Xernona Clayton, John Portman honored with street signs by Atlanta City Council

By David Pendered

In the end, the Atlanta City Council voted Monday to recognize two of Atlanta’s ambassadors to the world – civil rights leader Xernona Clayton and architect John Portman.

The debate over the public honoring of two individuals who helped raise the city’s profile has raged since January. A city that has rarely hesitated to wipe its physical slate clean balked at renaming two downtown streets for Clayton and Portman.

The solution approved Monday provides for Clayton to be recognized by having street toppers with her name applied to the signs on a portion of Baker Street. Portman will be honored with the actual renaming of a portion of Harris Street.

The vote to create John Portman Boulevard split the council into a 9-5 outcome.

The legislation to honor Clayton with street toppers and a memorial in Hardy Ivy Park was part of a raft of routine legislation the council approved overwhelmingly in a single vote.

The City Council had been divided over the two recognitions in light of opposition from some downtown residents and preservationists.

Resident didn’t want their streets renamed for reasons that involved the difficulty of navigating around new names. Preservationists argued against removing any more of the city’s physical history.

A compromise on the Clayton memorial was reached last month between residents and the memorial commission.

The Carnegie Pavilion anchors Hardy Ivy Park, at the northern tip of Atlanta’s central business district.

The Carnegie Pavilion anchors Hardy Ivy Park, at the northern tip of Atlanta’s central business district.

The solution involved not changing the name of Baker Street, and installing street toppers with Clayton’s name on the portion from Piedmont Avenue to Centennial Olympic Park Drive. In addition, a memorial for Clayton will be added to Hardy Ivy Park, the triangular park that begins at the northeast corner of Peachtree and Baker streets.

The Portman street renaming was introduced without fanfare last week at the City Council’s Utilities Committee. Harris Street will be renamed John Portman Boulevard from Piedmont Avenue to Park Drive, according to the legislation. The likely end is Centennial Park Drive, given the legislation also had one reference to a new name of ‘Boulevard’ and another reference to ‘Way.’

The Utilities Committee voted to refer the legislation without recommendation to the City Council.

Councilman Alex Wan, who represents a district around Piedmont Park, said he was troubled by the Portman honor moving forward without any input from residents.

Wan asked if any Neighborhood Planning Units had seen the matter, and Utilities Committee Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong responded that none had seen it. Wan said he wanted to honor Portman but disagreed with the method.

“If we vote to support this, I wonder what message we’re sending to the Clayton Commission that worked so hard to end up with a workable solution,” Wan said. “Are we sending the message that if you had held your ground, you’d have gotten what you wanted?”

Clayton and Portman will be forever associated through their work in separate fields. Their efforts helped set the tone for race relations that enabled Atlanta to proper as a business city.

Portman built commercial buildings mainly along the Peachtree Street corridor. He branched overseas and established iconic structures in cities including Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing.

But Portman’s contribution reach beyond the built environment, said Councilman Michael Julian Bond, a co-sponsor of the legislation who is elected citywide. Bond’s father is a legend in the civil rights movement.

“John Portman added the modern cornerstone of what we call modern Atlanta,” Bond said. “Not just a contribution to our tax value and a contribution to our skyline.

“John Portman created the first integrated restaurant, the first integrated conversations – open – around this city,” Bond said. “Moving this paper forward is a good lesson on how best to honor the history of Atlanta.”

Clayton may best be known for the annual Trumpet Awards, which highlight African American achievements. The awards were established by Turner Broadcasting in 1993 and have been broadcast to 185 countries.

Clayton arrived in Atlanta in 1965 and took a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and traveled with Coretta Scott King.

Clayton went on to become the first black person in the south to have a television show, in 1967. She later moved to Turner and spent 30 years there in the corporate office.

The breakdown on the 9-5 vote on the Portman memorial includes the following votes against renaming Harris Street as John Portman Boulevard:

  • Natalyn Archibong
  • Felicia Moore
  • Howard Shook
  • Carla Smith
  • Alex Wan

Councilman Kwanza Hall was absent and did not vote.



David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

6 replies
  1. Kevin Lynch says:

    John Portman, Xernona Clayton, on and on we go, ad infinitum.

    The honor has long since been diluted. All that remains is the expense, confusion and disregard for citizen input.

    This Council’s reputation is at risk if they continue to act in direct opposition to public opinion.Report

  2. dirt lot baby says:

    I am pleased to see that Councilman Wan voted against this railroading of neighborhoods. If the City wants young, educated and rising income folks to move in and STAY in the City limit, it needs to realize that at some point, marginalizing them will not pay off… A great way to make Decatur look attractive~Report

  3. Bernard Dotson says:

    We can now call ourselves “The city to busy to remember”. Surely John Portman has done a lot for downtown Atlanta, but then, so did John L. Harris. And Portman has already built monuments to himself all over downtown. Does he really need another one? This is a horrible example of civic leadership.Report

  4. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    I’m proud of the City of Atlanta because it had actually been a few years since they renamed something, but like a moth attracted to a flame, they just couldn’t resist the opportunity to rename a street yet again. They could have just gone with the sign toppers instead of renaming the street entirely, but they can’t help it, renaming streets runs in their blood and is something that isn’t just indiginous to the City of Atlanta alone, but looks to be fairly popular concept amongst local and even state government officials in North Georgia. As I drive down the highway I frequently streets that have been renamed sometimes twice, I see intersections that have been renamed, freeway on-ramps and even freeway and railroad on-ramps that have been named for civic leaders and government officials. The state and local Departments of Transportation do it all of the time, so why shouldn’t the City of Atlanta get to enjoy in the fun of renaming every geographical feature that is available to named, renamed and renamed again?Report

  5. Kevin Lynch says:

    Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond has just announced that he has proposed a renaming of Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s iconic central thoroughfare, to Bill Campbell Boulevard. Bond said he welcomes citizen input at (404) 330-6770 or [email protected].Report


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