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The Beacon Community

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A brief history of Decatur’s African-American community

This material is from the permanent exhibit on view at the Beacon Municipal Center, 105 Electric Ave. A companion brochure published by City of Decatur is available to view here or download here. Printed copies are available at the center and at the Decatur Visitors Center.

 

BEACON-COVERDecatur’s Beacon Municipal Center, at West Trinity Place and Electric Avenue, stands where the city’s African-American public schools — Herring Street School, Beacon Elementary, and Trinity High — once stood.

 
This site remains an important landmark for the city’s African-American community. The doorway (highlighted above) in the corner of the Ebster Recreation Center is the last vestige of Herring Street School. Aside from memories and photographs, it is all that remains of Decatur’s African-American Beacon community.

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Nurse Ivey collects height and weight information for the children of Decatur Nursery School at the Odd Fellows Hall at the intersection of Herring and  Oliver streets, early 1940s. Among the children are Jackie Lowe Simmons, William Heard, and Julius Shaw. 


The 'Bottom'

Known as “the Bottom” in its earliest days, when it was settled by freed slaves after the Civil War, this square mile of Decatur was the site of a thriving African-American community of homes, business, churches, and schools. In the early part of the 20th century, the area became known as “Beacon Hill” or just “Beacon.”

Like any small community, it had its own landmarks, characters, business and community leaders, and other common threads that formed a rich fabric of life.

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. 

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Left: The Bussey family gathers for a photograph, circa 1961. Right: Young Cliff Chandler on Atlanta Street. After graduating from the Herring Street School, and then Morehouse College, he taught at Trinity High School. He later became Georgia’s first African-American principal after schools were desegregated, at Renfroe Middle School.

 

Commerce

A spirit of entrepreneurship and hard work characterized the historic Beacon community – from the midwives, the bakers, the launderers, and the shop-owners to all the young people who were always expected to do their part. 

The first African-American business in Decatur was a blacksmith shop owned by Henry Oliver. Other prominent businesses in Decatur’s African-American community included Cox Funeral Home, Rogers Cab Company, LC’s Rib Shack, the Ritz Movie Theater, Bussey Florist, Williams Beauty Shop, Tyler Funeral Home, Tom Steele’s Café, and Clark’s Grocery. While some of these businesses were lost or relocated because of urban renewal, the memories and values they stood for made a lasting impact on those who grew up in the Beacon area.

steel-coxLeft: Tom Steele’s Café was the place to go for splits — split sausage sandwiches. Steele was also a community leader, and the first African-American to serve on the board of the Decatur Housing Authority. Pictured are Tom Steele, wife Ethel, and Winfred Mills. Right: Cox Funeral Home, on the site where the DeKalb County parking deck now stands, provided office space to Narva Jane Harris, assistant superintendent for African-American schools in the county. Harris wasn’t permitted to share office space with white workers.


Churches

The Beacon community’s spiritual needs were met by at least eight churches, all within about four blocks of each other. These served as the backbone of the community, and included Antioch African Methodist Episcopal Church, Apostolic Holiness Church, Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church, Lilly Hill Baptist Church, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Thirkield Methodist Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, and Thankful Baptist Church. 

The oldest African-American congregation in Decatur, Antioch AME Church, was founded by freed slaves in 1868. In 1882, Thankful Baptist Church was established in a modest log house. Mother Burnett established Lilly Hill Baptist in her home in 1913. Despite challenges Beacon churches have grown in size and prominence. Churches continue to be important places for the whole community to gather and come together.

churches-webLeft: Thankful Baptist Church as it appeared in the 1950s. Middle: Mr. and Mrs. John Burnett Sr., founders of the Lilly Hill Baptist Church. Right: Groundbreaking for the new Antioch AME Church on Hibernia Avenue in 1965. The church stood for 90 years on the site of the recently demolished Callaway Building, across Trinity Place from the DeKalb County Courthouse. The Hibernia Avenue church was bulldozed to permit construction of the Swanton Heights neighborhood.

 

Beacon Community, c.1940

BEACON-map

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Schools

The first school for African-Americans in Decatur was a small parochial school started by a Presbyterian minister. In 1902, the first public school for African-Americans opened. That school relocated in 1913 and became known as Herring Street School. 

With support from the community, the school expanded and was rebuilt as Beacon Elementary School and Trinity High School in 1956 and 1957. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional, it would be 18 years before Decatur’s public schools were completely integrated. 

Despite the scarcity of resources available to them, teachers formed a Teachers’ Club at Herring Street School to provide college tuition scholarships for underprivileged students. Teachers and school administrators were widely respected throughout the Beacon community, and school principals were admired civic leaders.

Principal of Herring Street School 1933-1953, Professor Charles M. Clayton taught students that the road to success is difficult but made easier through education. He earned a masters in education from Clark/Atlanta University and a law degree from LaSalle University. While principal at Herring Street, he helped found the Gate City Bar Association for African-American lawyers who were excluded from the Atlanta Bar Association. 

Sara T. Blackmon was a popular educator and administrator at Herring Street School and the first principal of Beacon Elementary. Dedicated to lifelong education, she attended Morris Brown College and went on to complete graduate work at Atlanta University. 

Albert J. Martin had a profound impact on many of Decatur’s African-American students. He was appointed principal of Herring Street School in 1953, and went on to serve as Trinity High School’s only principal from its opening in 1956 to its closure in 1967. Martin was also a successful entrepreneur who owned and operated the Shrimp Boat restaurant in Atlanta.  

teachers-webLeft: Teachers pictured in the 1948 Herring Street School yearbook. Center: Charles M. Clayton (top) and Sara T. Blackmon. Right: Albert J. Martin.

 

Hangin' Out

For youngsters, Beacon provided numerous spots to meet up with friends, enjoy quick meals and snacks, and to enhance the close-knit nature of the community. Special events also helped to bring the community together. 

On Saturdays, kids would flock to the “picture show” at the local Ritz Theatre, the social hall of the Allen Wilson Terrace Homes, or meet up at the “Brick Wall” that ran down the south side of Robin Street. Friends and neighbors could catch up on local news while sharing “splits,” popular split sausage sandwiches, at Tom Steele’s Café. The swimming pool and recreation center at Ebster Park was always bustling with kids during the hot summer. Families came together to celebrate annual events like the Thanksgiving Day football game and the May Day festivities. 

Left: Going to a movie at the Ritz, part of the Atlanta-based Bailey Theaters chain, which catered solely to African-Americans. The company was owned  by a white man. Center: Rollerskating at the Allen Wilson Terrace Apartments. Right: Trinity High School football was great entertainment in the community.  


The Movement

The fight for equal rights had long been waged in Decatur’s Beacon community in myriad ways, but it began to coalesce as a movement around 1950 with formation of the Decatur Colored Citizen League. In 1955, the DeKalb Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was organized in Decatur. In the early days, the NAACP was often referred to as “the movement” for fear that affiliation with the organization could cost you your job, or worse.

In 1961, hundreds lined up to see Jackie Robinson deliver the keynote address for the NAACP kickoff rally at the Thankful Baptist Church in Decatur. Many who attended the event as young children still remember shaking hands with the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman who had integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, and in retirement became a civil rights trailblazer.

One of Decatur’s most prominent citizens, Mayor Emerita Elizabeth Wilson, has helped knock down many racial barriers in the city, and works to maintain the history of the Beacon community. She worked closely with the Decatur Colored Citizen League and the NAACP, and became the first African-American city commissioner and mayor of the City of Decatur. After moving to Decatur in 1949, Wilson was at the forefront of efforts to integrate Decatur schools, acted as a state and national PTA officer, and played a key role in founding the Beacon Hill Clinic and the Oakhurst Community Health Center. Awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Agnes Scott College, Wilson continues to dedicate her life to making positive change in her community. 

John Henry Shanks, too, left his mark on Beacon. He helped establish the Boy Scouts of Decatur, imparting important life skills and acting as a role model for young boys in the community. Along with Rosetta Williams, Shanks helped found the first chapter of the NAACP in DeKalb County. He was also active in the Mt. Zion church and with the PTA.

movement-webLeft: Jackie Robinson promotes voter registration in Decatur with Rosetta Williams, one of the founders of the DeKalb County NAACP. Center: Elizabeth Wilson. Right: John Henry Shanks and his wife, Jessie.

 

The End

For decades, the Beacon area was considered by city officials to be a slum. Urban renewal, the process to buy, clear, and redevelop the area, began in the late 1930s. The residential and commercial area bounded by Electric Avenue, Herring Street, Oliver Street, and Robin Street was cleared to build the Allen Wilson Terrace Homes, one of the earliest public housing efforts in the country. A pamphlet created by the Decatur Housing Authority characterized the Beacon community as “a blighted area, like a cancer [that] threatens to eat its way into [the] vital organs of our municipality.”

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’s African-American community faced the destruction of their homes and businesses with strength and resilience. Decatur Day and other annual events are held as a reminder of the Beacon area as it was and to reflect on how these changes came to shape Decatur as it is today.

THE-ENDLeft: Beacon residents were taken on “relocation tours” around DeKalb County as part of urban renewal plans. Center: A pamphlet making the case for urban renewal in the Beacon community. Right: Gathering for Decatur Day in McKoy Park. 


Preservation

Section-6-mapDecatur has taken steps in recent years to preserve the history of the Beacon community and to honor its spirit. Much of the material in this brochure is taken from historic exhibits in the lobbies of the Ebster Recreation Center, 105 Electric Ave., in the northeast corner of our Beacon Municipal Center. These exhibits are largely the work of Mayor Emerita Elizabeth Wilson. 

Encouraged by her efforts, Friends of Decatur Cemetery is researching early Decatur African-Americans, such as Henry Oliver, Sallie Durham, Oscar White and Sister Lou Bratcher, who lived in the Beacon area and helped build its foundations. These individuals are among more than 900 people buried in the historic African-American part of the Decatur Cemetery known as Section 6. The oldest known graves in the section are those of Dorcas Henderson, Simon Read, and Israel Sanford, who all passed away in 1886. 

If you have information, images or artifacts from the African-American community in Decatur, please contact info@decaturga.com so that we can further expand our knowledge of this integral component of Decatur history.