“How they chopped it up”: Decatur’s African American community, 1938-2012

[Ed. note: One year after this post was released, the City of Decatur demolished several of the properties discussed here. Separate and Unequal: Preserving Jim Crow discusses the state of African American history in Decatur, Ga., and documents the demolition of the city’s historic African American schools.]

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Elizabeth Wilson has lived in Decatur, Georgia, since 1949. The Decatur she remembers sometimes is at odds with the city portrayed in the official historical record: published books and other documents that discount and distort the city’s African American contributions to Decatur’s development. As Decatur’s first African American mayor and a key participant in the city’s civil rights history, she recalls a city torn apart by urban renewal and divided by discrimination.

In Wilson’s Decatur, African Americans lived in wood shotgun shacks, duplexes, apartments, and cottages in a segregated part of the city’s northwest quadrant. City garbage trucks rolled through the neighborhood to the municipal trash incinerator which was sandwiched between the backyards of single-family residences and the “City of Decatur Colored School.” Continue reading

Decatur teardown diary

Last October I watched and shot video as a builder demolished a 1,100-square foot house built in 1944 or 1945. It took less than eight hours for the small crew using a track loader to turn the one-story frame house into about seven bins of rubble that were carted away to a nearby landfill.

Over the subsequent four months I documented the transformation of the teardown site into a new 2,772 square-foot two-story single-family home that just went on the market for $589,000.

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Subdividing history

Last week I testified at a Georgia House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee hearing on a bill that would amend the state’s historic preservation law. HB 802, described as an act “to allow for subdivision of historic property,” was introduced by Rep. Doug McKillip (R-115th Dist.) of Athens. If enacted, the amendment would allow property owners in locally-designated historic districts to bypass historic preservation commissions with proposals to subdivide their properties.

The bill has received little media attention in Georgia. One exception is an Athens Banner-Herald article published in January.

I was asked by DeKalb County preservationists to testify in opposition to the bill. I joined Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation CEO Mark McDonald and current and former Druid Hills Civic Association presidents Robert Benfield and Bruce McGregor. Continue reading

Why historic preservation? (Updated)

Nearly thirty years of archaeology and historic preservation fieldwork have given me a memorable collection of quotations that I’ve scribbled in various notebooks. One that has stuck with me was posted above the bar in the Port Matilda Hotel in rural Centre County, Pennsylvania: “Language: use it right or you’ll be asked to leave.”

Another one is, “It’s old but it will never go historical.” That was how the fourth-generation owner of a 19th-century St. Mary’s County, Maryland, tobacco farm described her property as I surveyed it in the summer of 2004. I frequently draw on this quotation when I try to explain to people why seemingly ordinary — vernacular — buildings and landscapes are historically significant. Sometimes I’m successful, many times I’m not.

My new neighborhood: an anti-historic district sign from 2007. Photo by author, August 2011.

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