To the casual viewer, the 1,064-square-foot brick ranch house at 235 West Pharr Road in Decatur, Ga., was just another midcentury home. Set just inside the Decatur city limits in the Oakhurst neighborhood, the house recently was demolished.
Were it not for a neighbor’s post on the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s Facebook page, the house’s demolition and its eventual replacement by a McMansion would have gone mostly unnoticed.
Decatur lost another part of its history and its soul with the demolition of that small brick house. In 1966, Clifford and Elizabeth Wilson bought the house and moved from the area undergoing urban renewal in downtown Decatur. They were among the first African American homebuyers in South Decatur — today’s Oakhurst.
“When I moved onto Pharr Road back in the sixties, my white neighbors, we got up one morning and they were gone,” Elizabeth Wilson told me in a 2011 interview.
White flight was decimating community institutions in South Decatur. PTAs were dissolved and businesses closed and followed the white homeowners out of Decatur. Elizabeth Wilson, who cut her community activism teeth fighting to desegregate public schools and the county library, turned her attention to South Decatur.
Wilson’s first headquarters: the home she shared with her then-husband at 235 West Pharr Road. School principals declined to let community groups use school buildings after school hours and after 1976, the former Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children — today, the community’s preferred gathering space — was an abandoned campus falling into disrepair. There were limited spaces for civic engagement and meeting — even the neighborhood churches had taken extra precautions to secure their properties but they did offer spaces for educational purposes and for the new Boys and Girls Club.
The only places folks like Wilson and her like-minded neighbors had to rebuild community institutions and plan the neighborhood’s future were South Decatur’s living rooms, dining rooms, and porches. They formed block clubs for individual streets and larger organizations associated with the elementary schools, like CHICO: College Heights Interested Citizens Organization and, later, the South Decatur Community Council.
We had these little block clubs, like I lived on Pharr Road[Field] so one side of my street was City of Decatur. All of McKoy Street was City of Decatur. Spring Street, Lenore Street, South McDonough Street. And, the south end of Adams Street. So we formed our little block club and the reason we did it because all of us at that time had children. And so it was like service was bad. You know, the school system seemed like it was falling apart. The school, College Heights School. And so that brought us together. Sort of that need of having something that we all had in common.
These fledgling organizations coalesced throughout South Decatur. They helped the City of Decatur in 1979 pick the area’s new formal name: Oakhurst. Meetings outgrew homes and the Oakhurst Presbyterian Church offered its building to the community. By then the block clubs and other groups had combined under the leadership of Wilson, Mary Whitehead, Bill and Barbara Denton, Robinette Kennedy, and others to form the present-day Oakhurst Neighborhood Association (ONA).
Retired Oakhurst Presbyterian Church pastor Caroline Leach remembers how the ONA moved to her church:
The ONA did not exist when we came in 1983; there was the 2nd Ave Neighborhood assoc. Headed by Mary Whitehead and Robinette [Kennedy]; there were about 12 members of so; they came to us at the church to see if they could meet there and asked me to help build it up!!
Set aside the property’s historical ties to the Oakhurst neighborhood. What about its associations with the city’s first African American city commissioner and mayor? If her contributions genuinely are significant to Decatur’s history, where can future generations go to get a feel for what her life was like during her more than half-century of life and activism there?
The public housing where she moved with her parents as a teenager and where she later lived as a young mother were demolished.
And now, so has the first home she owned in the neighborhood whose identity she helped define. Wilson’s daughter, Leslie Wilson Munson, commented on the August 2015 Facebook post about the demolition. “I grew up in this house … and it was a very difficult decision for us to sell our childhood home,” she wrote. “I cried yesterday when I drove by and saw the demolition. I managed to get one of the bricks.”
In some respects, 21st-century Oakhurst also grew up in that house.
Update: Barbara Denton, one of the founders of CHICO and the South Decatur Community Council, read this post and sent me an email shortly after it was published that read, in part:
So many memories of that house. Especially, the day of Dr. King’s assassination and Elizabeth and me listening to her radio in the dining room well into the night. Later, walking together across Atlanta following the wagon carrying the King. [Reprinted with Barbara Denton’s permission.]
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein