The Decatur “Plan”

“The Plan” is deeply embedded in Washington, D.C., urban lore. According to Washington author Harry Jaffe,

“The plan” is a persistent conspiracy theory among many blacks in the District. It assumes that whites have had a plan to take back the nation’s capital city since the advent of home rule in the 1970s, when the city started electing blacks to local office. The white power structure is bent on moving blacks out and whites in, and it will always control the levers of power.

The Washington “Plan” is easily dismissed as contemporary conspiracy theory that dates to 1979. Academics, journalists, and pundits generally agree that despite demographic changes to the city once dubbed “Chocolate City,” there is no systematic plan to relocate Washington’s black residents beyond the District limits.

Decatur-Dekalb News, 1960.

Decatur-Dekalb News, 1960.

Although Decatur, Ga., has never had an African American “power structure” despite having a whole two African American city commissioners in its 191-year history, longtime black residents believe that Decatur does have a “plan” to eliminate them from the city’s ranks. Like Washington, the demographic data support popular observations that Decatur’s black population is declining. And, like Washington, that trend is easily explained by market forces and gentrification.

What economics and rational social science don’t explain is the belief held by some of Decatur’s native African American residents that there is an official plan to eliminate them from the city. That belief is strongly articulated in interviews I’ve done with Decatur residents since 2011. One octogenarian told me that she believed that the City wanted to turn her neighborhood “all white” again because of the way it turns a blind eye to the aggressive tactics used by local builders with African American homeowners. “They’d be every day trying to get you to sell, to get out. I guess to get out so they can just finish so it will be all white. That’s what I think it is,” she said in April 2012.

Another resident, a 40-something man, told me in July 2012, “I think the big picture is to get the blacks out. I think that’s inevitable. That’s my personal feeling.”

Set aside conspiracy theories that have Decatur’s city government engaged in a wholesale ethnic cleansing program, there is some historical basis for the belief that Decatur wants to shed its African American population. In 1961, as Decatur embarked on a second phase of urban renewal in its segregated black neighborhood called Beacon, the City contemplated relocating all of the African Americans to be displaced — about 200 households — outside of the city limits to an area near Scottdale in DeKalb County called “Eskimo Heights.” Back in 1961, it was even called “The Plan.”

DeKalb New Era, July 27, 1961.

DeKalb New Era, July 27, 1961.

According to Decatur city officials at the time, the city had “no land for a housing project” inside its limits. “Decatur’s Negro citizens will have two opportunities soon to get facts first-hand about renewal” in two bus tours of the proposed Tobie Grant site, reported the DeKalb New Era in April 1962.

Decatur newspapers in October 1962 reported, “Some Beacon Hill leaders are opposed to their people having to leave the city.” Bowing to increasing pressure from Beacon residents and federal requirements to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing to displaced Beacon residents, Decatur officials in 1964 announced plans for new housing in the downtown urban redevelopment area. This was the same area that just two years earlier the City proclaimed had no room for African American housing. The DeKalb New Era reported in April 1964,

It would go a long way toward solving the relocation problem and put a sizeable parcel of land back into residential use.

The problem of finding an acceptable relocation area for the residents of Beacon Hill, most of whom are Negroes, has been a thorn in the side of the housing authority. A majority of the residents say flatly that they do not want to move away from Beacon Hill.

The area where Decatur’s leaders wanted to send the displaced Beacon residents was redeveloped by DeKalb County at the same time (mid-1960s) as Decatur’s Beacon community. It became the Tobie Grant Manor public housing project that is slated for demolition and redevelopment later this year.

Tobie Grant Manor, DeKalb County, Ga., December 2013. Photo by author.

Tobie Grant Manor, DeKalb County, Ga., December 2013. Photo by author.

Some of Decatur’s displaced Beacon Community residents were relocated to Tobie Grant while most others were able to remain inside Decatur’s city limits. The effort to relocate a large number of the city’s African American residents outside the city failed but evidence of the trauma induced to the community lingers more than half a century later in the narratives of the city’s elderly homeowners. The daily uninvited phone calls, visits, and mail from builders remind them of the City’s efforts half a century ago. Former Decatur mayor Elizabeth Wilson, herself a former Beacon resident, in 2012 compared the contemporary redevelopment efforts to urban renewal:

Yeah, without the government funding,” she began. “This is not government funding, what’s happening in here. This is a developer, private, who can afford to buy up these properties and then build.

View Decatur Plan in a larger map

The map above shows the Decatur city limits (black outline), 1960s Decatur urban renewal area (blue), and the Tobie Grant Manor area (yellow).

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein


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