By Amy Wenk
Inspired by the charitable efforts of his grandfather in Buckhead, as well as his own outreach, retired Presbyterian minister Henry Hope has written the book “The Poor Houses.”
“My hope was it might influence people,” said Henry, who had a 30-year ministry in Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina and spent 23 years overseas teaching people to build churches with Mission India. “I would like to show this generation … there is a good way.”
The story, which won a Christian Choice Book Award, reads as an historical account of almshouses, places where the poor and homeless or mentally-ill were taken in and given care.
“From the days of the late Roman Empire on, Christians were seeking ways to give food and shelter to people that had little or nothing,” said Henry who grew up in Ansley Park but now lives in Snellville with his wife Betty. “They knew that it pleased God. They were inspired by the example of Christ … to help the poor, the destitute and the disfranchised.”
“The Poor Houses” chronicles how ministry to the poor evolved from Europe and England, then to New England and the South. Atlanta was home to four almshouses over a 110-year period, including two institutions in Buckhead.
“The whole thing was interesting to me because my own grandfather lived in Buckhead,” said Henry, a graduate of University of Georgia and Columbia Seminary in Decatur. “For 29 years, he managed the second of those four poor houses. He was the superintendent and resident physician.”
Just 22 years old, Dr. Robert Lawson Hope in 1881 was appointed by a grand jury to head the Fulton County Almshouse on Peachtree Road where Tower Place is today. He was charged with several duties: treating sick inmates, managing operations, keeping records and directing cultivation of crops on the more than 300-acre property. His pay was $400 a year.
“A life of hard knocks had prepared this young man for the long odds which he now confronted,” Henry wrote in the book. At five years old, Robert watched Federal soldiers burn his house during the Civil War. He lived several years in an orphanage and later worked in a grocery store, saving his dollar-a-week salary for medical school.
Now he had to improve living conditions for 45 inmates at the almshouse. Past leaders mismanaged the almshouse and neglected repairs. It was in bad shape when Robert arrived.
“It was a sorry kind of a thing when he first took over, just consisting of seven kind of shabby shacks at the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont in Buckhead,” said Henry, who soon will publish his second book, an adventure-and-romance set in Florida. “But he transformed that thing over several years period into what the Atlanta Constitution called the finest institution in the South.
“Talk about a fine poor house that doesn’t sound very impressive, but it was.”
His grandfather’s persistence at turning a neglected charity into a revered, brick institution for 155 residents inspired Henry’s work as a minister.
“He worked himself half to death,” Henry said. “He was exemplary in so many respects. In an age of Jim Crow, he really tried to help the black indigents … they had never known anything but slavery,” and Robert treated them fairly. “He was just as kind to indigents as he was to me.”
Robert managed the Fulton County Almshouse until 1909 when he sold the property to Troy Chastain who sold it to the county commission. A new poor house was constructed in 1911 on West Wieuca Road. Chastain was later appointed commissioner and sparked development of North Fulton Park, which is now named in his honor.
The rise of government entitlements, nursing homes and assisted living places in the 1930s reduced the need for poor houses and they were phased out. But worse economic times could bring back demand, Henry said.
“If it continues poor, we may have to have that kind of congregate institution again to care for the people … who can’t care for themselves.”
“The Poor Houses” is for sale at www.amazon.com and in bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Henry Hope is available to speak on his book.