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The Margaret Mitchell House is most recently "taking the lid off the pot" through a speaker series co-sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. "Agents of Change," which kicked off last fall, features writers focusing on the Civil Rights movement. Philip Dray, author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, spoke at the house in mid-January, and after his speech, audience members began discussing their own family histories with lynching.
"The audience was easily 60 percent black and 40 percent white," she says. "And the fact of the matter is, if you'd announced you were going to have a forum on race relations or a forum on lynching, no one would have communicated openly. They would have come with inhibitors. But when you can use a body of academic work or a body of literature to begin to draw people out, it's a wonderful catalyst that works miracles."
Other events have had a similar effect on their audiences. Before his September appearance at the house, Emory professor Mark Bauerlein received an ominous voicemail message saying he shouldn't speak at the house, and that Margaret Mitchell was a racist. Bauerlein went ahead with the engagement, talking about his book Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 for maybe 30 minutes. But the next two hours were taken up with questions -- "some difficult and tense, but all of them intelligent," he says.
"Some people offered accounts of their own experience with racism, and others noted grandparents who endured the violence of Atlanta's past," he says. "The two hours passed as if they were 10 minutes."
Bauerlein notes that Taylor has done a lot to help the house shed its racial stigma, including inviting Alice Randall. And he agrees with Taylor that creating a venue for diverse opinions is the wisest course to widespread acceptance.
"It will take time, a long time, to defuse racial tensions, or perhaps to show that many social conflicts that look like racial tensions are, in fact, tensions of a different kind. But one can certainly see improvements in recent years," he says.
And race relations isn't the only subject under the microscope. After the events of Sept. 11, the house hosted a series of panel discussions with topics ranging from bioterrorism to Muslim views of America. It also commissioned large-scale installations of public art as a sort of memorial on the lawn.
So has the Margaret Mitchell House become a public venue for a kind of group therapy for the city? Taylor bristles.
"Group therapy -- I guess the word is so much a word of the '60s, and I think we've advanced so much beyond that. But it is a kind of healing, it's a dialogue. And where else in Atlanta can you go and have this kind of open dialogue?"
It's the belief that they are creating something both unique and necessary for the city that keeps Taylor and her staff going. Taylor envisions building a new facility for educational outreach in the block behind the house, home now to the movie museum and a parking lot.
The goal is two pronged: First to expand the center's creative writing workshops, both for children and adults. The second is to offer an Atlanta version of the Princeton Center for Leadership, a conflict-resolution training program for students that happens to be run by Taylor's college roommate, Sharon Powell.
Sheffield Hale, board member of the Margaret Mitchell House, says money is definitely an issue standing in the way of meeting such lofty goals.
"It would help us to have an endowment," he says. "What the house has been fantastic at is attracting high visitation. But it still has capital needs."
Taylor also would like for the house to expand its slate of cultural offerings. She envisions exhibits focusing on topics from civil wars to racial tolerance.
"I think it's good for the civil rights story to be told in both sections of the community," she says. "We don't do nearly as good a job as the Historic Site does, but we don't have the resources. But we certainly have a vision of being able to do it."
And of course, the essential literary mission remains a top priority. This week, an exhibition of Curt Richter's photographs of Southern writers goes on display at the house. It's another partnering with Hill Street Press, which published Richter's A Portrait of Southern Writers last year. Taylor says literary events like this one help keep her and the staff motivated.
"I think the lectures and the interaction with the audience that we have three or four nights a month really reinforce our mission. We're inspired by the writers and by the dialogue. It reinforces our feeling that we're on the right track, that we're pursuing something that doesn't exist in Atlanta, and something that an increasing number of Atlantans are looking for."
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