The Disappearing Face of Black Atlanta 

How Skip Mason is trying to protect Atlanta's African-American heritage

An awestruck Skip Mason stepped into the brick building on the corner of Courtland and Gilmer streets, grabbed a concert program, and made his way down the crowded aisle. It was a crisp Saturday afternoon several months after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and an uncertain but bustling mood had settled on Atlanta.

click to enlarge "GRASSROOTS HISTORIAN": Herman "Skip" Mason Jr. has spent decades salvaging pieces of black Atlanta's past. - MICHAEL WALL
  • Michael Wall
  • "GRASSROOTS HISTORIAN": Herman "Skip" Mason Jr. has spent decades salvaging pieces of black Atlanta's past.

That fall, Maynard Jackson, a twentysomething with coiffed hair and a round face, was campaigning for vice mayor, waving from the back of a convertible during a Peachtree Street parade. In a long-past-due decision, Atlanta's public schools had begun to allow African-Americans to teach. Hippies from as far away as Alabama were streaming into Midtown on the weekends to party at the Stein Club. The scent of Ma Sutton's fried chicken filled the sidewalks of Auburn Avenue near the newly built Palamont Motel. And the Memorial Arts Center, which would later become the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, had just opened in commemoration of the 106 art patrons who died in a plane crash just outside Paris' Orly Airport six years earlier.

The night before Mason came to the City Auditorium, its stage was host to a wrestling tournament, as was the case most Friday nights in the 1960s. But this afternoon, thousands of starry-eyed fans were cramming into the three-tiered hall packed with folding metal chairs to see James Brown perform.

Mason's mother, who was pregnant with his sister at the time, had wanted to get out of the house, so she drove her 6-year-old son to the $3 matinee show. When Brown took the stage, Mason couldn't see above the sea of waving hands. His mother told him to wiggle through the crowds of screaming teenagers to get a better view. So he slipped through the fans, stood on a chair, and watched the Godfather of Soul from a couple of feet away.

After the show, Mason took his wrinkled concert program and placed it in his wardrobe. The closet already held pennants from Morris Brown College football games, 45s by the Jackson 5 and the Supremes, and Hank Aaron baseball cards. The collection later would be fleshed out with newspaper articles about the Princess Theater, the first theater in Atlanta to show movies to "coloreds"; souvenirs from Sam Cooke and Gladys Knight concerts at Odd Fellows Auditorium on Auburn Avenue; programs from the Rev. Martin Luther King's funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church; and countless other mementoes of Atlanta's rich African-American history.

In the past 40 years, Mason has collected more than 3,000 posters, newspaper clippings, weathered photos and other odds and ends in order to help tell the story of black Atlanta. He now stores his memorabilia in the basement of his Ellenwood home, his office at Morehouse College and a rented public-storage unit. A self-described "grassroots historian," Mason's passion for collecting and documenting the little-known facts and anecdotes of black history places him among the ranks of the late Franklin Garrett, perhaps Atlanta's best-known historian, and local relics dealer John Sexton.

Mason has crawled through the rumble of demolished buildings to find an original 1945 certificate granting a black man the right to argue a case in front of the Georgia Supreme Court. He has saved the metal and plaster letters of the Consolidated Mortgage and Investment building on Auburn Avenue, the premier African-American financial institution. His books have chronicled, among other things, the life of African-Americans in DeKalb County, the face of Atlanta's black entertainment in the 1920s, and an extensive pictorial history of African-Americans from as early as 1850.

click to enlarge HISTORY LESSON: One of the books Skip Mason has written on little-known facts of African-American communities in Atlanta. - COURTESY: SKIP MASON
  • Courtesy: Skip Mason
  • HISTORY LESSON: One of the books Skip Mason has written on little-known facts of African-American communities in Atlanta.

But it's not Mason's knowledge of Atlanta's history that makes him unique. It's his eye for the hidden details -- such as how the city's only black shoe-shiner lost his business in 1966 when the state Capitol installed an electric shoe-shine machine -- that elevates him to the ranks of cultural anthropologist.

Mason's not merely amassing documents; he's out on the streets -- digging through razed sites, exploring abandoned buildings and salvaging what others might consider trash -- literally resurrecting the remnants of black Atlanta's past.

He goes to these lengths because he doesn't want that history to die. And the history he's trying to save already is marked by some significant casualties.

Henry's Grill on Auburn Avenue, a popular hangout for Royal Peacock entertainers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, has dissolved into a boarded-up building. The Palamont Motel was abandoned and is set to be demolished. The façade and lobby of the City Auditorium are now part of Georgia State's Alumni Hall. And Ma Sutton's has been sitting empty for some time.

With the disappearance of so many African-American landmarks in Atlanta, all that's left are memories -- and the keepers of those memories won't be around forever. That's why Mason's collection is so important. He has personally catalogued the pieces of black Atlanta that are vanishing. His assortment isn't just a pile of dusty posters and yellowed pamphlets. It's quickly becoming the only tangible link connecting the passing generation to generations to come.

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