By Maria Saporta
My life was transformed at 234 Sunset Ave. – the home of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and their four children.
As I have written before, my closest friend in 1966 to 1968 was the oldest of the King children – the late Yolanda King. I had the incredible good fortune to spend the night in the home, to get to know Martin Luther King Jr., and the entire family, and to have gone to church with the family on several Sunday mornings at Ebenezer Baptist Church where I heard King preach.
So I am thrilled the home where King lived until his assassination in 1968 is now the property of the National Park Service, and eventually the home will be opened up to the public, which will be able to see how modestly the King family lived. It’s a history that Atlanta needs to embrace and share with the rest of the world.
But that should not come at the expense of Vine City’s other significant historical sites – namely the adjacent four-unit apartment building at 220 Sunset Ave.
The King Center, which has owned the building since 1970, has received a permit from the City of Atlanta to demolish the building, but the Vine City Civic Association and legacy residents are pushing back.
That red brick building holds an important place in Atlanta’s history. The building was built by Maynard Jackson Sr., the father of Maynard Jackson Jr., for $8,000 in 1949.
Jackson Jr., elected in 1973, was the first African-American mayor of a major Southern city. He was instrumental in the integration of Atlanta’s business power structure as the father of the minority-majority joint venture.
Although his father died in 1953, the younger Jackson and his family continued to live in the apartment building until 1961, with the exception of some time the family spent in Toulouse, France. Then in 1961, his mother – Irene Dobbs Jackson – moved to take a teaching job in North Carolina. The house continued to be owned by the family until the mid 1960s.
Eventually – in October 1970, the Martin Luther King Fund acquired the building. Coretta Scott King was running the King Center from her basement at 234 Sunset.
After acquiring 220 Sunset, the King Center used the building for visiting scholars and other uses. But the King Center’s base of operations moved to the Interdenominational Center around 1972 and then to 503 Auburn Ave., which was next to the birth home in 1977. Then in 1981, the King Center’s headquarters were moved to a multimillion dollar facility on Auburn Avenue strategically located between King’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The King Center has owned the 220 Sunset since 1970. In 2010, the Sunset Avenue Historic District was established, but for some unknown reason, the map of the district did not include 220 Sunset even though it was mentioned several times in the application. Residents believe there must have been a mistake.
Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, issued a statement last week, that said the building needed to be demolished “because it is filled with asbestos, is structurally unsound, has a caved in roof, unstable bearings and flooring, and rapidly decaying bricks. The building is beyond remediation and needs to be demolished for the sake of public health and safety.”
But the King Center owned the building during the time it deteriorated. In preservation circles, that is known as demolition by neglect. In the King Center’s defense, it is a nonprofit with a mission of nonviolent social change rather than in the real estate business. Either way, it is important that we don’t demolish buildings just because they weren’t properly maintained by the owners.
Bernice King’s statement also said the “property is currently under conditional sale to the National Park Foundation, charitable partner of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) for the benefit of the public. It is our understanding that the NPS is committed to working with the community to determine the best use of the space in terms of public safety and heritage.”
Since the NPS is going to ultimately own the property, the building should undergo the same kind of scrutiny required of federally-owned historic facilities.
Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, issued a statement on Friday.
“The property located at 220 Sunset Avenue currently lies outside the boundaries and jurisdiction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park,” Forte stated. “In the event the park’s boundaries are legislatively expanded to include and authorize acquisition of the property, the National Park Service would actively engage the community in determining its best public use. The National Park Service intends to foster an open and thoughtful process that unearths meaningful stories about the King family and civil rights movement in the Sunset Avenue community.”
Bernice King also admitted that “the King Center had no knowledge of the Jackson family living at 220 Sunset Ave. and was unaware of the possible connection.”
So what should happen now?
First, the Sunset Avenue Historic District should be corrected to include 220 Sunset.
Second, the King Center and NPS should hit the “pause” or “stop” button on the building’s demolition so an independent assessment can be made of how the building could be preserved to complement the King home and the rest of the Vine City’s historic destinations. One of the great untapped opportunities for the Westside is cultural tourism that spotlights black and civil rights history.
In short, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his family should NOT be mutually exclusive of honoring the legacy of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson Jr., someone who transformed the city, the state and the nation when it came to integrating our economy.
We should celebrate both men and their families for their incredible contributions. The building at 220 Sunset could become a place to tell that history.
Another point we can’t ignore. If we let 220 Sunset Ave. be demolished, how will we be able to preserve Gaines Hall, Fountain Hall, Paschal’s Restaurant/Paschal’s Motor Lodge as well as the Grace Hamilton homes across from the elegant Herndon Home museum (which also could benefit from extra love and care from the larger community).
And while we’re at it, let’s find a way to preserve West Hunter Baptist Church, the Phyllis Whatley YWCA and the numerous other historic treasures throughout Vine City, English Avenue and the Atlanta University Center.
Sunset Avenue is a good place to start. Let’s show how we can honor our past as we welcome our future.