When civil rights history becomes a civil rights issue

History News Network has published my article, When a City Turns White, What Happens to its Black History?

Anti-historic district sign from 2007. Photo by author, August 2011. Sign still in place, Sept. 2012.

Anti-historic district sign in Decatur’s gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood. Photo by author, August 2011. The sign remained in place through 2013.

The HNN article is the first of several on history and historic preservation in Decatur that will be published over the next year. My book on structural racism, gentrification and housing history in Decatur will cover all of these issues.

The HNN article doesn’t explicitly  state it, but I believe the problems laid out in the article are not a history problem; they are a civil rights problem. Gentrification and demographic inversion are rapidly diminishing Decatur’s African American population. Decisions by Decatur’s elected and appointed officials offer irrefutable evidence that their city’s community and economic policies embrace gentrification and demographic inversion as municipal growth strategies.

The erasure of black history and culture from the contemporary landscape and the historical record is as much of a civil rights issue as the city’s police racial profiling. As I have told folks in presentations and conversations about Decatur, erasing Decatur’s African Americans and their history is little more than an invisible form of ethnic cleansing that is related to the mass incarceration of African Americans and the substantial prison economy that has developed to profit from it. It is, in effect, another example what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”

© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein

Black History Month 2015: African American heritage in the city of homes, schools, and churches

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).

 

The Decatur Focus, Jan.-Feb. 2004.  Original posted on the City of Decatur website.

The Decatur Focus, Jan.-Feb. 2004. Original posted on the City of Decatur website.

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. Continue reading

Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

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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

Moratorium

October 2013 wasn’t the first time the Decatur, Ga., City Commission heard pleas from residents of the gentrifying Oakhurst neighborhood to halt the disintegration of their community. In February 2003 another group of Oakhurst residents asked the City Commission to “have their backs.”

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Antioch’s eyes (Updated)

Antioch. They call it Hibernia now but it was on Atlanta Avenue. I watched my neighbors sell ice cream, fish sandwiches, having teas and dinners, sacrificing to buy the windows and to buy the bricks. I mean they were doing labors of love, you know, and trying to pass it on to the next generation. And when I pass by the building now, it almost breaks my heart because they were working the sweat of their brows, trying to establish a place for this generation. — Sarah Kirk, March 2012.

Former Antioch church facade, Jan. 2014.

Former Antioch church facade, Jan. 2014.

Sarah Kirk¹ recently drove by an abandoned brick church north of Hibernia Ave. in Decatur, Ga. The 75-year-old Decatur native had heard that the property had been sold. Built for the congregation in which her family had worshipped since the last decades of the nineteenth century, she was struck by the gutted edifice. The building’s last congregation, Decatur United Church of Christ, had acquired the property from Antioch AME Church, one of Decatur’s oldest African American religious institutions.

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