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Transient Atlanta erases its history and loses its soul

Grady High School 2020 (Photo by Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta is such a transient city.

It’s a city that has demolished many of its greatest landmarks – including Terminal Station, Union Station, the Loew’s Grand Theatre, and so many more.

And it’s a city that changes the names of buildings, institutions and streets with little regard to the historic perspective that contributed to the development of Atlanta.

As a result, we’re a city often lost without anchors and roots. We are a city that has attracted millions of people to live or to visit, but we often don’t provide the backstory of our city – good and bad.

Here we go again.

Henry Grady High School’s name will be changed (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The Atlanta Board of Education has decided to change the name of Henry W. Grady High School, and it has ignored the pleas of hundreds of alumni who urged to keep the Grady name on the school.

The reason? There was a groundswell of students who wanted the name changed because they claimed Grady was a racist. History is actually much more complicated and nuanced. Henry Grady was a product of his time, a man who contributed greatly to the evolution of Atlanta as the capital of the New South.

Because I believe in learning from history, I urged in this column for the name to be changed to honor both Grady and Yolanda King, who graduated from Grady in 1972 during a critical time during the full integration of the school.

But the Atlanta Board of Education Naming Committee did not include the option of naming it Grady-King High, a missed opportunity to have the name speak to the history and evolution of Atlanta.

Instead, the choices are:

  • Midtown High School
  • Piedmont High School
  • Ida B. Wells High School
  • Thomas E. Adger High School
  •  Freedom High School

The poll asked people to click on their role, and the options were: Grady Cluster Student, Grady Cluster Faculty/Staff, Grady Cluster Family Member and Community Member. Notice that people who are Grady Alums were not included. It’s distressing to me that the Atlanta Board of Education is alienating and ignoring such a vital constituency able to contribute to the ongoing success of one of the top high schools in its city.

An email thread of more than 100 alumni who wanted to preserve the Grady name in some way had a consistent message.

“I really don’t care what our school is renamed…………I will always refer to it as GRADY!!!!!!,” wrote Henry Wade, who graduated from Grady in 1959..

Although the high school will get a new name, chances are it will continue to be referred to as the school that used to be Grady High. That’s the way things go in Atlanta.

A depiction of Crawford Long Hospital’s history

I, for one, still refer to Emory-Midtown Hospital as Crawford Long Hospital, sometimes using a more current name – Emory Crawford Long.

Less than four months after celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Crawford Long on Oct. 21, 2008, Emory wiped off the hospital’s namesake – replacing it with the generic “Midtown” name and erasing an important part of Georgia History.

Dr. Crawford W. Long was a Georgia physician who discovered sulphuric acid or use as an anesthetic and was the first doctor to use anesthesia during surgery.

A photo of the historic Crawford Long Hospital (Special: Wikipedia)

Both my children were born at Crawford Long, and I will always refer to the hospital by that name. Interestingly enough, the hospital was originally known as the Davis-Fischer Sanatorium on Linden Avenue and it was renamed Crawford Long in 1931.

Long time Atlanta natives may remember Davison’s, the grand department store on Peachtree Street with more than a dozen elaborate chandeliers and a marble main floor.

Davison’s was acquired by Macy’s, and for a while it operated with a hyphenated name. But in 1986, Macy’s dropped the historic Davison’s name. But many Atlanta natives continued to call it Davison’s until Macy’s closed the signature downtown store in 2003. Now the building has a sterile, unimaginative name: 200 Peachtree.

The historic logo of Davison’s

And it’s not just buildings. The renaming of streets is an Atlanta past-time, one that is rooted in the city’s segregated past. Within a mile or so, Charles Allen Drive (the street in front of Grady High) becomes Parkway at Ponce de Leon Avenue and Jackson Street at the stretch that includes Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The street’s name was changed so that white residents wouldn’t have the same address as Blacks, who had moved northwards. Several streets named after Confederate or racist leaders were renamed after more enlightened ones – Ralph McGill, Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Lowery, Donald Lee Hollowell, Joseph E. Boone, etc.

One that I will never understand is when the Atlanta City Council changed the name of a portion of Fair Street in 2012. The street that meanders through the Atlanta University Center’s campuses was renamed Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard. But almost everyone still calls it Fair Street for simplicity’s sake. A plaza with markers in honor of the 1960s Atlanta student movement would have made much more sense.

So, Atlanta is a bit like a city of shifting sands – a place that’s constantly changing and erasing its past. A city that keeps wiping away its soul.

Great cities respect their history.

Take Paris and the Arc de Triomphe, which was built as a celebration of war designed to mark Napoléon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805. Napoléon met his match at Waterloo in 1815, before the monument was finished. And while war and Napoléon are not universally embraced by Parisians today, the Arc de Triomphe stands tall, creating a unique sense of place and international renown.

If Atlanta wants to join the league of world-class cities, it needs to quit erasing history. It needs to learn to live with its past so that it can embrace its future.

 

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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.

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19 Comments

  1. Steve Dougherty October 20, 2020 3:53 pm

    Good column. I think the Arc de Triomphe paragraph really made the column.Report

    Reply
  2. Steve October 20, 2020 8:13 pm

    AmenReport

    Reply
  3. Rachel October 20, 2020 8:46 pm

    So infuriating!! If we’re going to erase history like this, then these places shouldn’t be named for any individuals because someone, somewhere, sometime will be offended. Who’s to say the people they chose as options for Grady aren’t offensive to any group?!Report

    Reply
  4. Michael Jones October 20, 2020 10:39 pm

    I believe Dr Long used “sulfuric ether”, not acid, as an anesthetic.Report

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth Brock October 20, 2020 11:53 pm

    And the street named for Hardy Ivy becae Peachtree Center Blvd—*yawn*Report

    Reply
  6. Eli October 21, 2020 10:54 am

    This is a terrible take.

    Grady was a vocal white supremacist. In a speech at the Texas State Fair, Grady said, “The supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards – because the white race is the superior race.”

    While he was editor of the Constitution, the paper glorified and encouraged the lynching of black people. Earlier in his career, he called members of the KKK his friends and brothers.

    Grady was also close with and supported those who profited from convict labor, which exists as a modern practice of slavery so that profit can continue to be extracted from black bodies. These were men like John Gordon, a former Confederate General and Grand Dragon of the Georgia KKK.

    Defending Grady as a “product of his time” is a neat trick to paint his views as the consensus opinion. It conveniently ignores the many people who did not preach white supremacy and racism from podiums and on the front pages of newspapers. The many people who rightly held those beliefs in contempt. Were abolitionist heroes like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and John Brown not products of their time? Their beliefs and actions were also molded by the evil practice of slavery, but rather than romanticize it and support its base beliefs, they fought against it.

    Henry Grady held beliefs that were despicable in their time and remain so today. He does not deserve to be honored with schools named after him. The school should be renamed for Reuben Hudson — a black man that Grady’s Constitution explicitly encouraged the lynching of.Report

    Reply
  7. Nick October 22, 2020 10:11 am

    Yikes. If you can’t tell the difference between black students having strong feelings about studying at a school named after a man who made a living off of promoting the New South, a post-Civil War societal structure in which blacks were treated as second-class citizens due to their inferiority and inability to self govern, and all of your other examples, then you clearly lack empathy. No one else’s opinions should matter other than those students. And I say that as a graduate of Henry W. Grady High School.

    What’s amazing about what you’ve written is it lacks so much context that I can’t believe you’d publish this, even as an editorial. Almost none of these name changes have any similar context. You actually try to point out that changing the names of streets at Ponce was done in the same spirit as taking Grady’s name off the building, when in fact it was done in the same spirit as putting Grady’s name ON the building in the first place.

    Charles Allen becoming Parkway (and all the rest at Ponce), as you mentioned, is rooted in segregation. It was done during 1910s-1940s, along with the resurrection of the majority of Confederate monuments, including Stone Mountain, and also the creation of Henry W. Grady High School when Boys High and Tech High merged. This time period was wrought with romanticism of the Antebellum period that was promoted everywhere in Southern pop culture as a means to remind minority populations of their place. Naming the school after Grady in the first place was a promotion of white supremacy and the New South, an idea still held in high-regard in the segregated South. He had died only some decades earlier. They knew exactly what his opinions were at the time.

    And just to tie it all together, they change the mascot of Boys High from the Purple Hurricanes to the Grady Knights. Whose colors are Gray and Cardinal. Gray Knights with accents of red. The most obvious homage to soldiers of the Confederacy, the grandfathers of those who made this decision, whom, thanks to the failure of Reconstruction, were allowed to publicly celebrate them as heroes instead of the traitors they were.

    It isn’t political correctness on steroids. It’s a decision made out of respect to your fellow man. These kids don’t want Grady’s name on their high school diploma for the rest of their lives. They don’t find him worthy to be the namesake of an educational institution, and that’s enough of a reason. If you do that’s fine, but your opinion is rooted in something other than understanding the emotional nuance of being a minority in a place that still pretends we are more concerned with “erasing” history than we do about the mental and emotional well being of our neighbors alive today. I feel for those children now as I felt for my schoolmates then. I’m proud of them for doing what was right and you should be to.Report

    Reply
  8. Future Tense October 22, 2020 1:28 pm

    When will we learn the hard lessons and wisdom building value of our national scars? Historic monuments and landmarks now deemed offensive are our national scars. Grady’s name is nostalgic for some and painful for others. Yet it is a potent reminder that life “has not always been a crystal stair” for African-Americans in the South. Our painful American past must be remembered…and memorials be allowed to stand. It is the responsibility of the living to explain and interpret our failures to future generations. We may build new monuments and hyphenate the names of ancient ones. But demolishing the past is a foolhardy mistake. The offensive monuments of yesterday are scars that remind us of the painful tragedies of growing into the high calling of the Constitution, a land of liberty and justice for all. Demolishing monuments from our past creates a bland Mickey Mouse cityscape–without depth of character or indicators of society’s progress. We must not destroy historical landmarks and monuments that register the maturity and growth of American society–however painful. These are the scars of a living society.Report

    Reply
  9. Kay October 22, 2020 2:38 pm

    Hmm . . . actual world class cities know when it’s time to move on from a divisive past that doesn’t represent its present values and/or demographics. Strange that you’re comparing hospital names where people are healed to anything named after well-known racists who dedicated their lives to harming people solely because of the color of their skin.

    A racist, segregated past that honors slavery and those who fought a war in order to keep Black people enslaved is nothing to be proud of and should be cancelled. All of this history can be learned in schools, museums or even by reading a book – wow, imagine that!

    Actual world class cities have easily survived removing racist rhetoric from its public spaces and continue to thrive. Atlanta is not world class yet.Report

    Reply
  10. Dr. Gus B Kaufman Jr. October 24, 2020 1:06 pm

    I am surprised at your letting nostalgia overwhelm human rights. PS I’d be glad to do some proof reading–sulfuric ether and pastime.Report

    Reply
  11. Future Tense October 25, 2020 3:22 pm

    Demolishing historic monuments and buildings will NOT magically erase our painful past. Architecture actually documents our unique local culture and history! Which is why historical buildings should NOT be destroyed but thoughtfully reinterpreted with enlightened signage and markers. Additionally, we must design modern monuments for today’s heroes. Regarding the African American Struggle for economic and social justice: legislation, economic policies and business practices that unjustly affect American Descendants of Slavery must all be “cancelled”. Effective social change is mandated in courthouses, boardrooms and kitchen tables NOT with a historic building demolition crew!Report

    Reply
  12. Future Tense October 25, 2020 3:26 pm

    Regarding the African American Struggle for economic and social justice: legislation, economic policies and business practices that unjustly affect American Descendants of Slavery must all be “cancelled”. Effective social change is mandated in courthouses, boardrooms and kitchen tables NOT with a historic building demolition crew! Use signage to interpret, explain and revise historic structures. Be creative and thoughtful. Do not destroy local historic architecture!Report

    Reply
  13. Greg Allen Hodges November 10, 2020 1:05 pm

    Well Maria, your points are well taken……. but will probably have no effect of the renaming process now underway.
    Crawford W. Long Hospital was my entry point into the big bright world early on a June morning long ago. I went inside the place a few years back , and was delighted to find a tiny museum there dedicated to Dr Long’ and the early days of my old birthplace. I hope Emory hasn’t done away with it. I too felt that Long’s name should have been retained there in some fashion. Davison’s also evokes memories….I recall that the grand retail palace on Peachtree was sandwiched between the Roxy Theater and the ill fated Winecoff Hotel. Arguments in our house would arise in December as to whether the ‘real’ Santa reigned at Davison’s…..or down the street at Rich’s. (We were ‘ Rich’s people’ so that’s where we would usually visit the jolly old gentleman.)
    Carry on, Maria.Report

    Reply
  14. Christopher December 3, 2020 8:09 am

    I’m afraid this article was tone deaf and will likely be viewed later in life by the author with embarrassment for having not seen it at the time. The Grady alum who feel the need to hang on to the racist name have simply missed the point as well. Sometimes, you simply need to at least attempt, to see the world through the eyes of others. Imagine for a moment, that your high school was named after someone who was an advocate for abusive oppression to your grandparents. Would you desire to see a change? We cannot give those who were especially active in their hate a pass as being “a product of their time”. I love history and nostalgia, however, I love my brothers and sisters of color more. As an ally to them, I say down with the racist names of buildings and streets. We can do better. Atlanta can do better. I’m asking you Maria, to stop for a moment, and consider the hurt, the pain, and the experiences of others, rather than telling them to “learn to live with the past”.Report

    Reply
  15. John Miller December 17, 2020 1:05 pm

    This is what we need an article written with a good opinion and then discussion in the replies, thanks.Report

    Reply
  16. jon parker December 22, 2020 4:14 pm

    I remember one more street name change. Boulevard used to go all the way to Piedmont. It was changed to Monroe Drive when people of color were moving toward Pone de Leon. I am a graduate of Grady and served in the military at Ft Benning and was there with my dad in WWII. I could not have identified Benning as a confederate General until the name change was discussed. The only generals i could name were Lee, Jackson, and Stewart. I was also at Ft Stewart. My great grandfather was with the Iowa volunteers and died in the Civil War.Report

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  17. Brian Gross December 23, 2020 5:35 pm

    Maria, this is really embarrassing for you. We know that Grady was a great civic leader and a product of his time. But Grady stated in 1888, “the supremacy of the white race of the South must be maintained forever, and the domination of the negro race resisted at all points and at all hazards, because the white race is the superior race…”. You compare this to the name of Davison’s vs. Macy’s, something inconsequential. The Nazis did great things in Germany… should the autobahn, the VW, the German train system, whatever… honor Hitler’s ministers because they were “products of their time” that “just happened to commit genocide”? White supremacy is only a couple of steps down the ladder from that. He saw blacks as subhuman. Until white southerners like yourself own up to the GREAT human injustice perpetrated on your soil for centuries, only then, only then, will justice be done. It’s so clear that you just don’t get it. So embarrassing for you, I only hope you wake up and realize what you’re saying.Report

    Reply
  18. E. May 7, 2021 7:16 am

    Hmm, a woman who describes herself has having “European parents” (which, in my opinion, sounds like code for “White”) is against the re-naming of a school that predominantly serves BIPOC kids and was named after a White supremacist. Did you not learn about naming and politics during your master’s in urban planning? This is possibly one of the most tone-deaf commentaries I have read this year.Report

    Reply
  19. Karen May 10, 2021 7:52 am

    There are no landmarks named after Nazis in Germany or anywhere in the world. Just imagine “Hitler Avenue” or “Goering High School.” The same applies to white suoremacists in the US.Report

    Reply

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