Forget the symbols of the Confederacy; instead let’s preserve our African-American heritageGaines Hall - as it stands today - a year after it caught fire (Photo by Maria Saporta)
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.”
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?
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.
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.