Daily Archives: September 11, 2017
On Sunday, Sep 10, Hate Free Decatur held a march and rally to focus on taking down the monument to white supremacy that stands in the city square. The march to the monument began at the Beacon Municipal Center, an historic place in the city of Decatur. What is now a community center is where the city’s African-American public schools – Herring Street School, Beacon Elementary, and Trinity High – once stood.
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.
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.
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 their students. Teachers and school administrators were widely respected throughout the Beacon community, and school principals were admired civic leaders.
The fight against apartheid segregation had long been waged in Decatur’s Beacon community but it began to coalesce as a movement around 1950 with formation of the Decatur Colored Citizen League. In 1955, the DeKalb Chapter 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.
One of Decatur’s most prominent citizens, Mayor Emerita Elizabeth Wilson, helped knock down many racist barriers in the city, and continues to work 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. Wilson continues to dedicate her life to making positive change in her community.
The Beacon area continued to survive despite attempts by the city to destroy it. The policy of what was called “urban renewal” began in the late 1930s. A residential and commercial area was cleared to build one of the earliest public housing efforts in the country. Development 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 and the attempts to erase its history with strength, resilience, and organization. When we gathered last night at Beacon Municipal Plaza, Mawuli Davis, an organizer with Hate Free Decatur and leader of the Beacon Hill branch of the NAACP told us we were standing on sacred ground. With gentrification all around us, especially in the city of Decatur, we must work to honor and preserve the history of African-Americans who waged a relentless struggle against white supremacy while we continue the fight against white supremacy and all other forms of oppression in the present.