Equalization schools were the South’s futile attempt to cling to Jim Crow segregation. They were built throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and other Deep South states as a last ditch effort to forestall court-ordered public school integration. According to Georgia architectural historian Steven Moffson, his state had the greatest number of schools built to preserve the separate but equal doctrine that ultimately was dismantled under the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Decatur’s Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools were among the hundreds of equalization schools built in Georgia after World War II. They were constructed in 1955 and 1956 on the site where the city had maintained its African American school, the Herring Street School, since the early twentieth century. In early 2013, three years after receiving a $10,000 historic preservation grant that should have led to the property’s protection, the City of Decatur began demolishing parts of the two schools to build a new police headquarters and civic plaza.
After the Brown v. Board decision, Decatur took more than a decade to desegregate its schools. Once the city’s African American students began attending the larger and better-funded white schools, the old equalization schools were recycled to other municipal uses. Decatur’s police department occupied part of the old high school and city recreation facilities operated out of the remaining spaces.
The two brick school buildings were constructed side-by-side in what Decatur’s African Americans called the Beacon Community: the city’s historically black quarter where legal and de facto segregation concentrated their homes, churches, business, and recreational facilities.
For decades after desegregation and after the schools were closed, the site remained a sacred heritage landmark among Decatur’s African American community. Although the institution – segregated schools – and the building were artifacts of a painful historical period, the site fostered deep attachment among its former students and people who made schools and churches the centers of their social universe.
Elizabeth Wilson, Decatur’s first African American city commissioner and mayor, explained the role that the two institutions played in her community. “The church, without a doubt, the church was the gathering place. So we didn’t have a lot of places, like the social places,” she said in a February 2012 interview. “The school was central for us, too.”
In a 2010 report prepared for Georgia’s state historic preservation office, historian Moffson described the unintended consequences equalization schools had in black communities:
The rise of modern African-American schools in Georgia in the 1950s strengthened black communities throughout the state. Parents and students have described the schools as a source of pride.
That was how Wilson and most of the other African American Decaturites described their former schools in interviews I did starting in late 2011. Yet, despite the attachment and affection the city’s African American residents had for the property, city leaders continued the old separate but equal approach to all things black when it came time to recognize the property’s historical significance and preserve it for future generations.
In 2009 Decatur hired an architectural historian to conduct a citywide historic resources survey. It paid the consultant $35,000 to map and photograph every building inside the city limits and to write a report documenting the city’s history and recommending individual properties and districts for recognition and protection under local and federal historic preservation laws.
“The historic resource survey enables the City of Decatur to have complete, accurate, and current information on all historic properties and districts,” wrote the consultant in the 2009 report’s introduction. Educators and researchers were among the groups the consultant identified who would use the survey “for accessing a greater breadth and depth of historic information in researching and writing about the historic, architectural, and cultural assets of Decatur.”
Nice goals. Poor execution.
The report documented lots of historic places: city hall, churches, schools, and commercial buildings along with lots of bungalows and other house types. Missing, however, were Decatur’s African Americans and their historic properties. The words “black” and “African American” appeared nowhere in the report.
Dr. Thomas King, a leading historic preservation expert and one of the people who helped develop the National Park Service Guidelines for Local Surveys cited in the 2009 Decatur report, reviewed the Decatur survey. King was born in Decatur and he has written widely on historic preservation regulatory compliance, including several books and National Park Service technical publications on the subject. In his review, King described the Decatur survey: “as classic an example as I have recently seen of what has made historic preservation in this country a pointless, overly costly, elitist, and socially irresponsible activity.”
Drawing on his family’s history in Decatur and his professional expertise, King wrote:
Apparently no African-Americans have ever lived in Decatur, or if they have, they are invisible in its history. My family’s lore tells of much-respected African-American women who took care of my elder siblings and me; I wonder where they came from.
My older sister, who actually remembers Decatur in the late 1930s/early 1940s, tells me of a neighborhood in which African-American families were concentrated. I imagine this neighborhood lost its distinctive character – for better or worse – during the social changes of the mid-late 20th century, but I have to wonder where it was, what surviving properties might be associated with it, and what cultural significance they may retain for Decatur’s African-American residents – who I cannot believe do not exist, despite their total invisibility in the “Final Report.”
And what about the city’s former equalization schools? They were not among the 15 “landmark buildings” identified in the report. “The consultants identified a number of historic buildings and city landmarks that should be recognized for their significance to the community and to the development of Decatur,” wrote the city’s consultant.
Yet, one year later, when the City of Decatur applied for a $10,000 federal Historic Preservation Fund grant for the former equalization schools, the city’s historic preservation planner Regina Brewer described them as one of the city’s most important historic sites. “Beacon Hill is considered one of our most valuable historic resources,” she wrote in the February 2010 application.
Historic Preservation Fund grants are authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended (16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.). As implemented, the NHPA and HPF grants are administered through the various state historic preservation offices (36 CFR §61.5). In Georgia, that is the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division. Applicants must adhere to strict criteria to qualify for HPF grants, which are specifically targeted towards historic preservation projects adhering to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation (48 FR 44716, et seq.) and which, under the standards, do not involve the demolition of historic properties.
In its application, the City of Decatur was required to identify impending threats to the property for which the grant was intended and it was required to disclose the existence of “master plans or predevelopment documents.” Decatur officials only disclosed that in 2009 a Georgia State University graduate student had completed a National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Beacon and Trinity schools. As for threats to the property, Brewer wrote:
The complex was constructed on a parcel of property that has severe flooding issue [sic.]. The neighborhood nickname was “The Bottom” because this area was at the bottom of several large hills where water naturally collects. Water has infiltrated the basement and foundation creating some structural issues and severe mold growth. Additionally, with the exception of the Trinity High School Building, buildings do not meet modern code requirements.
Missing from the 2010 federal grant application was information that the City of Decatur was planning to demolish significant parts of the two schools. Prior to February 2010, the City of Decatur already had architectural plans for a new facility to be rebuilt and rebranded the Beacon Municipal Center.
The Georgia state historic preservation office discovered the redevelopment plans, which included demolition and other changes to the property not consistent with the federal grant program guidelines, and debated how to handle the new information, according to memoranda and emails in the office’s files.
Carole Moore, the state’s historic preservation grants coordinator, emailed division director Dr. David Crass on February 28, 2011. “In a nutshell – we have funded $10,000 for a condition assessment report for the African American equalization Beacon Hill School in downtown Decatur,” Moore wrote. The email continued:
Regina Brewer says the City of Decatur had wanted to tear the school down, but she convinced them to do this predevelopment grant first in order to consider saving the building. In the meantime, Beth [Gibson] had discovered the city’s renderings for the rehabilitation portion of the project (not funded by our grant), which does not adhere to the Secretary’s Standards, as part of the school is torn down.
Regina’s position is that she’s happy that she’s saved part of the school at least through this grant.
Should we proceed with the grant anyway, reimbursing her for the condition assessment report, once the architects have incorporated Beth’s edits and put memo in the file regarding the renderings?
Do we tell them they would have to re-do their renderings and follow the Secty. Standards before we can give them their $10,000? (even though we legally do not have any purview over this?)
Do we apply the $10,000 to another Decatur project? (Regina says she’s got several NR projects, one of which could be done within the time remaining in the grant period).
Rescind the grant award entirely? It would be difficult to find another CLG project to apply that $10,000 to.
Crass responded to Moore on March 3, 2011: “I don’t think we have much choice here but to award.” He also wrote, “I would just chalk this one up as a lesson learned: if we have another project where the eventual goal is in question, we need to either condition the grant OR just pass on it and award it to someone else whose project is more explicit in its intended outcome. OR, we could just decide as a matter of policy that the award is the award, and we don’t care what happens subsequently – which doesn’t seem like a good idea on the face of it.”
After initially informing the City of Decatur in a July 2011 letter that only half of the $10,000 would be paid because the report submitted was deficient, the Historic Preservation Division on November 4, 2011, wrote to Decatur that the full amount would paid and that the $10,000 check had been cut.
Crass responded to questions I asked about the 2010 Decatur grant in a July 1, 2013, email. According to Crass, his office had not reviewed Decatur’s 2009 survey prior to the 2010 grant and therefore was unaware that it had omitted the former schools and Decatur’s African Americans. “We did not fund the Decatur survey you reference. While we are open to reviewing such documents as a professional courtesy (staff time permitting), there is no statutory or regulatory requirement to do so,” Crass wrote.
The renderings discovered by state historic preservation office staff weren’t the first clue that something was off with Decatur’s application. According to notes and memoranda in the office’s grant file, staff reviewers were confused about what they were reviewing. Decatur historic preservation advocates, including the chairman of the city’s historic preservation commission and the DeKalb History Center’s executive director, and members of the African American community had written letters supporting a “preservation plan” yet the city’s application was for a condition assessment.
Historic Preservation Division staff member Gretchen Brock emailed Moore and other staff members on February 25, 2010. “This is a vitally important resource in Decatur and I am so glad to see the city is interesting in applying for a grant for the complex,” Brock wrote. “I am having difficulty with the application because of the inconsistencies in terminology that the applicant is using for the project.”
Historic Preservation Division architect Beth Gibson wrote in her review of Decatur’s application that she was concerned that consultants had already been selected and she asked, “will there be a pres. plan for each building?” Her last comment was, “Will feasibility study meet Standards?”
The City of Decatur was well aware of the property’s historical significance and its meaning to Decatur’s African Americans before the 2010 application and before approving the citywide historic resources survey the year before. In 2007, the Decatur Business Association and the City of Decatur published a small booklet on the Beacon Community’s history.
Yet, as the city’s documents and the state’s Historic Preservation Fund grant files show, the city had no intention of preserving the historic African American site. Despite more than half a century separating the Brown v. Board decision and the production of Decatur’s 2009 historic resources survey, the city’s actions towards its African American heritage and people reveal a reluctance to shed the separate but equal polices from the last century.
The two African American schools were built a decade before the city’s high school. The 2009 historic resources survey recognized the high school’s architectural and historical significance and in 2012, the Downtown Decatur Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places; its boundaries were gerrymandered to include the high school because of its distinctive modernist façade.
The City of Decatur sought the $10,000 grant by telling its citizens and community stakeholders that the study was for historic preservation. Its reasons for doing so may lie in how other historic African American properties have been treated by local, state, and federal governments. Writing on diversity gaps in historic preservation, architectural historian Ned Kaufman described efforts by communities like Decatur to erase African American heritage by engaging in sham public outreach efforts to placate stakeholders and to convince them that their concerns are being taken into account before cherished places were slated to disappear.
“All over the country, African American communities continue to be destroyed by transit schemes and other forms of development,” Kaufman wrote in his book, Place, Race, and Story. Kaufman quoted several former state historic preservation officers, including Georgia’s Elizabeth Lyon, who described the “appearance” of creating historic preservation programs and materials. Former Louisiana state historic preservation officer Geraldine Hobdy told Kaufman, “There has sometimes been a need to create the appearance of helping a segment of the population for political reasons” (emphasis in original).
In Georgia, former director of the Georgia African American Historic Preservation Network Karl Webster Barnes observed that the state’s African American heritage was disappearing along with the people who carry community memories. “Traditional African American neighborhoods are being systematically moved or removed from their historical locations adjacent to town centers,” Barnes wrote in the September 2002 issue of Reflections, the state’s African American historic preservation newsletter. “Historical African American neighborhoods are being marginalized and removed from their historical locations at a time when the region is developing strategies to increase heritage tourism.”
The City of Decatur began demolishing large portions of the former Beacon and Trinity schools during the first week in April 2013. Once the heart of the city’s black community, these two buildings were the last intact African American heritage resources in Decatur. The site is the first thing people see as MARTA trains emerge from a tunnel entering Decatur from downtown Atlanta. It was a powerful reminder that Jim Crow segregation was separate and unequal. By next year it will be a shiny new and sanitized version of history subsidized, in part, by that $10,000 federal grant.