Amelia Knoedler Penland – The Unadilla Showdown

Originally published in Easy Street Magazine.

Amelia Knoedler sat in the study of her boarding house, winding down from another evening as the sole employee of the weekly paper in tiny Unadilla, Ga.

Her tired eyes were adjusting to the dimness of the home when a brilliant flash filled the room. The light, she saw, was coming from outside.

“All of the sudden, I saw this bright light across the street, and it was a cross being burned,” she recalls, more than half a century later.

It was the Klan. She knew them well. This time, they were gathering at the home of Harry and Gussie Elkins, the only Jewish family in town. Ms. Knoedler knew that it was time to write again. Her next editorial read as follows:

“Many seem to share the belief that the cross was meant for me, too, since it is a well known fact that the Klan and I have no love for each other. But just in case it wasn’t, and just in case, Klan members, you’re cooking up such a scheme for me, let me know ahead of time so I can make plans to be home to witness the event.”

Amelia Knoedler came to Unadilla in 1948 following her graduation from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism. She was hired as the paper’s editor. And writer. And photographer. “I was the paper,” she says with a laugh.

Her inaugural editorial told of the idealism she possessed and how she yearned to keep the Unadilla Observer as the town crier. After all, she wrote in her first editorial, “If it’s news, that’s our business to print and we will. Whenever you go out of town, have visitors, get married or have a baby, let us know, because that’s news and we want it.”

Shortly thereafter, however, things changed. Steeped in segregation in the 1940s, Unadilla had only a handful of blacks registered to vote. During an election, one of those few dared to exercise his right.

“He tried to get into the polls, and here was this line of men on each side of the sidewalk. They all had canes and started whipping him,” she said.

Ms. Knoedler watched in horror as the most basic of rights – the right to an opinion – was destroyed by bigotry, ignorance and fear. Placidity was not her strong suit, so she armed herself with the only weapons she had – the people’s attention and the written word.

She penned a news story of the event, followed by several editorials denouncing the actions. The Klan, understandably, was not pleased. Anonymous letters began to arrive. KKK stickers were plastered over the newspaper office’s windows. Even harassing phone calls began to come to her home. Yet it only drove her to write more:

“I still seem to be the pet peeve of the Ku Klux Klan in these parts. The Kluxers evidently didn’t get their expected results from the stickers on the office window or from a letter addressed to the editor signed “A Klansman,” so now they are trying some new tactics by picking on my landlady. Monday night, just about time for the regular Monday night session of the local Klavern to get underway, the telephone rang at the Maxcy B. Smith residence (my place of abode), and Mrs. Smith answered. A male voice at the other end identified himself as a Klansman calling from Macon, but a check with the operator proved it to be a local call. He asked if the editor lived there, and when Mrs. Smith answered, “Yes,” he spoke of the trouble the newspaper and its editor had caused the Klan and then demanded, “Get rid of her.” I asked Mrs. Smith if he suggested hanging me to a tree or poisoning as a sure fire method for my riddance, but she says he didn’t say and she forgot to ask. Maybe he’ll have his plans for my extinction all worked out when he calls again.”

For years the battle raged. The Klan would strike. She would write, even amid threats to her very safety.

“When you’re young, you don’t think about things like that. You’re young and fearless,” she said.

In 1950, shortly before Easter, Unadilla’s black Methodist church was preparing a centennial celebration. The church asked the Rev. M.W. Flanders, minister of the white Unadilla Methodist Church, to speak at the gala. However, the union was not to be. Flames swirled around wooden crosses at the black church and at the home of Rev. Flanders. The celebration was canceled. Ms. Knoedler was enraged.

This time, her crusade would cease to be a local issue. State and national news picked up on the story, and Ms. Knoedler became the focal point of articles and stories across the land. Articles referenced the “young country editor,” the “small-town woman newspaper editor” and “ a Klan-fighting country editor.” Ms. Knoedler was gaining popularity and notoriety throughout Georgia. Her sharp, biting editorials regarding the Unadilla Klan had expanded to a condemnation of the then-current governor of Georgia, Herman Talmadge. Ms. Knoedler was a frequent commentator – in the newspaper and on radio – on the election, urging Georgians to “return to law and order” and elect Talmadge’s opponent, M.E. Thompson. She alleged that the current governor was not only a Klan supporter, but even paid the organization for bloc voting.

Despite her efforts, Talmadge would be re-elected. However, in her steel magnolia fashion that had become somewhat of a trademark, Ms. Knoedler congratulated the governor in an editorial, pledging her support and encouraging the governor to be “a good governor, a fair governor and a decent governor.”

Over time, Ms. Knoedler began compiling a list of all of the local Klansmen, although her source has remained one of confidence to this day.

“It would have cost a man his job, let’s just put it that way,” she says coyly.

Although she never publicly exposed any members, she did let them know that she knew who was behind the masks. History being on her side, the Klansmen knew that the slightest provocation could lead to a public pronouncement of their hooded mob activities. The Klan had found themselves in an unfamiliar place: bullied, cornered, scared. The teeth of the Unadilla Ku Klux Klan had been pulled.

In 1952, Ms. Knoedler was contacted by the Augusta Chronicle. The federal government was constructing a massive nuclear facility just across the Savannah River, and they wanted her to head up their bureau in South Carolina. With little fanfare, Ms. Knoedler decided to move on. She had faced down a challenge in Unadilla. A new one awaited.

Shortly after her move, Ms. Knoedler met a man by the name of Robert Penland, an FBI agent who had taken early retirement. Penland had heard of the site construction, and saw a business possibility.

“He rode down here and said, ‘You know, when these people move down here, they’re going to have to have places to live,’” she said.

Penland bought a small plot of land off of Berrie Road. He developed the property and sold it, parlaying that into additional funds for development. Over the next several decades, Penland would work to develop much of Aiken, including Dunbarton Oaks, Westcliff and Foxchase. His most well known development, however, would be Houndslake Country Club.

Amelia Knoedler Penland sits in her spacious, open home, overlooking a sprawling fairway of the course her late husband crafted. She is far removed from her days of taking a stand. It has been 60 years since Unadilla. She stopped reporting after her first of two children was born. When she left her reporting job in the 1950s, she left behind her reporting career for good.

“I never had time. I started having children. To me, that was a full-time job.”

Greg Speight, the current Unadilla Director of Downtown Development and de facto town historian, said Amelia took up the fight that, ultimately, needed fighting, and did it for Unadilla’s betterment.

“Being a single young female in the late 1940s, to take that bold of a step was no small feat. From what I understand, a lot of people at the time maybe looked down at her and considered that she stirred up things that didn’t need to be stirred up. Of course, at the time, it needed to be stirred up. She did something I commend her for. I think she was very brave to take that stance,” he said.

Mrs. Penland often remarks that her input was not welcome in the town. She says she did what she thought was right, but perhaps felt that some people were content with such actions so long as the balance of perceived harmony was not upset.

“There were a lot of good people, but they would never take a stand.”

When she did leave Unadilla, the town, she recalls, saw her exit as a chance to return to the complacent normalcy from several years before.

“I think they were glad to get rid of me, frankly. They wanted their little peaceful town back,” she said.

Several years later, after her first child was born, Amelia Knoedler Penland returned to Unadilla to visit her former landlady. She quietly slipped into town for a subdued visit. More than 200 people came by to see her. Contrary to her claims, Unadilla, it seems, missed Amelia Knoedler.

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