Historic moment part of a complex history surrounding race and politics in Decatur
Days after her win, Decatur City Commissioner-elect Lesa Mayer walked to catch her MARTA ride to her job at Sun Trust in Atlanta.
Mayer was one of four African Americans elected in Decatur on Nov. 5. It’s the first time that’s happened in the Decatur’s history, longtime observers say.
“It’s incredibly meaningful,” Mayer said of her history-making win. “Just to have a seat at the table with such accomplished, interesting and clearly devoted people, people who are devoted to their community, means so much to me. It’s humbling to be a part of something that is so significant. We live in a community that without any question supports diversity through their actions. They made that very clear on Election Day.”
The three other black residents elected on Nov. 5 are Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers, who was reelected to the City Commission’s At-large seat, School Board member Tasha White, who was also reelected, and Jana Johnson-Davis, who was elected to the School Board’s At-large seat.
Elizabeth Wilson, the city’s first black mayor and city commissioner, had never been introduced to Mayer until she signed up to run.
“I had never met her before until she qualified and I was just so very impressed when we got together the week after the closing of qualifying,” Wilson said. “She’s high energy. She’s active with her kids. She’s active with the school and community and I was delighted she won.”
As the former mayor and the city’s first black City Commissioner and mayor, Wilson’s word carries weight in this city. (In Decatur, the mayor and mayor pro tem are elected by fellow commissioners.)
While it would be tempting to view the election of four African Americans in one night as a sign of the progressive values of Decatur’s majority white population — about 69 percent of city residents according to the most recent Census data, compared to 60 percent in 1990 — history doesn’t offer easy narratives.
Four black elected officials in the city of Decatur would’ve been unfathomable to city leaders in 1879. According to a newspaper article at the time, two black candidates that the paper — the Atlanta Constition — didn’t bother to name ran for city council. They didn’t win, and the Atlanta Constitution predicted black people would never hold elected office here.
The article from 1879 concludes “the defeat which they met with in this instance has settled the matter for all time to come.” It was clear, the article claimed, that black citizens “are not wanted as members of the town council of Decatur.”
It took Decatur more than 100 years to prove that prediction wrong.
Wilson was first elected in 1984, the same year that Decatur eliminated a system that saw every candidate elected At-large, meaning there were no commission districts like the ones that exist today. Newspaper archives show that the district system in Decatur came about because two other black candidates sued for a change. The candidates dropped the suit after the district-based voting system was implemented. Wilson had also advocated for the district-based system. Her election and the elections Decatur residents participate in today are the direct result of the fight to make city elections fairer.
The history of black elected officials on the City Commission is a fairly straight line. After Wilson, there was Kecia Cunningham who ran for commission and won in 1999. There was a brief period where there was no black representation on the commission when Cunningham resigned in 2015, but that same year Powers was elected to the city’s At-large seat.
But the history of black elected officials on the School Board is more complicated.
A 3-2 vote
Before 1993, School Board members were appointed by the City Commission. But that year, the state of Georgia abolished appointed School Boards. In 1993, voters elected five School Board members, including three black member: Edith Hambie, Don Denard and Cydne Nash.
Desegregation of schools had long been a contentious topic in education, and Decatur was no different. In 1952, members of the West Decatur Civic Club complained about a plan to build a segregated black school because it would be too close to a white school. In 1969, the year the school district was placed under a desegregation order, city officials debated dissolving the school system itself. The desegregation order was lifted in 2007.
Denard was in the news more recently for his work to combat racial profiling by Decatur Police officers. Denard’s actions opened up a wider community discussion about diversity — or the increasing lack of it — in Decatur, leading to the creation of the city’s Better Together Advisory Board, a body that guides the city’s decisions on equity and inclusion.
Denard served on the school board from 1989 until 1997, and he believes his departure from the School Board was a racial backlash to the School Board’s decision to hire Decatur’s first and only black school superintendent: Ida Love.
That hire occurred in May 1997 in a 3-2 vote, with black members of the board voting to close public input and hire Love. Later that year, voters ousted Denard and Hambie, changing the School Board from having a 3-2 black majority to having a 4-1 white majority. James Eley was the only black elected official left on the School Board following that election.
Denard said when the School Board voted to hire Love, the other candidate had withdrawn their application. The three black board members felt Love was the strongest candidate who also happened to be the only one left. But the white School Board members disagreed.
“It was time for us then to select the superintendent,” Denard recalled. “We had only one finalist and, of course, it was odd. Here we were known as the most progressive voting district in the state, high Democratic composition, progressive and all of that, with the highest academic performance in the state … and the way that it worked out was that the two white board members thought we should do a new search because the apparent person to be selected was this black woman, Ida Love, and they were being pressured by the white citizens.”
Denard said in the board’s view at the time, there wasn’t a good reason to start a new search.
“There was no reason for us not to select her,” he said. “It was odd that all of a sudden these progressive minded whites didn’t want her.”
Denard believes his and Hambie’s electoral defeat was the direct consequence of their vote to hire Love.
“There was a backlash,” Denard said. “It was clear.”
“Skepticism is a reality”
Love said in an interview she remembers the circumstances surrounding her hiring and what happened afterward. She forged a good relationship with the two board members who voted against her and says they became her biggest supporters.
“I think they learned early on that I knew what I was doing, and they didn’t,” Love said. “I knew what it took to run a school district to let children be successful.”
Eventually the board changed and in 2002, the School Board decided to buy out the remainder of Love’s contract and send her on her way. Valarie Wilson, the daughter-in-law of Elizabeth Wilson, was on the board then. She served until 2013. Love said the newer board members were “throwing darts at me” and she concluded it wasn’t worth the fight, so she left.
Valarie Wilson noted that she served on the board at the same time as another black board member, Willieyour Arnold. She would later serve alongside another black elected official, Bernadette Seals, who joined the School Board in 2007 and left in 2017.
“I had a sit-down conversation with Ida where she said she was ready to go,” Valarie Wilson said. “I supported Ida in her decision.”
So, what did the election of four black officials in Decatur on the same night mean to Love and Denard?
Both said it depends on who these officials are there to serve. Love said she believes some black people in the community worked with white people in the community to get rid of her while other black residents “supported everything I was doing.”
“It doesn’t mean very much to me that there are four blacks [in office in Decatur]. It depends on how they are working to carry out their responsibilities,” Love said.
Denard said white residents might feel there’s a political benefit to having diverse leaders, particularly when the city is losing its diversity.
“I can see there being a sensitivity to Decatur having a profile that could be considered wealthy and out of touch, and one way that could be cured is to have a diverse leadership profile and that can be taken as being cynical,” Denard said.
When he thinks about the results of the Nov. 5 election in Decatur, he remembers the anger in the room when “otherwise liberal progressive minded whites up there were really furious that we would have the audacity to select a black woman [as superintendent].”
“So, in Decatur they had an opportunity and maybe even incentive to reflect or project their progressive attitudes about things,” Denard said. “It’s OK. It’s not all that it might be purported to be. But people make their choices and at the end of it, it comes down to what kind of job is being done to educate children to lead the city.”
One of the major problems Love was concerned about, the achievement gap between black and white students, is one the school system is still grappling with.
Valarie Wilson noted that two of the black officials elected on Nov. 5 — Johnson-Davis and White — were unopposed. If there had been a controversy brewing around the school system during this year’s elections, the outcome might’ve been different. It is clear from the demographic data that Decatur isn’t becoming more diverse, even if its leadership is.
“I’m not cynical, but I don’t necessarily know that we’re such a diverse community because we made this decision,” Valarie Wilson said. “There were other factors that contributed to that.”
Attorney Mawuli Davis, the husband of School Board member-elect Jana Johnson-Davis and chair of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, has been at the forefront of pushing City Schools of Decatur to close the achievement gap. Davis said he wasn’t surprised at Love’s and Denard’s cynicism about the election results.
“You know, I think the skepticism is a reality for most of us,” Mawuli Davis said. “Just because we have black elected officials, it doesn’t mean necessarily they are working and serving in the interests of those who have been undeserved. For me, there is no contradiction. You can celebrate the fact that there was a historic moment and at the same time you can want to ensure that their election matters.”
“In good hands”
His wife, Jana Johnson-Davis, said history didn’t motivate her to run for School Board.
“It’s hard to believe that we are still having these kinds of historical firsts in 2019, but I am honored to be a part of this history making election, being one of four to be elected at the same time, but I think we all got into it to do the work and not just make history,” she said. “I think that we got into it because of what we think we will each bring to the table and to be a part of history is kind of icing on the cake. But I don’t think that’s why any of us made the decision to do this, just to make history.”
For White, who was reelected to the School Board, the election was a “huge moment” for Decatur because of the city’s ongoing conversation about diversity.
“When I know that we are fighting so hard as a city and a community and as a School Board to keep diversity at the forefront and to make sure we are focused on it, for that to be such a major focus for all of us, this is what comes out of that,” White said. “African Americans in our community are stepping up to be a part of that process. That’s for me what makes it huge.”
Powers hopes the election of two black city commissioners — the first time that’s happened by anyone’s reckoning — and two black School Board members will set an example for young people to emulate. It could also be interpreted as a sign that Decatur is starting to reclaim some of the diversity it has lost.
“It’s going to open some eyes,” Powers said. “That’s my real hope, that people start paying attention. That if Decatur can lose its diversity and regain it, then there’s hope.”
As for Elizabeth Wilson, she feels like she can relax and watch from the sidelines as a new generation carries on her legacy.
“Even though I’m slow now doing things, the City Commission and the School Board in this city are in good hands,” Wilson said. “I’m going to sit back and enjoy.”
Editor’s note: Local historian Laurel Wilson provided research and information for this article and Decaturish is sincerely grateful for Wilson’s help.
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