Forget the symbols of the Confederacy; instead let’s preserve our African-American heritage

By Maria Saporta

It makes no sense.

As the nation and our region ponder whether to erase Confederate history by removing monuments and renaming streets, we are letting our precious landmarks of African-American history crumble to dust.

Where is the passion and dedication to save the pillars of U.S. black history? Let’s begin with Gaines Hall, built in 1869 and the second oldest building in the city of Atlanta, and the place where W.E.B. DuBois wrote the mind-changing book: “The Souls of Black Folk.”

Gaines Hall

Gaines Hall – as it stands today – a year after it caught fire (Photo by Maria Saporta)

And what about Paschal’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge on Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., a nerve center and gathering spot for Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s.

Not far away, on Sunset Avenue, there’s the home where Martin Luther King Jr. and his family lived when he was assassinated – a home that is next door to where Atlanta’s first African-American Mayor Maynard Jackson lived.

A few blocks away there’s the modern house where Grace Towns Hamilton, the first African-American woman elected to the Georgia General Assembly, lived. It is overgrown and in a terrible state of disrepair.

The history that made Atlanta stand out as a bright beacon in a racist, segregated South is disappearing on our watch.

We can cringe at the displays of Nazi symbols and Confederate flags next to monuments honoring military and political leaders  in our city, our state and across the South. And we can feel the outrage over what those symbols represent and the misguided beliefs that created them.

But where is the outrage for saving our commendable symbols – the history worthy of celebrating and holding dear?


Paschal’s Motor Lodge is in dire need of being preserved (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Exactly two years ago, Gaines Hall caught fire.

At the time, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said: “We are going to find a way to preserve it.”

In those two years, little has happened other than putting up a fence that surrounds the property and a few posts to keep the walls from falling down.

What’s worse is that it’s hard to find out who is in charge of preserving Gaines Hall. Is it owned by the city’s Invest Atlanta?  Or is it owned by Clark-Atlanta University? Was the building covered under fire insurance? If so, who had the policy – Morris Brown College, Invest Atlanta or another entity?

I actually have been asking these questions for a year without receiving a definitive answer.

And Atlanta’s African-American history also needs to be preserved in other parts of our region – along the Sweet Auburn corridor and around the National Park Service’s King Historic District.

There’s the beautiful historic home of Atlanta Life on Auburn Avenue, a building that’s been vacant for decades. Countless other iconic structures along the corridor also are worthy of preservation.

But up to now, we have lacked the commitment to do what is needed to save the buildings that represent the best of who we are.

Sadly, many of the buildings in a state of disrepair are owned by historically-black institutions or governmental entities that have been led by African-Americans.

Atlanta Life

The magnificent historic home of Atlanta Life has been vacant for decades (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

We talk of creating new Civil Rights monuments in our community to honor the great people in our midst. But we really should be talking about saving our Civil Rights monuments in need of preservation.

These are difficult times. The hatred and bigotry we saw in Charlottesville, Va. were all too reminiscent of what we saw in the South during the days of segregation.

So how do we respond?

Yes, we could tear down all monuments that honor the Confederacy. But I’m conflicted by the tearing down of history, even when it’s despicable and dishonorable. Instead, if they are put into the proper context of time and history, those monuments can be a teaching moment for generations. They could become landmarks to show how far we’ve come.

But even more lasting would be to honor the amazing history that’s all around us. By preserving Gaines Hall, Paschal’s and the numerous other buildings and places that made Atlanta the center of the Civil Rights movement, we would be declaring an everlasting victory over segregation, prejudice and racism.

It’s time to treasure our special history before we lose it to the passage of time.

Grace Towns Hamilton

The architecturally-significant home of the late Grace Twons Hamilton (Photo by Maria Saporta)


Tom Houck King home

Civil Rights Tour guide Tom Houck points to the home of Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunset Avenue (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

13 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    Maria, the problem saving African-American landmarks is that the African-American community talks a good game but does not follow the talk with money and action. It seems to me that all assume that someone else will lead and invest. If you wait for government to lead and invest, you will be waiting for a long time.
    Regarding Confederate monuments, they were erected and paid for by interested people at the time. They didn’t wait for someone else to lead and pay. Many of them were erected years after the war was over because raising money took time and economic times were hard. The Reconstruction era (more appropriately Redestruction) extended wartime misery for another 12 years until 1877.
    And let’s all be honest. The tempest regarding slavery,Confederate monuments, and protests has nothing to do with slavery, the Confederacy, and protests, and everything to do with Democrats resisting President Trump. Nothing regarding these matters has changed in years and we heard not a peep during President Obama’s eight years, but now in seven months agitators are stirring the pot for the sake of stirring the pot.Report

  2. Henry Hall says:

    In my opinion, the monuments of both are worthy of preservation, but not too many people seem to realize that right now. Those monuments of both the Civil War and Civil Rights are fully part of our story. The problem is that as l witness the destruction of the former, l have a difficult time mustering enthusiasm for preservation of the latter.

    Further, the destruction will not be isolated to Confederates. Demands are now underway to obliterate memorials to American heroes as varied as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, ad infinitum. Is it perhaps now easier to understand my inability to summon concern for the sites associated with “civil rights?”

    To be sure, I will reiterate: ALL are part of our story and worthy of preservation. The recent destruction of Friendship Baptist Church for a disposable football stadium was mindless. The current state of the sites you mention is inexcusable. Even the Herndon Home of Atlanta’s first black millionaire is maintained in a less-than-optimal state.

    I consider myself your ally, Maria, but the strange dichotomy of destruction on one hand and preservation on the other is unacceptable.Report

    • Maria Saporta
      Maria Saporta says:

      We agree more than you realize. Here is a paragraph from my column:

      Yes, we could tear down all monuments that honor the Confederacy. But I’m conflicted by the tearing down of history, even when it’s despicable and dishonorable. Instead, if they are put into the proper context of time and history, those monuments can be a teaching moment for generations. They could become landmarks to show how far we’ve come.Report

      • Burroughston Broch says:

        And then would arise the question of where to stop. Toss Washington and Jefferson; toss Andrew Johnson? Toss MLKJr because he clearly condemned homosexuality? Where to stop?Report

  3. Nancy Bauer says:

    Maria, thank you for recommending that we preserve our civil rights and African American monuments and heritage. These brave souls sought to break barriers and claim justice for all. We need to keep that at the forefront of our discussion and elevate the conversation. As for the Confederate monuments I do believe they are a glorification of individuals who committed treason and sought to enslave human beings. While it was acceptable at the time, it is no longer acceptable or appropriate to glorify such divisive behavior. Nancy BauerReport

  4. brainstar8 says:

    A favorite quote from my childhood: “We’ve become so open-minded, our brains have fallen out.”

    As for our founding fathers and generals named Lee, they could live only within their times – not before and not after. Like it or not, they are part of our history, as are MLK, Rosa Parks and other genuine Civil Rights champions (as opposed to the opportunistic Sharptons of the world).

    But tides roll in and out. One day, could they also become the hated – the so-last-decade relics? When it comes to history, good and bad, we must take care in setting precedents. It would be nice to see rational thinking sub for emotionalism, even if for a short time. How refreshing this would be.Report

  5. Ken Bleakly says:

    Maria: What we need is to create at least a citywide entity charged with preserving these important monuments to the city’s civil rights heritage. That entity should be a non-profit development corporation designed solely to take title to these historic structures and restore them before they are lost. They should seek to put active businesses in the restored structures where possible as a way to sustain their operations. Also, as a region we could do a fund-raiser with Atlanta regional school children taking the lead, like a march of dimes approach, and the business community/United Way or other civic group agree to match the funding raised by the kids. Let the Center for Civil and Human Rights organize the kid fundraising. Hotel motel tax revenues to help fund the restoration? Just a thought.Report

    • Felker Ward says:

      Well researched and presented. As I read your article I envisioned a parallel to Ralph McGill’s editorial published the day after the Temple bombing.Report

  6. Fanae K. says:

    Yes my mother actually worked for Atlanta Life Insurance Company. for 40 years… she also worked nt the new building for several yesrs …..during retirement we watched the new building get absorbed by GA State …she is 83 so I am trying to get an oral history from her…..Report


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