Fragile history in a gentrifying neighborhood

1.Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo by the author.

Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit:  David Rotenstein

Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.

Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values.  Continue reading

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 2)

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave.  Photo:  Slavery at South Carolina College team.

This handprint on one of the bricks of the wall surrounding the old campus was very likely made by a slave. Photo credit: Slavery at South Carolina College team.

Continued from Part 1.

As well as trying to convey a sense of these enslaved workers as people, the team of graduate students working on the “Slavery at South Carolina College” website also sought to connect this history to the physical landscape. Harnessing the power of place to tell the story of slavery, we emphasized the built environment of the historic college. The antebellum section of the campus, referred to today as the Horseshoe because of its shape, survives as the historic heart of the modern university. But the most important reason to emphasize the built environment is that slaves physically constructed it. Continue reading

Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 1)

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus.  Image:  South Caroliniana Library

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina

Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics.  Continue reading

A monograph goes public

Screenshot of companion website for monograph.I remember well the day that I received my first copy of my first book, Independence Hall in American Memory. I picked it up in person from the offices of the University of Pennsylvania Press and could barely manage the walk home because of the temptation to stop, admire the beautiful dust jacket, open those pages, smell that new-book smell, and read. Every page contained memories of places, people, and experiences of piecing together a history that spanned more than two hundred years in a building’s life and nearly a decade of mine.

With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations. Continue reading

Uncovering the hidden paradise of Guantánamo

Editor’s Note: This piece continues a series of posts related to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a collaboration of public history programs across the country to raise awareness of the long history of the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) and foster dialogue on its future.  For an introduction to the series, please see this piece by the Project’s director, Liz Ševčenko.

My most vivid memories of Guantánamo was everything just being free down there and the closeness of all the people. There was no crime, none whatsoever. It was summer all year round.”

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The Guantanamo Public Memory Project online stories collection.  Photo Credit: Guantanamo Public Memory Project

Anita Lewis Isom first arrived at Guantánamo Bay forty years before the orange-suited detainees that would make the US base infamous around the world. Her description of an idyllic life at the base seems far removed from the images of leg shackles and barbed wire typically associated with Gitmo in its current function as a “black site,” an extra-legal and extra-territorial space. Images of Gitmo as prison and military base and as island paradise are not, however, mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is in part its isolation that makes Gitmo such an effective black site and its tropical location that has long made it an attractive destination for military families. Continue reading

A lesson in racial profiling and historical relevance

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Don Denard is hugged by supporters as he arrives at the Decatur City Commission meeting, February 18, 2014. Photo by author

In December 2013, an African American man was detained by Decatur, Georgia, police after he was seen leaving his home. An officer issued a suspicious person alert based on the “reasonable articulable suspicion” premise–the legal basis for many states’ “stop and frisk” laws.

Don Denard has lived in the Decatur home he was seen leaving since 1987. He is a former school board member and an active participant in Decatur’s civic life. Yet on December 15, 2013, he was just another black man walking in a community that is becoming steadily whiter and wealthier and where all such men are regarded, as Denard says, with the presumption of guilt. Continue reading