The “Decatur Plan” revisited

Did Decatur, Ga., have a plan to turn its city all white as some urban legends and local rumors suggest? In a conspiracy theory sense, it’s not likely. But, the city certainly created an atmosphere through 35 years of official policies and resident actions that instilled in many African American residents a belief that there was a “Plan” to remove them.

[1] I told my mom recently that I don’t even want to live here any more because I can’t go to work in the morning without looking around, wondering which way I should go to avoid being stopped because I’m driving her car. I can’t come home at night without wondering if I should go down DeKalb Avenue or come down [Interstate] 20 and go through Kirkwood. I don’t know which way to even make it home and I can’t be comfortable. — Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[2] Decatur’s a great place. I love it. I love seeing the signs saying one of the ten greatest places in the U.S. to live. It makes me feel so good. But then I know there’s something under the carpet and y’all should know it and a lot of African American people do know it.

That we feel like we’re not wanted in Decatur.– Decatur resident, Decatur City Commission, 21 April 2014

[3] 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 — Decatur resident, April 2012

The Decatur Plan wasn’t hashed out in a smoke-filled backroom in the towering former Decatur Federal bank building. Instead, it is a cluster of loosely fitting motifs or rumors built on a conspiracy theory originating in Decatur’s African American kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and churches.

Two documents — actual city plans — provide some legitimacy to the legend. The first is the 1982 Decatur Town Center Plan which leaders used to imagineer the city into the hip, trendy suburb it became after the turn of the 21st century. As bookends for a historical period (c. 1981-2015), they illustrate the roadmap Decatur took to plan for a white future by erasing an African American past.

1982-plan

The second plan is the 2009 Decatur citywide historic resources survey that is completely silent about the city’s African Americans, past and present, and their historic places.

2009-survey

For those who subscribe to it, the Plan refers to a secret governmental mandate to eliminate African Americans from positions of power — Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner. Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, p. 133

Many blacks believe that at some point around the mid 1970s whites made a decision to return to the District [of Columbia]. Some blacks refer to the situation as “The Plan” — a strategy by whites to “repossess the city” —  Charles Wesley Harris and Alvin Thornton. Perspectives of Political Power in the District of Columbia: The Views and Opinions of 110 Members of the Local Political Elite. Washington, D.C: National Institute of Public Management, 1981, pp. 184-185.

The Decatur variant of The Plan urban legend feeds on fears sweeping through the city’s once-African American neighborhood long decimated by urban renewal. And, it thrives in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification where displacement and unseen and unexplainable forces were playing musical chairs with people, buildings, and wealth.

Actual musical chairs: Oakhurst Jazz Nights are held every spring and fall.

Neighborhoods like Decatur’s Oakhurst.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein