February 2018

Erasure is a Slippery Slope

There is a narrative of racism that permeates all of Decatur, Georgia that goes much deeper than a stone monument.

by David S. Rotenstein

The Slave Dwelling Project’s Joseph McGill calls Confederate monument removal a slippery slope; it only removes a visible symbol, the underlying white supremacy oftentimes remains. On January 23, 2018, the DeKalb County Commission authorized the removal of a Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb. The effort to bring down the granite obelisk erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy was a collaboration among Decatur historians, a local NAACP chapter, and community activists. The county vote was a major milestone in a Deep South state where the largest Confederate monument (Stone Mountain) still stands nine miles away. Local activists sought a legal solution in a state that by law bars the removal of Confederate monuments from public view. Removing Decatur’s Confederate monument is a slippery slope: erasing representations of racism from 1908 is an easy undertaking.

There is a narrative of racism that permeates all of Decatur that goes much deeper than a stone monument. It’s a story that begins in the first decade of the twentieth century as the city sorted itself into Black and white neighborhoods and it continues through three phases of slum clearance and urban renewal spanning more than half a century between 1940 to 2014.

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Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia. Photo by author.

A much more difficult task in Decatur would have been to show up and speak out as Decatur hemorrhaged African Americans between 2000 and 2014 and as almost every remaining Black historical site in the city was demolished by municipal redevelopment or the private sector. Or, they could have spoken out and acted after the city produced a historic resources survey in 2009 that erased the presence of African Americans in the city’s historic buildings and places. Historians were late to the fight against racism in Decatur.

There is a narrative of racism that permeates all of Decatur that goes much deeper than a stone monument.

With a city hall six miles east of the Georgia state capitol, Decatur is a small suburb of about 20,000 people that has struggled with big city problems for nearly half a century. Many of these problems stem from racism. Pushed by urban renewal in downtown Decatur and nearby Atlanta and pulled by new federal civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions, African Americans rapidly made the city’s southwestern quadrant, the Oakhurst neighborhood, their home in the 1960s. Gentrification and displacement since then, however, have greatly reduced the African American presence in Oakhurst and citywide.

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Decatur population 1970-2014. Sources: US Decennial Census and American Community Survey data.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city tried to combat the disinvestment that made Oakhurst ripe for gentrification. Construction of a new rapid transit line through Decatur’s downtown forced municipal leaders to abandon affordable housing programs in Oakhurst and refocus economic development efforts to stanch the loss of businesses. The rail construction, which required lengthy and disruptive excavations in the central business district, diverted from the existing heavy rail corridor and passed through the heart of Decatur’s downtown because city leaders didn’t want a rail station near Oakhurst (the “other side of the tracks”).

In the years bracketing the turn of the twenty-first century, real estate speculation picked up in Oakhurst. Hundreds of small homes, mostly owned and occupied by African Americans, were demolished and replaced by McMansions. The city convened an “infill task force” and hired consultants to recommend ways to preserve affordable housing. The consultants made ten recommendations in 2008. One—to permit “granny flats” and accessory dwellings—was fully implemented, two were partially implemented, and seven were ignored.

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Single-family home teardown in 2012. Photo by author.

Decatur revisited teardowns and affordable housing in October 2013 when the city commission weighed passing two development moratoriums, one temporarily halting single-family home demolitions and the other preventing tree cutting. Only the tree cutting moratorium passed.

Hundreds of small homes, mostly owned and occupied by African Americans, were demolished and replaced by McMansions.

Two months later, in December 2013, an African American former school board member and longtime Decatur resident went outside to get his mail. After Decatur police officers detained Don Denard in front of his own home for walking while Black (i.e., looking suspicious in a majority-white neighborhood), he began organizing residents to protest police racial profiling. One evening the following spring, Decatur residents stood before the city commission and recounted episodes of police harassment and profiling as well as the ways residents, visitors, and people of color who work in Decatur have adapted. A Presbyterian minister spoke about giving “the talk” to a new 30-something pastor joining his church. Young adults described the ways they tried to make themselves more white to remain below the police radar. “We have had to change ourselves to be able to live, to be able to walk down the street,” said resident Angelica Manson. “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.”

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Former Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools being demolished in 2013. Photo by author.

As Decatur lost its African American residents and those who remained struggled to retain their dignity, freedom, and, indeed, their lives in the age of Black Lives Matter, it also lost its Black history. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 120 single-family homes in Oakhurst were demolished, most by real estate speculators; three schools with strong African American historical associations were demolished by the city; a church belonging to Decatur’s oldest organized African American congregation relocated during urban renewal in the 1960s was demolished for new townhomes; and the Allen Wilson Terrace public housing complex completed in 1940 was razed.

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Former Antioch A.M.E. Church demolition in 2014. Photo by author.

Generations of white Decaturites can return to visit the homes where they grew up or where their grandparents lived, the schools they attended, and the churches where they worshipped. African Americans can visit McMansions and new townhomes where their families’ homes once stood or they can view the mediated Black history in the redeveloped Beacon Municipal Center built on the site of two historic African American schools.

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The only way for most people to experience Black history in Decatur is under glass in the new Beacon Municipal Church, which replaced the city’s two segregation-era African American schools. Photo by author.

I’m happy that Decatur’s white supremacists will be deprived of a symbol to which they have deep attachment, but it’s a hollow victory when viewed in context. Left in place is a timeless system of structural racism and many more, less obvious monuments to white supremacy in Decatur. When those fall, too, then historians and anti-racists will have achieved something truly worth celebrating.

dsr-2017David Rotenstein is a Silver Spring, Maryland, historian. He writes on gentrification, race, and history and is the proprietor of a small public history consulting practice focusing on urban and suburban history.

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