[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.]
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.”
Urban renewal in Wilson’s Decatur began in 1938; was expanded in the 1960s; and continues in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Blacks lived, worked, learned, played, and worshipped in the community known first as the “Bottom” and later as the Beacon Community. Declared a slum by the city, the first streets were closed and buildings were demolished in 1941.
I have interviewed Wilson several times as part of a research project on housing in South Decatur. I helped her prepare a PowerPoint presentation for a DeKalb History Center talk and she asked me to do the same for a Black History Month program sponsored by the Decatur Business Association. The week before the DBA program, Wilson invited me to go on a tour of the historically black neighborhood. “We are going over the Beacon community where I used to live,” she said as we pulled out of her Decatur driveway. “I moved there in 1949.”
We drove around visiting the sites she considers most significant in Decatur’s African American history. As Wilson drove, I asked questions and recorded our conversation. The next day I returned to the places we visited with a camera to capture additional images for her presentation. This post is drawn from that tour and interview.
Elizabeth Wilson had just turned 80 shortly before our February 2012 interview and tour. She and her family came to Decatur from rural Greensboro when she was a teenager. She recalls arriving in the city in the family’s truck. Their first encounter with official Decatur came when their truck was stopped for going the wrong way in the one-way streets around the county courthouse square. A night in jail wasn’t in the original moving plans.
Her family was bound for Decatur’s new African American public housing. Built in the early 1940s in the core of the African American neighborhood, the Allen Wilson Terrace Homes were among the earliest public housing efforts in the United States. They replaced a rectangular residential area bounded by Electric Avenue to the west, Herring Street to the north, Oliver Avenue to the east, and Robin Street on the south.
Inside this area were the homes owned and rented by Decatur’s blacks. These people were construction workers, barbers and hairstylists, and storekeepers. They also cleaned white Decatur residents’ homes and raised generations of white Decatur residents’ children.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the neighborhood had no formal name.”I’ve always known it as the Beacon Community,” said Wilson. “Even though there are people who don’t seem to think that it was always called that.”
One native Decatur resident described what life was like in the shotgun houses and cottages. “It was a slum,” said P.B., a 65-year-old man who has lived in Decatur his entire life. “I meant just what I said, especially in those wood houses.” P.B. described a daily urban life foreign to most people living in Decatur in the twenty-first century:
You never had the experience of taking a bath in a number three tin tub where you had to boil your water. You never had that experience. That was the only way you could bathe. That was the only way you could bathe.
What about washing your clothes in a number three tin tub with a rub board? You know what a rub board is? Cook the clothes, yeah. Hang them up. You never had that experience.
Wilson’s first home in Decatur was in the 300 block of Herring Street. Like many Atlanta area road networks, segments of streets inside African American neighborhoods had different names from other segments in white neighborhoods. In Decatur, once the color line was crossed, Herring Street became Trinity Place.
Wilson explained how folks knew they were crossing from the white part of town into the African American neighborhood. “It was pretty obvious,” she said. “Houses dictated it. Streets dictated it.”
The people, like Wilson, who lived in Decatur’s public housing were envied by their neighbors living in the surrounding black community. “I used to think, personally, that the kids that lived in the project was rich,” explained P.B. “They had indoor hot and cold running water and a bathroom. I didn’t have that. We didn’t have that.”
During our tour, Wilson underscored P.B’s observation: “Whatever their homes were, however other people saw them, it was their home and they was doing the best they could do.”
Choice oftentimes wasn’t a factor in where Decatur’s African Americans lived or even how long they lived in one place. Deed restrictions and Jim Crow laws created the contours for Decatur’s black community’s geography and public policy was made far from Atlanta Avenue and Herring Street. “We knew we was living in a slum so and we found out we had to move,” recalled P.B., whose family was displaced in the 1960s. “They made decisions at City Hall that we had to get out of there.”
As we drove through modern gated subdivisions that were built where African American homes and businesses once were located, Wilson amplified what P.B. had said in an earlier interview:
I think back in those days that the way the decision-making people saw it is the only way we could fix the problem is we have to demolish the existing structures and build new structures. But in doing so, we’ve got to make sure that we get as much property, as much buildings on the property like all of the parking decks and the Maloof Building and the Callaway Building and, you know, the MARTA thing and it was like that’s what they seemed to have cared about more than where are we going to build houses to retain our citizens. That was not anywhere, it seems to me, in the thinking of keeping the town diverse or caring about how many people are displaced because of this.
And, Wilson added,
But the landscape really did a good job of erasing all of this… But again, I think in the minds of people who moved out of the community, especially the homeowners, if they moved back, this is what they thought they would be moving back into.
Life in Decatur’s African American neighborhood was all about segregation’s externalities. Mostly these externalities were social costs imposed on the people who lived there. One externality remains raw in Wilson’s memory: the municipal trash incinerator’s location. “The city dump used to be on part of where this building is,” Wilson said as she pointed towards the Park Trace Apartments. “Every day the city trucks would come and they’d call it the crematory and they burned stuff and it was in the back yard, almost the complete back yard of where people lived on Elizabeth Street and Robin Street.”
Other externalities were benefits. One was the tight-knit business community and a network of churches and the African American school:
We all lived here and it just seems to me, everybody strived to sort of have the American dream, homes and good education and you know, just sort of the things that everybody else wanted. You know, safe community for the kids to play in …
We all went to the same churches. You know, you had the Baptist church and the Methodist church and sometimes we would end up going with somebody to their church and especially if they had some social activity …
The church, without a doubt, the church was the gathering place. So we didn’t have a lot of places, like the social places. We always had the church and we had the school. The school was central for us, too. And we would have functions that, you know, we would invite people to come. We didn’t have big restaurants and stuff like that. You know, you had Tom Steele Café. Tom Steele had the splits and the pig ear sandwich.
Tom Steele’s restaurant was located at Herring Street (now Trinity Place) and Atlanta Avenue. It was the heart of Decatur’s black business district. “We had the Tom Steele Café. We had a movie theater at one time. We had a little grocery store called Spic and Span, I think. We had an ice cream stand. Thankful Baptist Church was here before it burned,” Wilson said.
Wilson and others who lived in the neighborhood fondly recall the ten-cent splits and the pig ear sandwiches. And what was a split? “It was the big red link, sausage link,” Wilson explained. Steele “boiled them, and then put them on the grill and sliced them and browned them, you know, grilled them. And then mustard and ketchup and onions. So I mean he sold hundreds of them because people loved them.”
P.B. also recalled the business district and Steele’s restaurant. “Pig ears. Lemon and gravy sandwiches. That was our community restaurant,” he recalled. “We had a movie next door. I would go watch movies all day for a dime. You would get two movies and a cartoon for a dime.” He explained the community’s economic cohesiveness imposed by segregation:
The good thing was, during that time, we recycled our money in our own community. You spent your money in your own community and your money stayed in your community. Now, as soon as you get paid, your money goes out of your community, you see. So it was definitely different. It was different. It was hard times, but it was different.
Everyobdy in the community knew everybody in the community.
The “Brick Wall” was a significant community landmark. It was a retaining wall constructed, according to Wilson by the Works Projects Administration (WPA), along the south side of Robin Street between Oliver Street and Electric Avenue. The wall was demolished to make way for public housing but former residents still recall it. On the way from her Oakhurst home to the Beacon Community, Wilson drove by a granite wall constructed along College Avenue. “This is the wall that looks like what we called the ‘Brick Wall’ except it’s not brick, it’s stone,” she said. “And that one was stone, as well, and I don’t know why it got the name of being the Brick Wall.”
P.B. grew up in a house his family rented on Robin Street. “It was a wall that ran down Robin Street, all the way to the Presbyterian Church,” he said. “It was the Brick Wall and we played on it and we – it was the Brick Wall. It was a huge wall that straight down the street.”
In addition to the churches — Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian — social life in Decatur’s African American community also was centered on the school. “Most of the social life, you know, again was around the church and the school,” Wilson said. If folks wanted to hear music other than the gospel performed in the churches, they had to go to Atlanta or to other places outside of Decatur.
Decatur was a Southern city that strictly enforced Jim Crow segregation. In addition to separate school systems, the City also created parallel, yet unequal, public amenities — parks. Or, as Wilson explained, Decatur’s African American community had just one park: Ebster Park. “Adair Park was a park for whites and Ebster was the park for blacks,” she said.
I asked Wilson if Ebster Park was a big park. “Not really,” she replied. “And it was typical of what they were doing at the time. They put something in the neighborhood, they’d do something just to appease – it was certainly not a Glenn Lake by any means.”
Before being moved after the 1960s from the west side of Atlanta Avenue to its current location, Ebster Park had a swimming pool, bath house, and a recreation building. There was a playground and an open space for kids to play ball. But, as Wilson recalled, “They might have had enough space for children to play, not organized, but you know, street play.”
As urban renewal progressed in the 1960s, the area to the west was an established white neighborhood. Wilson recalls an encounter with a young white boy who was moving into the area on the Beacon Community’s margins. “Now this, all of this, was the white area,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I remember before they built that, this little boy talked about how they was getting rid of Niggertown here.”
Urban renewal tore the community’s fabric and scattered its residents to other parts of Decatur and beyond. The neighborhood that Decatur’s African Americans called home was called a blighted slum — “Decatur’s chief eye-sore” — by city leaders for much of the twentieth century. “This area has unpaved alleys, substandard housing and demands more in police and fire protection than it returns in taxes,” wrote the City in a 1960s booklet titled Decatur Fights Decay.
“You wasn’t asked to move, you was forced to move,” explained P.B. “And a lot of people didn’t know that. You had an option: Get out of here. And that’s what we had to do.” He quickly added, “You know what, a lot of them left Decatur. A lot of those people left Decatur because there was not a lot of options. They was forced to leave Decatur. A lot of them, there was not a lot of options.”
Wilson explained the displacement in similar terms. She laments the loss of the community’s tangible and intangible culture. And she worries that once people like her are no longer around to render the otherwise illegible landscape understandable in historical terms, that her community’s history will be permanently lost.
They will never know. They will never know. This is why it’s so important to me that something – we need to try to make sure that something is somewhere written to let people know that this was a community. It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t and it just breaks your heart, you know, when … there is nothing [left].
Despite her intimacy with the landscape developed over more than half a century of attachment, Wilson struggles in places to connect what exists today to the buildings and spaces she vividly remembers. Throughout our tour, she repeatedly points to places where streets abruptly end in walls and fences. “This street is Atlanta Avenue. It used to go all the way through and I’m going to come around and show you sort of how they chopped it up,” she said as we approached Hibernia Avenue.
There’s a brick church at the corner of Hibernia Avenue and a remnant segment of Atlanta Avenue. Now home to the Decatur United Church of Christ congregation, the building briefly was occupied by one of the African American churches displaced by urban renewal:
This is part of Atlanta Avenue, original Atlanta Avenue, which starts back there. Because this church moved on Atlanta Avenue. By the way, this is Antioch AME Church. It was … moved from where the Callaway Building is, when they bought that land they moved them here.
Unhappy with the new location and surrounded by new homes occupied by unfamiliar people in the historically black community, the congregation left Decatur:
They built it. But they were unhappy, always unhappy because they didn’t feel like it was really their church and so they finally some years ago moved out on South Hairston and then somebody else bought the church.
But this is, this street is Atlanta Avenue and when we were at Lilly Hill Baptist Church, some of this land is right close to Lilly Hill church is …
… It had houses where people lived all along on both sides – not this kind of house by any means but you know, the houses – and several of the people who lived on Atlanta Avenue were homeowners. And they were business people, you know, they might have been painters or you know, something having to do with construction. And beauticians and barbers and, you know, they were business people. Teachers.
As Wilson and I spoke about her old neighborhood, the conversation veered towards how Decatur’s African American history is preserved — in buildings and landscapes and in the written record. In our earlier interviews she had shared with me narratives written by various government agencies and newspapers that in her opinion failed to capture the true social, economic, and physical characteristics of Decatur’s African American community. These included narratives that compressed historical events, especially during the Civil Rights era, that minimized impacts on the black community by desegregation efforts that began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I asked Wilson, “How well do you think Decatur tells its story of African American history?”
I don’t think we tell it because I don’t think we know it. We know bits and pieces but I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody to actually do any research or like the interviewing the families who lived here – at least they know the history …
… Now there might be something that I’ve missed but books like Caroline Clarke’s, you know, she has a few pages and she talks a little bit about some of the families that she knew and she even mentions Thankful Baptist Church.
Each year academics and others debate the legitimacy, value, and continued need to celebrate Black History Month. For people like Wilson and P.B., black history is their biography. It is a story that shouldn’t be limited to an annual 28- or 29-day cycle; it’s something that should be incorporated into daily narratives about local, regional, and national history.
Note: The individual identified as “P.B.” in this post was interviewed for the South Decatur urban homesteading project. Although he signed an oral history interview release allowing the use of his name in publications and presentations resulting from the research, I decided to anonymize him in this post to protect his privacy since he is not a public figure like Elizabeth Wilson.
I would like to thank Elizabeth Wilson and all of the other people who have helped me with this research, especially the kind people who have opened their homes and shared their memories during the many interviews I have conducted since November.
Read a June 2012 follow-up to this post on the City of Decatur’s plans to redevelop the Beacon school complex and the July 2013 report on its demolition. A version of this post was published in the May 2012 issue of Reflections, the Georgia African American Historic Preservation Network (GAAHPN) newsletter published by the Georgia Historic Preservation Division.
© 2012 David S. Rotenstein and Elizabeth Wilson