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To be or not to be Mayberry? Avondale’s reputation hides complicated past

Avondale Estates Crime and public safety

To be or not to be Mayberry? Avondale’s reputation hides complicated past

Photo obtained via the city of Avondale Estates website.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on the history of Avondale Estates. Kathryn Wilson is an Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University, where her research and teaching focus on public history, race, and the urban landscape. She has lived in Avondale Estates for 11 years and is married to Lionel Laratte, the city’s first Black commissioner. This story was sourced using newspaper archives and other records. To see part one, click here.

By Kathryn Wilson, contributor 

Avondale Estates, GA —  It was a warm day in early September 1998 as marchers gathered in front of City Hall in Avondale Estates. Many were carrying signs with slogans like “Reject Racism in Avondale Estates,” “N-word is an evil word,” and “Parker Must Go!”

The reason for the protest: John Parker, the City Manager, who was also the Chief of Police, had used the n-word in a public forum. Even worse, it seems, he said that the shoulder patches for the Avondale Estates police force should be a picture of a Black man with a noose around his neck.

Attempts to reach Parker to comment for this story were unsuccessful. He currently draws a retirement benefit from the city, according to the current city manager.

The events of 1998 disturbed the carefully cultivated sense of place that Avondale Estates had maintained over the decades. Ask residents about Avondale and you will get a lot of talk about a “tight-knit” community, rooted in old-fashioned traditions and local institutions that embody the shared values of family and community. At some point someone will say Avondale Estates is “Mayberry.” The name nostalgically evokes a quirky small town presided over by Andy Taylor, the calm, understanding sheriff who doesn’t need a gun.

If Avondale Estates was or is Mayberry, then perhaps Dewey Cleveland Brown Jr was its Andy Taylor.

Brown, who served as City Manager and Chief of Police for 46 years, was born in Salisbury, NC and grew up in Decatur, GA. He is the father of former City Manager Clai Brown, who ran unsuccesfully for mayor last year.

The elder Brown attended Decatur Boys High School where he was a star football player and he served as a Sergeant in World War II. After obtaining a degree of Bachelor of Laws from the Atlanta Law School, Brown became City Manager of Avondale Estates in 1954. Having shaken off a sex and corruption scandal in 1964, he would go on to serve for three more decades. Dewey Brown certainly had law enforcement aspirations—he ran unsuccessfully for DeKalb County Sheriff in 1956. In 1957, he took on the position of Chief of Police in addition to City Manager, effectively merging the positions.

Dewey Brown is shrouded in mythology and beloved by many of Avondale’s long-time residents, who extol his responsiveness to his constituents and his long-time love of the community. Rumors of misdeeds are not definitive and the historical record on Brown is strangely quiet after 1964.

When he was on record, Brown actively promoted an image of Avondale Estates as a safe, old-time haven, with himself as devoted patriarch. This image was perpetuated throughout the 1980s and 90s, as in the 1984 Atlanta Constitution article, “Safe and Sound”:

“In Avondale, people take care of their own, or they let Dewey Brown do it. Every morning, Dewey Brown straps on his pistol, gets in his police car and travels the one-mile length and breadth of Avondale, making sure the garbage Is picked up… And if you’re sick, Dewey Brown will come visit you in the hospital, and, if you don’t pull through, he will be there in person to lead the final procession through town. Dewey Brown takes medicine to shut-ins, calls elderly women during snowstorms to see if they need one of his officers to go get them groceries and once volunteered his services as a plumber when a citizen couldn’t get one on the phone. When a new family moves into town, Dewey Brown comes by to say hello, to find out if you need anything, to find out who you are and what you’re up to.”

Here Dewey Brown embodied paternalistic surveillance (“to find out what you are up to”) masquerading as attentive service (“let Dewey Brown do it”).

One of the cornerstones of Brown’s reign, and of Avondale now, was the presence of a “highly visible police force.” In the 1980s the police were not only highly visible, they were highly responsive to resident calls. Dewey Brown boasted of the rapid response times. “If somebody looks out the window and sees something they don’t think looks right, they call City Hall and we can be there in three minutes.” Calls were most likely to come about suspicious persons or strange cars. Police Lieutenant E. H. Chitwood, one of Avondale’s six police officers, declared, “Here, everybody knows everybody…We know who belongs, and who don’t.”

Knowing “who belongs and who don’t” implied a sense of vigilance against outsiders, a “nosiness” that served governmental power through the Police Chief/City Manager. Safety and service were clearly provided for those who belonged; by at least the 1980s Avondale police were issuing identifying decals for citizens to put on the bumpers of their cars. One resident, Tom Smith, said he was pulled over three times and cited for having a missing taillight but was told by one Avondale officer that if he would get a decal, police would quit bothering him. One policeman admitted that, “Avondale officers are more likely to ignore a minor infraction by a local than by a stranger.”

Who were locals? Who were strangers? Dewey Brown declared Avondale insider-ness as race neutral.

“We don’t have no white trash and we don’t have no black trash.”

In practice, however, Avondale Estates maintained its whiteness indirectly through measures such as policing practices  and anti-yard sign legislation that applied to all but maintained larger patterns of segregation. Like other middle class white suburbs of the late 20th century Sunbelt South (the so-called “silent majority”), Avondale Estates benefited from systemic exclusion while espousing seemingly non-racist attitudes.

During the 1980s, Avondale Estates appeared immune to the passage of time, even though its schools were forcibly desegregating and the surrounding communities were impacted by white flight.

“Time has seemed to stand still in English Tudor Suburb,” gushed the Atlanta Constitution in 1990. The population was “remarkably stable and homogenous” a “carefully nurtured” “anomaly” in DeKalb County, according to the Mayor John Lawson (also a member of one of Avondale’s first families). The city was described as having all “the historical flavor of Norman Rockwell’s America.”

Some of this sense of timelessness was due not only to the historic landscape, but also to the unchanging racial character of Avondale Estates. Other southern towns could be rocked by segregation battles or transformed by white flight, but Avondale Estates was just “stubborn,” trying to keep what it had.

Fictional Mayberry, like Avondale, was almost to a person, entirely white. At a time when life in the South was changing dramatically, Mayberry was removed from such convulsions; reassuring mainstream white audiences through Andy Taylor, a character that rehabilitated the historic role of the white Southern sheriff as violent enforcer of slavery and Jim Crow. The real town that Mayberry was based on–Mt. Airy, NC–was racially segregated and not immune to the struggles of the Civil Rights era.

As early as 1949, a housekeeper named Smithy Reynolds was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a bus. Schools desegregated there in the early 1960s and students staged a lunch counter sit-in three years after Greensboro. The all-white image of Mayberry erased not only the Black population that would have lived there and challenged segregation, but also erased the systemic exclusion that kept Andy Taylor’s part of Mayberry white.

In 1998 such erasure was no longer sustainable in Avondale Estates. After Parker’s behavior was disclosed, the NAACP got to work. It was a busy year. Residents organized opposition to a new public school on Avondale Estates’ border. Conflict was heating up over free speech and yard signs, which were prohibited by a City resolution in 1967. The ban on yard signs served to support segregation because it allowed local realtors to control who saw properties for sale. But any signs, including political signs, were also disallowed. The resolution was legally challenged in a lengthy court battle lasting from 2000-2008. One of the residents named was Ms. Laurie Hunt, who had put a sign in her front yard in 1998 criticizing the City for not firing John Parker. Eventually, three squad cars arrived and Ms. Hunt was issued a citation with a potential $100 fine. The City lost the lawsuit.

The NAACP picketing lasted two weeks until the permit expired. In mid-October a group called “Avondale Residents for Racial Harmony” was formed. The group, angry that Parker was not fired for using racial epithets, circulated a petition asking for his removal.

Parker stayed in his job. For his transgressions, he was suspended and required to pay a fine. Many residents loved the level of service he provided the community. Until very recently Parker’s picture hung in City Hall, next to a portrait of Dewey Brown.

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