years pastoring churches from Atlanta to Lumpkin, all while helping to raise his large family and working full time building the fuselage parts of airplanes at the Lockheed plant in Marietta.
‘He’s an awesome man’
Hughes, his daughter, said he was the kind of dad who struck fear in them if they had misbehaved.
“When he came home from work, we’d be running to the door,” she said. “My dad could talk to you. He wouldn’t whip you, but he would talk to you and you wished he would. … You wanted him to be proud of you.”
The family moved to Atlanta in 1956 in search of good schools. Hughes integrated Murphy High.
In 1987, Bryant retired from Lockheed after 35 years. In 1989, he retired from pastoring, but his daughter said he didn’t retire from the ministry.
Bryant remains active at his boyhood church, now called Flat Rock Community Church, where he is pastor emeritus.
The new church building opened at 4542 Evans Mill Road in 2005.
Flat Rock’s pastor, the Rev. Binita Miles, has only begun to know Bryant well in the past two years, but she already calls him her father.
“He’s an awesome man,” she said. “He’s always imparting words of wisdom into me about the ministry, how the church should be, and what God has in store for us. I don’t think he’s lost any of that zeal.”
While he has many good memories of a life well-lived, Bryant acknowledged some regrets.
“I’ve always thought I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place,” he said. “I wanted to be a professional baseball player and I could have been an engineer. I used to dream up building bridges.”
A Florida baseball tryout camp told him blacks and whites could not play on the same field. His educational background wasn’t “stable enough” to get him into an engineering school even if there was one around that would accept a black man.
“He truly wanted a college education,” Waits said. “He also wanted to be a doctor of theology, but when family came and ministry came, it just wasn’t plausible.”
Since retirement, Bryant’s life is full of family and friends.
Every Saturday morning, for nearly 20 years, he has hosted breakfast at his home for any family members who want to come by. He can count on eight of his children to be there: Patricia, Angerlia, Irvin, Jacqueline, Sylvia, Joyce, Laura and Theodore III.
At first, Bryant did all of the cooking. Now, everyone brings a dish. Or they go out to Bryant’s favorite breakfast restaurant, the Cracker Barrel in Conyers.
Every first Tuesday of the month, Bryant is in Austell to have brunch with fellow Lockheed retirees.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be Tuesday if the Rev. T.A. Bryant wasn’t at the Flat Rock Archive.