Making history relevant

I have worked in and around historic preservation for more than 30 years and I don’t how many times I have tried to explain why historic preservation is relevant to life today. The examples I cited in the past always came from work done by others. And then I encountered Decatur, Ga.

As Decatur systematically erases its black history from the urban landscape and the city continues to hemorrhage African American residents, the linkages between how the city’s white privilege renders past and present residents invisible become more evident. One former black resident agrees that Decatur’s treatment of African Americans and their history is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Read “A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance” on the National Council on Public History’s History@Work site. The day the article appeared, the Decatur-Avondale Estates Patch site asked to reprint it. As a historian who practices public history, this underscores how the NCPH defines the field: “public history describes the many and diverse ways in which history is put to work in the world.”

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur's Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

An isolated historical marker outside the former African American school describes Decatur’s Beacon Community. Photo by author, February 2012.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Former equalization schools after about 90% demolition. March, 2014.

Beacon Demolition, April 2014.

Beacon demolition, April 2014. The orange construction barrels are parallel to the point where the historical marker shown in the first photo was located.


© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

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. Continue reading

Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow

Equalization schools were the South’s futile attempt to cling to Jim Crow segregation. They were built throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and other Deep South states as a last ditch effort to forestall court-ordered public school integration. According to Georgia architectural historian Steven Moffson, his state had the greatest number of schools built to preserve the separate but equal doctrine that ultimately was dismantled under the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Decatur’s Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools were among the hundreds of equalization schools built in Georgia after World War II. They were constructed in 1955 and 1956 on the site where the city had maintained its African American school, the Herring Street School, since the early twentieth century. In early 2013, three years after receiving a $10,000 historic preservation grant that should have led to the property’s protection, the City of Decatur began demolishing parts of the two schools to build a new police headquarters and civic plaza. Continue reading