When my wife and I moved into our house on Howell Street in Old Fourth Ward in 2006, we wondered about the enormous brick building across the street. Our realtor didn't know anything about the building other than it was an old abandoned school. It sits on an entire city block of land surrounded by a rusty chain link fence with barbed wire along the top. It looked more like a prison compound than a school.
There is a sign on the front façade: "David T. Howard Building." After some research, I was surprised to learn that the building was the elementary school that Martin Luther King Jr. attended in the 1930s. I couldn't believe there wasn't a sign or historical marker indicating this somewhere on the property. Despite being only a block from King's birth home, it's not even included as a stop on the National Park Service walking tours.
Over the years, neighbors have filled me in on the building's rich history. The land on which the school was built was donated by David T. Howard, a former slave who became a very wealthy undertaker. He and his wife, educator Ella Branner, generously used their fortune to advance the education of black children. The building opened in 1923 as an elementary school but was converted to a high school in the mid-1940s. King was not the only Howard alumnus of note. Other graduates include presidential advisor Vernon Jordan, business leader H.J. Russell, civil rights activist Lonnie King, musician Titus Turner, and NBA Hall of Famer Walt Frazier.
But in 1976, due to declining enrollment, the Atlanta Public Schools closed the high school. Since then the building has been used by APS mainly for records storage. Bricks are crumbling away from the façade. There's plywood on the front door and it's a magnet for vandalism.
In recent years, the main user of its grounds has been a youth soccer association. During soccer season, the streets are lined with cars from all over intown Atlanta. It's great to have so many people around the neighborhood on soccer weekends — we just wish the property was used for more than soccer. Atlanta artist Sheila Pree Bright has recently proposed a large photo exhibit on the building's exterior. But we'd like to see the building be more than just a canvas.
There has recently been one small bright spot. In June, after years of listening to the neighborhood's complaints, APS replaced the 30-year-old bent and rusty fence along the perimeter of the property with a brand-new chain-link fence — this time without barbed wire. School system officials also agreed to allow the neighborhood to use some of the fields surrounding the school that were previously off limits.
But the building and the seven-acre property remain woefully underutilized. Residents recently got their hopes up that the Howard building might be brought back online as the solution to the overcrowding problem at Inman Middle School in Virginia-Highland. APS ultimately decided to cram additional classrooms on the already tight Inman campus.
In the meantime, the building continues to deteriorate. When the façade's bricks started falling off, APS's reaction was to build another chain-link fence to keep people from getting too close to the building. Officials claim APS does not have the money to remove the rusting metal modular buildings along Randolph Street that formerly housed a childcare center. At some point, residents fear, these metal buildings will be broken into and become a haven for vagrants and vandals. That's what happened to the metal buildings on the Howell Street side of the building until APS was finally forced to remove them a few years ago due to safety concerns by neighbors.
Old Fourth Ward isn't the only neighborhood where a once vibrant school sits empty and idle. Even more problematic than the aesthetic and safety issues, these abandoned buildings create huge voids in the middle of our communities.
Instead of having more neighbors to socialize with, go to school with, or do business with, we have empty, unproductive, and untaxed tracts of land in neighborhoods that can least afford more blight.
A one-cent special sales tax approved by voters provided APS with money to spend $150 million on a new high school in North Atlanta — a facility that went $50 million overbudget in the process. A fraction of these SPLOST funds could be spent to better care for the system's unused facilities. APS should either prioritize bringing these buildings back online or they should actively market the properties to buyers who will. Savannah College of Art and Design has a history of redeveloping historic buildings and might be one potential buyer.
APS Superintendent Erroll Davis did form a building repurposing committee after last year's school redistricting process and the planned closure of an additional seven schools. To date, this committee has not held any public meetings with Old Fourth Ward to discuss what we'd like to see happen with the building. At the July board of education meeting, one APS official mentioned the possibility of demolition. The lack of consultation with the neighborhood, which has been home to the building for 90 years, and the early mention of demolition reflect a general disregard for both the neighborhood and its history.
King's school has suffered from more than 35 years of benign neglect. It is finally time to treat the David T. Howard Building with the respect it deserves.
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