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Chamber of Commerce president supports changing ‘Commerce Drive’ back to ‘Oliver Street’

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Chamber of Commerce president supports changing ‘Commerce Drive’ back to ‘Oliver Street’

A portion of Commerce Drive was once known as Oliver Street. The Chamber of Commerce president wants to change the name of the street back to its original name to honor the contributions of Henry Oliver, a former slave and black entrepreneur. Image obtained via Google Street View.
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Back in the day, Commerce Drive went by another name. It was called Oliver Street after Henry Oliver, a blacksmith and black entrepreneur who was also a landowner.

The city changed it to Commerce Drive in 1984 at the request of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. Now, 35 years later, Katerina Taylor, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, believes the city should consider changing the name back to Oliver Street. She has begun pursuing the idea with city leaders, who are welcoming but have questions about the logistics of the name change.

There was much less consideration given to the idea in 1984, Taylor said, citing her own research. The black community wasn’t consulted about what the name of the street meant to them.

“The untold story is no one ever went to the community and said, ‘We would like to change the name and take Oliver’s name down and put Commerce up.’ So there’s was a lot of concern and angst and hurt when that happened,” Taylor said. “And we moved on with our lives without any apology. Maybe we should have discussed this more.”

Taylor is discussing it now. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Tia Mitchell, who first wrote about Taylor’s efforts, reports her idea is running up against questions about how to change the name of a street that is overseen by two different entities. Half is the responsibility of the city, while the Georgia Department of Transportation is responsible for the other half, Mitchell reports. The historic Oliver Street was located between Trinity Place and Robin Street, the AJC reported. Today Commerce Drive loops through the top half of the city, connecting West Howard Avenue near West College Avenue to East College Avenue.

Mayor Patti Garrett told Decaturish that she thinks the city should do something, even if it’s separate signs noting the street’s historical ties to Oliver.

“I think the first thing that we can look at is honoring Henry Oliver. I think we can do it pretty quickly,” Garrett said, adding later, “I do think there would be some hurdles in totally changing the name to Oliver Street and splitting the name of the road. I don’t know what would be involved. I don’t know what would be involved with GDOT in changing a state road.”

Oliver began his life as a slave. His master was his father and the man who gave him a large amount of land which he in turn sold to blacks and whites, according to Decaturhistory.com.

He died in 1904. Fast forward to 1984. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Decades of urban renewal projects had started to pay off.” Those projects included the destruction of Beacon Hill, Decatur’s historically black community. Beacon, which was called the Bottom in the beginning and was founded by freed slaves, was home to a vibrant enclave of black residents that included businesses, homes, churches and schools.

“But white Decatur largely considered the Beacon Community a blighted slum, and in the 1930s began to condemn sections of it to make way for public housing,” according to a history of the Beacon Community published on the city of Decatur’s website. The city says the homes and businesses surrounded by Electric Avenue, Herring Street, Oliver Street (as it was then known) and Robin Street were removed for the construction of the Allen Wilson Terrace Homes, a public housing project.

“Urban renewal expanded in the 1960s,” the city’s recounting of these events says. “Families and businesses were again displaced to make way for the Swanton Heights housing project and other public developments including the new Decatur High School, and the county courthouse.”

Until 1984, Oliver Street was one of the last ties to the Beacon Community left in Decatur.

The Oliver name lived on in other ways. The Marriott hotel in downtown Decatur has the Henry Oliver Room and the Decatur Housing Authority named its Oliver House apartment building after him.

The city in recent years has become more reflective, seeking to preserve what’s left of the black history the city destroyed over decades. There are historic exhibits at the Ebster Recreation Center about the Beacon Community. The Friends of the Decatur Cemetery recently used a grant from the Decatur Craft Beer Festival to buy a headstone for Oliver’s previously unmarked grave.

Elizabeth Wilson, Decatur’s first black mayor, lived on Oliver street in the Beacon Community when she moved to Decatur in 1949, the AJC reported.

Wilson said she supports doing something to honor Oliver’s contributions to the city. She said the name should never have been changed.

“I support anybody who wants to do something to restore and keep the history of the community,” Wilson said.

The name Commerce was intended as a nod to the Chamber of Commerce, an organization that supports businesses. But Taylor noted Oliver was a successful black entrepreneur who shaped Decatur. Taylor considers him a “community developer.”

“We talk about inclusive economic development. Well, that’s one of the first people who thought about inclusive economic development in Decatur,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the discussions about the name change are still in the early stages. She plans to present her idea and research to the City Commission at some point.

“It’s important to me as the Chamber president,” Taylor said. “I want to see the name restored and I want to continue working toward getting it done. It’s a significant part of Decatur history.”

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