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Residents say development threatens DeKalb’s oldest black church and former homestead

Metro ATL

Residents say development threatens DeKalb’s oldest black church and former homestead

Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, 848 Porter Road, was founded in 1849. It is the oldest African-American church in DeKalb County. Photo by Cathi Harris

By Cathi Harris, contributor 

A planned mixed-use development at the corner of Covington Highway and Porter Road is drawing criticism from neighboring residents who say it is the latest threat to one of DeKalb’s oldest communities.

Porter Road, which runs between Kensington Road on the north and Covington Highway to the south is named for Frank Henry Porter, one of DeKalb County’s first black rural landowners. Many of Porter’s descendants still live along the street and own much of the property in the area.

Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, nestled in the curve of Porter Road just off Kensington, was built in 1849 and is the oldest church serving a predominantly black congregation in the county.

“This is a community that was once one of the last — if not the last — silk farm plantations in Georgia,” says Thaddeus Moore, a descendant of Porter who still lives along the road and is dedicated to preserving the community’s history. “A regiment of Sherman’s army came through here and burned a wing of the plantation house that is still standing here today.”

A map showing the location of Porter Road and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. Image obtained via Google Maps.

The land around Porter Road was once a part of a 200-acre plantation owned by a man named Joseph Walker, who called it Mount Pleasant after his birthplace in South Carolina. Walker had Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church built in 1849 to serve as a place of worship for the enslaved workers on his plantation, teaching a group of them to read the Bible and hold worship services — something that was illegal at the time.

On August 17, 1869, county records show that Walker donated the church and the surrounding 2.5 acres to the church deacons — four formerly enslaved men named Jacob Austin, James Howard, Robert Fowler and Jasper Fowler. The deed gave the property to the men “and their successors in office” stipulating that the land would revert to the larger original parcel it was derived from should the church ever be torn down. Walker’s heirs later relinquished their claim to the land, giving the church the right to dispose of the property any way it should choose, though it has remained at its original location ever since.

A deed recorded by the DeKalb County Tax Assessor’s office and dated Dec. 23, 1903 indicates Frank Porter bought the adjacent 50 acres of the former plantation property, including the former manor house, from descendants of Joseph Walker’s daughter, for $1,000.

Porter, his wife, and four children, Frances, Gertrude, Mattie Lou, and Henry, moved into the house and began working the land, growing cotton.

Today, all but five houses along Porter Road and Porter Court belong to descendants of the Porter children. Moore lives in a house next to his father, and two houses away from his brother. His aunts, uncles and cousins live in the surrounding houses, built on parcels divided from the original farm.

“It used to be a dirt road that allowed only one car at a time to pass through,” Moore told Decaturish. “Our mailboxes used to line along Covington Highway, and we had to walk a little way to get the mail.”

Dispute over cemetery

For a community that has survived the ravages of slavery, Reconstruction, the Depression, and segregation, it seems that the county’s emerging real estate boom may be the biggest threat to the preservation of their history.

A particularly vulnerable section of the Porter Road community is its cemetery, located along the road almost a mile from the church. Originally a burial place for family and slaves when the area was a plantation, Frank Porter gave it to the church to be used for burials after he purchased the land.

Now surrounded by houses, the cemetery is a small open plot of land without a fence. Simple headstones are visible from the road. The names on several have been worn away with time, and some graves are designated only with a flat stone.

When Moore was growing up, Porter Road was unpaved and ended at the cemetery. In the 1980s, it was paved and extended to directly connect Kensington Road and Covington Highway. The county argued it was necessary to allow emergency vehicles access to the homes, but community elders said that it paved over part of the cemetery containing unmarked graves.

Now, a nearby property owner’s plan to build townhomes directly across Porter Road will endanger the already vulnerable space, and permanently foreclose the community’s ability to research and document the graves they believe are located there.

“The community elders have always said that the cemetery extended to the land on the other side of the road,” says Derik Rinehart, a resident of a nearby subdivision who has been helping the Porter descendants seek historic designation for the neighborhood. “It’s almost 200 years of history here – and it’s inspiring history that people should know about. It deserves to be protected.”

Headstones marking family graves at the Porter Road cemetery. Photo by Cathi Harris

The Porter family and Rinehart have enlisted the help of researchers from Georgia State’s Department of Archaeology to determine the original boundaries of the cemetery, document the marked graves that are present, and scan the cemetery land and the road adjoining it with ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of any unmarked graves.

Ieshia Hall, a student of archaeology professor Jeffrey Glover, took a particular interest in the Porter Road cemetery after her internship with the Georgia State Historic Preservation Division.

“I selected this as my Capstone project after working with Melissa Jest, who is the African-American programs coordinator for the state historic preservation office,” she says.

The cemetery was on a list Jest maintains of sites that need more information in order to be registered with the state historic preservation division.

“I was really interested in this cemetery after seeing it and seeing the different markers from different times,” Hall says. “Some are handmade. Some are just field stones.”

Preservation of cemeteries in African-American communities can be particularly difficult, Hall says, because the communities often lack the funds to support preserving the properties and state and local government officials want to develop the land.

“For government officials, building on the property can seem more important than keeping the cemetery,” she notes.

Development approved, historic designation in limbo

Over its more than 100 years of history, different parts of the original 50 acres owned by Frank Porter have been sold off and developed. The Dove Valley subdivision where Derik Rinehart lives was once part of the Porter Road property. And, the 11 acres that will comprise the townhome development across from the cemetery were also originally owned by Porter as well.

Contrary to what some believe, the family members along Porter Road are not opposed to development or progress, says Thaddeus Moore.

“My concerns are that Porter Road history doesn’t get erased because of greed that developers disguise as progress,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. Change is needed and welcomed. But at what cost? We need productive growth through viable wisdom in the community.”

Neighborhood residents successfully opposed a previous attempt to build low-income apartments on the property where the townhomes will be, after they were able to demonstrate the developer had a poor record with maintaining the properties they managed in other areas.

They were unsuccessful in their attempts to stop the rezoning of the parcel to permit construction of the townhomes and businesses in the new development.

In April, the DeKalb County Commission voted to rezone the 11 acres at the corner of Covington Highway and Porter Road from R-75 (medium lot residential) to MU-1 (mixed-use low density).

The developer, Ralston George with Quality International Corporation, intends to build 60 attached townhomes toward the rear of the property, with a playground and resident amenity area in the center, and 40,000 square feet of retail development facing Covington Highway.

Attempts to reach George were unsuccessful.

Before the vote to rezone the property, the county required the developer to have an archaeological survey of the site performed to determine whether there were graves on that side of Porter Road and none were found, Commissioner Kathie Gannon told Decaturish.

“We had them use a surveyor recommended by our staff and we feel that it was properly done,” she says. “To the best of our knowledge, the cemetery did not extend onto that property. Of course, if they start work and then find something, they will have to stop.”

State law prohibits the disturbance of any known graves, and they could only be relocated under very limited circumstances. If graves are found on the development property, they must be left undisturbed.

Rinehart says he has seen the survey performed by the developer, but is skeptical that the probing performed was sufficient to make the determination that they did.

The community intends to proceed with their own research, including the radar scans underneath the road, and will redouble their efforts to get the church, the former plantation house and the cemetery designated as county historic properties.

“We have tried to work with the county, but have learned that we really should have been pursuing this with the state,” Rinehart says. “So, that is what we intend to do.”

Moore and other family members filed an application for a historic resource designation with the county’s Department of Planning and Sustainability two years ago, but have heard nothing in response beyond an email saying that the application was complete and received, Rinehart says.

Emails and calls to David Cullison, senior planner in the Department of Planning and Sustainability and the staff resource to the county Historic Preservation Commission, were not returned.

Gannon, who was active in the effort to get the Druid Hills Local Historic District established in 1996, says her understanding is that the county has asked for more supporting information from the community members but hasn’t received it.

“It is often a very long process [to get a property designated a county historic site],” she says.

State law requires counties to submit plans for designating an area or site as a historic resource to the state Historic Preservation Division for comment, though the division has no role in deciding for or against a designation, says Allison Ashbrock, the HPD’s outreach program manager.

“Our office has been contacted about [the Porter Road community] in several capacities,” Ashbrock says.

The division’s records indicate that they issued the church a letter of eligibility for inclusion on the National Register of Historic places on January 26, 2005. However, letters of eligibility expire after three years.

HPD records also indicate that on March 10, 2017, they received three designation reports from David Cullison with DeKalb County, indicating the county intended to designate the cemetery, former plantation house and the church as county historic properties.

“Our program assistant and I reviewed the designation reports and determined that more information was needed [in order to comment],” Ashbrock says. “We had a call with David Cullison to discuss this and followed up on that call via email on March 30, 2017. No additional information has been received.”

Many African-American sites at risk

Unfortunately, designating a property as a national or state historic site is not enough to ensure that it is preserved for future generations, Ashbrock notes.

“The Historic Preservation Division does not have any regulatory authority over development of historic properties. Regulation occurs at the local planning level,” Ashbrock says. “This is a common confusion between National/Georgia Register historic districts and properties and local historic districts and properties.”

It is up to the counties themselves to determine what protections they give to the historic properties that are designated.

“In regards to saving and preserving places, spaces, and stories that tell of the substantial contribution of African Americans across time, there are some challenges specific to these resources,” Ashbrock says. “There is often a lack of records and documentations that are typically required to obtain historic designations. Long-term disinvestment by both owners and local government from these neighborhoods and sites often allows for deterioration that is often left unchecked.”

Then, when the financial resources are gathered to initiate preservation efforts, the deterioration may be too significant, she adds. “And, because African-American heritage is often found in small, vernacular structures, their importance may be trivialized.”

Communities and individuals who are interested in preserving historically African-American sites can find more information and resources in a booklet from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Preserving African American Historic Places.” The Trust has also established the African American Cultural Heritage Fund to raise money to be used for the preservation of sites important to telling the country’s full history.

As for Porter Road, Rinehart says the neighborhood is working to set up a website and a donation fund to support their efforts at preserving the area’s historic landmarks, as well as collecting the oral histories of the residents to make sure they are passed on.

To find out more, you can email [email protected].