Atlanta’s Confederate legacy: Heavy lift faces committee to review names, tributes

By David Pendered

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed plans to form an advisory committee to review all street names and monuments in Atlanta that are linked to the Confederacy. The effort promises to be a heavy lift in a city where the ideology of the Confederacy permeated civic life long after the Civil War ended.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has formed an advisory committee to consider the potential fate of street names and monuments that are linked to the Confederacy. Credit: wsbtv.com

Reed doesn’t make any claims about possible outcomes of any potential recommendations. Nor does he suggest the scope of the advisory committee extend beyond “street names and monuments linked to the Confederacy.”

Nor does the four-paragraph statement define or elaborate on, “the Confederacy.” The definition of that word is itself at the core of a long-running dispute over whether Confederacy stands for heritage or hate, according to a recent story on cnn.com.

Reed does aspire to foster a civic culture that is open to all, according to a statement his office released Aug. 18: “We must continue to focus on making Atlanta a city for everyone.”

Three examples speak to civic life in Atlanta that may, or may not, be linked to the Confederacy or vestiges of it. Though these examples are not streets or monuments, they do illustrate the culture of Atlanta City Hall regarding the city’s African American residents at their point in tme.

Larry Keating identified two such actions, among several, in his 2001 book, Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. Keating now has professor emeritus status at Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning.

Holtzclaw Street, in Reynoldstown, may have been named in 1913 for Confederate Gen. James Thadeus Holtzclaw, according to atlstreets.blogspot.com. Credit: atlstreetsblogspot.com

In the 1960s, Downtown business leaders wanted to, “remove as many poor blacks from the downtown area as possible,” Keating writes. The construction of the Downtown Connector completed part of the plan by wiping out black neighborhoods. The next step was to build the Atlanta Civic Center atop the razed site of Buttermilk Bottoms.

The Buttermilk Bottoms neighborhood once housed African Americans who tended the homes of wealthy whites along Peachtree Street and Boulevard Avenue. A fire in 1917 destroyed many of these homes, which weren’t replaced. Homes in the bottoms fell into disrepair as local jobs dried up. The dwellings were destroyed in the early 1960s amid city government promises the neighborhood would be rebuilt.

The civic center was completed in 1965 with funding from a federal urban renewal program, Keating writes. The city did not fulfill promises to rebuild the neighborhood. The federal government failed to compel the city to fulfill its promises.

Another example Keating cites occurred in the Blandtown neighborhood, west of the West Egg Café, on Howell Mill Road. Blandtown was close to jobs available in the neighboring train yards, factories and a stockyard. Blandtown had a school, four churches, a public health clinic and small businesses, Keating writes.

Atlanta annexed the unincorporated neighborhood in 1952 as part of a move by whites at city hall to retain control of city government, Keating writes, attributing the information to a letter by then Mayor William B. Hartsfield to civic leaders. Four years later, the city rezoned Blandtown from residential to heavy industry. This zoning classification drives out housing – new homes couldn’t be built; existing homes couldn’t be repaired if damage exceeded 50 percent of value; banks wouldn’t lend money for homes in industrial areas.

Buttermilk Bottoms, a neighborhood of African Americans, was razed a few years after then Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield visited in 1959. The Atlanta Civic Center opened on the site in 1965. Credit: LIFE magazine via timemachine.com

Meanwhile, the Georgia Department of Transportation classified Blandtown’s four major streets as truck routes to link the industries with I-75. The residential community almost vanished by 1990, Keating writes.

Richard Rothstein released a book this year that noted Atlanta’s adoption of a segregated zoning code in 1922. The city argued for the zoning ordinance all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, according to The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Atlanta hired nationally renowned planner Robert Whitten to write the zoning code. Whitten’s credentials include being published by Harvard University Press and serving as president of American City Planning Institute. The latter institute merged over time with other groups and now is part of the American Planning Association.

According to Rothstein, Whitten wrote in a 1922 professional journal that, not withstanding a Supreme Court decision to the contrary, “[e]stablishing colored residence districts has removed one of the most potent causes of race conflict.”

Whitten advised Atlanta planning officials that, “home neighborhoods had to be protected from any further damage to values resulting from inappropriate uses, including the encroachment of the colored race.”

The city government established a zoning code that provided for an “R-1 white district” and an “R-2 colored district,” with additional neighborhoods undetermined.