(PHOTOS) Decatur celebrates history, homecoming during Decatur DayNewspaper articles about the displacement of Decatur’s Beacon Hill community during urban renewal are displayed during Decatur Day 2023 on Saturday, Sept. 2. Photo by Dean Hesse.
This story has been updated.
By Zoe Seiler and Dean Hesse
Decatur, GA — Homecoming was the theme of Decatur Day, as the annual event was held near the Ebster Recreation Center in the area that was once known as the Beacon Hill community.
Happiness was in the air during Decatur Day on Sept. 2 as people in attendance grilled out, played games and enjoyed seeing their family and old friends.
“This year is the 200th anniversary of the city of Decatur, so our theme this year is homecoming,” Wanda Wynn Watters said. “I’m excited about being here because this is the actual area where we really grew up. It’s close to our schools and old churches. We’re familiar with the streets.”
The Beacon Hill community was the area of Decatur where freed slaves began to settle. The square mile area was the site of a thriving African-American community of homes, businesses, churches and schools. In the early 20th century, the neighborhood became known as Beacon Hill, according to a city website.
The city of Decatur’s Beacon Municipal Center, at West Trinity Place and Electric Avenue, was where the Herring Street School, Beacon Elementary and Trinity High School once stood. But the city’s “urban renewal” projects displaced the historically Black community.
“For decades, the Beacon area was considered by city officials to be a slum,” the city of Decatur’s website says. “Urban renewal, the process to buy, clear, and redevelop the area, began in the late 1930s. …Urban renewal expanded in the 1960s. 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.”
Decatur Day is usually held at McKoy Park, but relocated this year to the greenspace across the street from Ebster Recreation Center, on the corner of Electric Avenue and West Trinity Place.
Decatur City Commissioner Lesa Mayer said the new location was chosen for several reasons but she said the event wasn’t moved from McKoy because of neighborhood complaints about the event. She said the new space offered better parking, access to bathrooms, and access to emergency vehicles. She said the Decatur Day planning committee made the decision.
“For a lot of reasons, it made sense,” Mayer said. “It really wasn’t about neighbors complaining, They complained, but that wasn’t the why. It was actually very practical. It wasn’t rooted in historic racism. It wasn’t trying to take folks out of the neighborhood.”
Decatur Parks and Recreation Director Greg White said the move was “to improve our logistics” related to hosting the event.
“Moving to this location Improved parking and cars are off the street for this event,” White said. “In this location, we have several parking locations to get cars off the street: DeKalb Parking deck, parking lot by the Maloof building and the City Schools of Decatur parking lot. [There’s] no impact to regular traffic flow in this location.”
He said he recommended moving the event.
“The move was not done in response to neighbor complaints,” White said. “I knew that we had better parking options downtown and staff would not have to spend time directing traffic for hours.”
Mayor Patti Garrett and Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said the possibility of moving the event has been discussed for months.
“Both Tony and I were a part of a meeting with Decatur Day organizers months ago to talk about the possibility of moving to Ebster, a location that is indeed a historic and treasured location for the elders of the Beacon Hill community,” Garrett said. “… The idea of moving the location was a recommendation from city staff, but we all wanted to make sure the organizers were comfortable with trying a new location. [Decatur Mayor Emerita Elizabeth Wilson] was consulted in conversations as well.”
But Doris Johnson, who helps organize the event, believes neighborhood complaints were a factor in the move.
“While Greg claims logistic improvements as the reason for the move, we know that it was in fact due to alleged complaints from the current residents in the McKoy Park area, and that the underlying factor was racial,” Johnson said. “We have been asked to move the celebration for the last 5+ years and this started with the gentrification of the McKoy area. Traffic and parking had been problematic in prior years, but at least with the last three celebration years, traffic flow and parking were not an issue. The traffic and parking improvements are rightfully credited to the City, and specifically to Greg and his staff. Even with these improvements, we were still asked to move the celebration, which is why we agreed to ‘try’ Ebster in 2023.
“That said, we must all be honest about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Our focus is not to dwell on past adversities, but to learn from them; and not to rewrite our history, but to continually tell, document and celebrate the lives, history, and legacy of Black Families in Decatur, GA.”
Johnson praised the city’s efforts to celebrate its diversity and acknowledge its history.
“The one thing that we most like about our city of Decatur is that it values its diversity and has made tremendous efforts to make sure that its Black residents, past and present are recognized and included in its history and redesign both now and in the future,” Johnson said. “Finally, Decatur Day is not about a ‘place’ to celebrate, it’s about the celebration itself and having a dedicated day to do so in Decatur – our forever ‘home.'”
The land across from the Ebster Recreation Center used to be the housing projects, and Watters said it’s sacred ground.
“We get a chance to see our old neighborhood friends,” she said. “We get a chance to remember some of the buildings, all the things that bring back great memories about Decatur as we knew it growing up around the 40s, 50s and 60s.”
She added that the purpose of Decatur Day is to share the legacy of the community.
“A legacy isn’t something somebody leaves you. We don’t own the land, but the legacy is in us. It’s the entrepreneurship. It’s the love, the neighborly relationships we had, the relationships we had with our teachers, all of that that was instilled in us,” Watters said. “What was important about coming back is here is because these are our roots.”
Watters works with her sister Johnson to help organize Decatur Day each year. The sisters, and their siblings, grew up in the Beacon Hill community in the 50s and 60s.
“Decatur Day, a celebration of the lives, history, and legacy of Black families in Decatur, Georgia,” Johnson said. “You could fill in each one of those nouns there – lives, history, and legacy – with hundreds of families. There used to be about 600 apartment units here, called the projects, and about 400 homes that we lived in all along here…Many of our families owned those homes. A lot of them were rental properties. Some of our teachers lived in the area of Robins Street and White Street. Then urban renewal displaced us.”
The city’s “urban renewal” project uprooted families, Johnson added.
“I know the intention was good because a lot of the housing was bad, and it was rentals and could be deemed to be slums or something. But for those of us who owned the homes, they were well-kept. It’s where all the children in the neighborhood gathered because it was a safe place,” she said.
The businesses were also wiped out and the community was broken up, but “we managed somehow, just through connections to stay together even though we didn’t live together…but everybody kept in touch,” Johnson said.
Watters and Johnson’s mom, Sadie Sims, and Mayor Emerita Wilson, along with other families, were instrumental in integrating the library and school systems in Decatur, “getting us to the point where we were recognized and were on boards and commissions.”
In 1962, Wilson and Dorothy Scott integrated the DeKalb County Public Library. Prior to that, Black residents only had access to
the Trinity High School library and a “bookmobile” with limited choices, according to a city website.
Decatur High School was integrated in 1965, and Johnson graduated from DHS in 1967, which was the last year Trinity High School was open.
Wilson was the first Black commissioner and mayor in Decatur. Wilson was first elected to the city commission in 1984 and elected mayor in 1993.
Johnson added that it’s important to celebrate Decatur Day so the history and community are not forgotten.
“The thing is, if we celebrate this [day], we will not be wiped off the face of the earth,” Johnson said. “I don’t think the city’s trying to, but if we don’t keep talking about it and keeping it going, then it’s not anybody else’s responsibility to do that for us. This is why we do Decatur Day.”
Emory Walton, who was born and raised in Decatur, said that Decatur Day for him is about meeting old friends, and it’s a big family reunion. He added that the neighborhood was full of love.
“Now that we’ve gotten a little older, and you don’t see people like you used to, Decatur Day is a beautiful thing. I can’t sleep at night knowing that I’m fixing to go to Decatur Day the next day,” Walton said. “It means everything to me because I get to see all of my old friends and everybody who grew up in the neighborhood.”
“It’s pure happiness,” he added.
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