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Buckhead's black past 

Historians are finding a rich African-American history in Atlanta's whitest neighborhood

click to enlarge JOEFF DAVIS

Buckhead is currently the scene of a zoning battle over yet another in a series of attempts to tear down the Randolph-Lucas House, a Peachtree Road mansion built in 1924. The Swan House aside, Atlanta's north end doesn't boast a great number of historic buildings, so it's understandable that folks would want to preserve this one. But, frankly, I can't get overly worked up about an old house that's arguably indistinguishable from the area's many other super-sized white-columned Georgian Revival manses.

Far more interesting from a historical perspective is the New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, a modest white clapboard building that would look perfectly at home alongside a gravel road in a North Georgia hollow, but which seems intriguingly misplaced among the million-dollar homes lining tony Arden Road. The current sanctuary was completed in 1936, replacing one that burned down in the late '20s, but the congregation itself dates back to 1872, when James "Whispering" Smith, a wealthy landowner, bequeathed two acres of land to give the area's black residents — many of whom worked as servants in nearby homes — a place to worship. Across the street from the church is a quaint cemetery established in the 1880s that houses the graves of a number of former slaves.

Fortunately, New Hope, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, is still a functioning church and in no present peril. But where the remnants of Buckhead's black history are concerned, it's the rare exception.

I remember how surprised I was driving along the eastern stretch of Windsor Parkway some 20 years ago and coming across an intersection with a number of bungalows and a corner store nestled among the subdivisions. That was all that was left of an old African-American community I later learned was Lynwood Park, a once-thriving neighborhood that had its own all-black DeKalb County school in the days before desegregation. If you drive that way now, the only evidence to suggest the area's non-white past is the '70s-era Lynwood Park Church of God in Christ.

But this year, the Buckhead Heritage Society — the same outfit recently in the news for trying to save the Randolph-Lucas House — will be dedicating much of its efforts to researching North Atlanta's black history. And, while the small group has only begun work, what it's learned so far is fascinating.

Erica Danylchak, a former Atlanta History Center researcher who serves as BHS' executive director — and, it should be said, its only full-time employee — is finding information and tracking down former residents from at least five erstwhile black communities that once called Buckhead home.

First, a bit of history. Although the source of its name is the subject of endless bar debates, it's generally agreed that Buckhead was founded by Henry Irby in 1838. Originally populated mostly by white gentleman farmers, the area was seen as a haven for blacks fleeing the city following the 1906 Atlanta race riots and the 1917 fire that leveled much of the Fourth Ward, Danylchak explains. Most of the newcomers found work as domestics in the big houses or in construction as Buckhead kept building.

The black enclaves that sprang up included Johnsontown, a neighborhood dating to 1912 where the Lenox Square MARTA Station parking deck now stands; Piney Grove, which occupied the pocket between Lenox Road and the intersection of I-75 and Ga. 400; and Macedonia Park, situated in the very heart of Buckhead.

Not surprisingly, the coexistence between the races was not without its raw-deal stories.

In the mid-'40s, Danylchak says, "Fulton County decided that the Macedonia Park neighborhood would make a great park." In an era when "fair market value" was not typically extended to black property owners, the county used eminent domain and sometimes outright coercion to buy up the land, displacing more than 400 families. The area is now Frankie Allen Park.

Adding insult to injury, just two years ago a developer sought to dig up the old Mt. Olive Cemetery, a small graveyard comprising all that's left of Macedonia Park. After legal action and Danylchak's intervention, the proposal was rejected.

Johnsontown, on the other hand, was home to about 30 black families until the early '80s, when MARTA claimed the area for its rail line. In that case, the residents were more fairly compensated and the neighborhood was documented as part of the Library of Congress' Historic American Buildings Survey.

And Danylchak recalls that although many of its neighbors left after World War II, the tiny Piney Grove church remained standing until sometime in the '90s, when it was torn down for condos.

For now, she's following up on rumors of a long-gone black schoolhouse off Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, and of a community intriguingly named Savagetown that may have existed west of I-75 near Margaret Mitchell Drive, among others. Eventually, she'd like to establish historic tours of former neighborhoods.

And you're welcome to help. If you have information about the history of black Buckhead or know of any surviving residents, please contact Danylchak at info@buckheadheritage.com.

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