The historical, cultural and aesthetic heritage of the city is among the city’s most valued and important assets, and the preservation of this heritage is essential to the promotion of the health, prosperity and general welfare of the people. — “Historical Preservation,” Decatur Municipal Code, § 58-1.
Much as Jim Crow racism served as the glue for defending a brutal and overt system of racial oppression in the pre–civil rights era, color-blind racism serves today as the ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post– civil rights era. — Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (4th ed., 2013).
Color-blind racism is a tough nut to crack. Americans in recent months have confronted some uneasy truths about how race influences the way we see the world around us. It is easier to see and perhaps explain when it’s police racial profiling or some other symptom of structural racism that has immediate and almost always deadly consequences. Racism is less visible and harder to understand when it involves a city’s approach to preserving and communicating its history. And yet, a community’s public history conveys key messages about its values and identity.
Over the past 25 years, Decatur, Ga., has slowly and almost imperceptibly worked its way into a situation that appears to reflect racial bias and duplicity in the ways history is conveyed and preserved. In the 1980s, city history documents were as diverse as Decatur’s population: the city’s black history was commingled with its white history. It was integrated. A generation later, official history and historic preservation documents present Decatur’s history in segregated narratives: one set of documents and sources for white history and another for African American history.
No matter how many image consultants Decatur hires or self-nominated accolades it wins, the city cannot break from its long history of ethnic exclusion. Each February Decatur’s soul is exposed as various municipal organizations observe Black History Month. They hold public programs and and publish articles celebrating how well Decatur observes African American history.
But how well does Decatur do when it comes to preserving African American history?
City officials have all but erased African Americans from Decatur’s official histories and from the landscape. Whether it’s the all-white Decatur history page on Decatur’s official website, the all-white historic resources survey for which the city paid $35,000 in 2009, or the all-white histories published in the city’s strategic plans, there is compelling evidence that Decatur doesn’t much care for black history. And, there is ample proof that Decatur’s citizens have failed to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable for slowly and surely editing the city’s black residents from the historical record.
For most of the 20th century Decatur described itself as a “City of Homes, Schools, and Churches.” In the years before the turn of the 21st century, the official slogan was changed to “City of Homes, Schools, and Places of Worship” — after a resident published a book documenting the city’s three-decade Tuesday through Saturday school week meant to dissuade observant Jews from living in the city. But that story is another chapter in Decatur’s history of exclusion and ethnocentrism.
Tom Keating, who wrote the 1999 book Saturday School, recalls speaking to city officials about changing its slogan, which at that time was prominently displayed on signs at Decatur’s gateways. According to Keating, his efforts were rebuffed at first. Keating recently told me that city officials ultimately acquiesced after a large wood gateway sign with the slogan that was maintained by a local garden club deteriorated and the city replaced it with one bearing the new slogan.
Decatur, like many places around the world, fiercely clings to its past and its traditions — even if those traditions reflect bias.
As another Black History Month begins, I’d like to review how Decatur’s historic slogan can have different meanings for African American and white residents. Decatur’s slogan will be my outline to show that since the City of Decatur went into the historic preservation business in 1990 by passing a local preservation ordinance, there are no locally designated historic districts associated with African American history. And, there are no individual buildings or properties in Decatur associated with African American history — people or events — listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Just because the city and many of its residents choose to ignore African American history and material culture doesn’t mean there isn’t any. In fact, before the city turned away from the more progressive and inclusive direction it was pursuing in the 1980s, there was widespread recognition that African American history played a key role in the city’s development and identity. That recognition manifest itself in policies by Decatur’s elected and appointed officials and in the city’s first formal historic preservation planning documents.
A City of Homes
Though there currently are no African American historic homes in Decatur legally designated as historic, prior to 2009 several were identified in 1980s efforts as historically significant. Dr. Darlene Roth — a city historic preservation consultant — in 1987 recommended creating four South Decatur historic districts.
One proposed district, Oakhurst, was the Decatur neighborhood Roth singled out as the city’s predominantly African American neighborhood after white flight in the 1960s. Roth found that the African American community that came together in Oakhurst after the mid-1960s played a significant role in the city’s development history. Roth believed that it was essential to evaluate Oakhurst in its context, i.e., its relationship Decatur’s downtown black community destroyed by urban renewal. “To a large extent the increase in the black population in South Decatur neighborhoods was the result of blacks moving from neighborhoods which had been eliminated by urban renewal,” Roth wrote. “In most cases the relocation meant that black families were leaving slum housing conditions for single family houses. These were frequently the then thirty year old Craftsman bungalows in [the] Oakhurst historic district.”
In addition to the Craftsman-style homes, African Americans also bought small homes finished in period revival styles and more plain vernacular homes. Oakhurst was an established residential neighborhood in the Civil Rights era and there is no historical evidence documenting house construction in Oakhurst by African Americans between c. 1965 and c. 1987. Residential historic districts in Oakhurst, established prior to the teardown epidemic that began about 15 years ago (and which accelerated after a 2007 historic preservation effort), would have preserved a cultural landscape and homes that reflect the neighborhood’s entire history from its start as Gilded Age streetcar suburbs through white flight and the historically significant HUD program in which Decatur participated.
By 1982, after the Decatur Housing Authority sold its last dollar home in Oakhurst, the neighborhood had acquired an additional layer of historical significance as one of only 23 pilot Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program sites in the United States. Dollar homes, or lottery homes as some Decaturites called them, were formerly abandoned properties once owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that were sold for one dollar to affordable housing lottery winners. Unlike all of the historically white residential subdivisions protected under Decatur’s historic preservation law and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Oakhurst’s small homes — like the former urban homesteading sites — are unfit for preservation, let alone human habitation if the race- and class-based rhetoric published in local blogs and expressed in city commission meetings is to be believed.
In 1990, Roth identified as historically significant the Allen Wilson Terrace apartments, Decatur’s public housing completed in 1941 during the city’s first foray into slum clearance. Roth aptly compared the complex to neighboring Atlanta’s contemporaneous Techwood Homes. Had Roth dug more deeply into the property’s history, she would have found that Decatur’s public housing was designed, in part, by the same master architect and Decatur resident — William Sayward — who designed Decatur’s city hall and other landmark buildings in the city.
The Decatur Housing Authority demolished the original 200-unit Allen Wilson Terrace apartments between 2009 and 2014.
A City of Schools
In 2010, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution aptly summarized how important the city’s two equalization schools, Beacon Elementary and Trinity High, were to former Decatur Mayor Elizabeth Wilson and others in the community. “To Wilson and other African-Americans who lived in Decatur 45 years ago or longer, the structures have a significance that’s at once symbolic, emotional and historic,” wrote reporter Bill Banks.
About the schools, Banks also recognized, “To most residents, if they notice the buildings on the edge of downtown Decatur at all, they appear as drab relics of a past that has no connection to the city’s contemporary image.”
Just one year earlier, in 2009, a Georgia State University graduate student found that the two segregation-era African American schools were eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for their mid-century modern architecture and their associations with African American history.
Despite overwhelming evidence [PDF] of the schools’ historical significance and reports from a Georgia state agency that the buildings could be rehabilitated, the City of Decatur demolished the two historic African American schools in 2013.
Another school, Oakhurst’s Fifth Avenue Elementary School, also played a key role in Decatur’s African American history. It was the first public school in Decatur to invert from an all-white student body to predominantly African American after the city began desegregating its schools more than a decade after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
According to oral histories conducted between 2011 and 2014, Decatur’s elementary schools provided many of the city’s neighborhoods with their identities and oftentimes their names. The Fifth Avenue Elementary School site has housed schools since 1891. After the City of Decatur acquired the building, the older wood school was replaced in 1926 by a new brick building designed by the architect William Sayward and his partner William Edwards. A decade later the firm was retained to design an addition to the original building.
Decatur’s 2009 historic resources survey identified the Fifth Avenue School — by then abandoned for nearly a decade — as a property built c. 1950 and not historically significant. The school was demolished in 2010 and replaced by a new academy for the city’s fourth and fifth graders.
Historically white schools in Decatur have fared much better than their segregation-era African-American counterparts. In 2012, the Decatur Downtown Historic District’s proposed boundaries were adjusted to include the Decatur High School campus. The high school, which was less than 50 years old at the time, was considered exceptionally significant and therefore eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our Decatur High School is listed in this district,”said Decatur’s historic preservation planner Regina Brewer in a February 2011 interview. “It was built in ’65 but because it has significance in the style of its architecture and its cutting edge given that this was a pretty sleepy little town back in ’65, it’s being considered contributing — and because it’s Bothwell and Nash, who as a very famous firm.”
In late 2014 redevelopment plans for the high school were announced. All of the final alternatives considered included preserving the high school’s distinctive modernist facade.
A City of Churches
In 2014, a private developer demolished the former Antioch A.M.E. Church. The 1960s building had been constructed by Decatur’s oldest African American church congregation and the 1960s building replaced a historic sanctuary demolished during urban renewal.
Neighbors learned of the developer’s proposal after an application had been submitted to city officials for a zoning variance. Local bloggers wrote several articles on the impacts to trees and the neighbors’ concerns about the higher residential density but they failed to contact former congregation members (the church had been sold in 1995 to another congregation) or longtime African American residents.
Decatur’s planning director told residents that the church had been evaluated in the 2009 survey. “The 2009 Historic Resource Survey included this structure in the Adair Park neighborhood, and it was determined to be non-contributing,” Amanda Thompson wrote. “That means it was not considered a historic resource in 2009.” Despite Thompson’s claim(which was reported by local blogger Dan Whisenhunt), the church was not mentioned in the report’s narrative sections nor was a survey form completed for the property.
It’s not like Decatur doesn’t have historic churches. Three churches founded with all-white congregations – Decatur First United Methodist Church, Decatur Presbyterian Church, and Decatur First United Presbyterian Church – are in the Decatur Downtown Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. The 2009 citywide survey also recommended the Columbia Theological Seminary for local historic district designation and listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
A City of Color-Blind Racist Policies
Decatur’s treatment of African American history is a window into the city’s soul. Despite municipal imagineering that includes the annual Black History Month observations, Decatur’s official acts fail to rise to the aspirations of its rhetoric. Since 1980, Decatur has lost more than 50 percent of its African American population. As that number dwindles, so too does the number of people with a vested interest in protecting African American history and historic places in the city.
Over the past three years I have asked Decatur residents where they take family members and visitors to see black history in their city. The answer across the board is that there are no black heritage sites left in Decatur.“I wouldn’t have anywhere to take them at this point. I don’t feel like there are black history sites in Decatur,” said historian and Decatur resident Michael Forbes. The only way to experience the material culture of Decatur’s African American past is through the memories of aging residents and in written narratives. After the new Beacon civic complex opens, visitors will be able to see African American history under glass.
Decatur’s 1990 historic preservation ordinance declares that heritage is a valued municipal asset and historic preservation “is essential to the promotion of the health, prosperity and general welfare” of Decatur’s residents. If that’s the case, what does the population of properties documented and designated under that law say about Decatur? It sends a message that Decatur was (and is) a city of middle-class white Christian homeowners.
There may not be an articulated “Plan” to edit blacks from Decatur’s history and landscape, but the city’s land use and historic preservation policies do appear to support claims by some in the community that African Americans are unwelcome. Whether it’s residents testifying before the city commission about racial profiling by the city’s police department or elderly homeowners [YouTube] complaining about harassment by builders doing business in an environment that supports gentrification as an official growth policy, the conclusion is clear: Decatur doesn’t have a problem with race. Decatur has a racism problem, one that is demonstrably color-blind.
Personally, I’m for historic preservation — but only in limited areas, where there’s some legitimate historic interest and support for it — such as the MAK district. I think the MAK district was a great idea. There’s actually some interesting history there, and the designation helped to preserve that area. — Oakhurst resident, email about historic preservation in the neighborhood sent to the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association listserv, June 14, 2012.
NOTE: Michael Forbes is a pseudonym for the Decatur resident interviewed in 2014. I would like to thank my friend M.P. for reading earlier drafts of this article and for offering his unvarnished opinions and valuable suggestions for making it a more accessible piece of research.
An abbreviated version of this article originally was published in Like the Dew.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein