From our front porch you can see Leete Hall, an inspiring red brick, white trimmed historical-looking building, peering out over the treetops at the end of our street, Gammon Avenue. All who view Leete Hall are captivated by its strength and beauty. The land it sits on has been idyllically described as "gently rolling and wooded hills." The South Atlanta neighborhood, once a hub of all that was healthy, intelligent and spiritual, surrounds the building. That was many, many years ago… After the end of the Civil War, African American neighborhoods began to spring up in southern cities. South Atlanta was one. Because there were clearly defined patterns of segregation designed primarily for the containment of the newly freed African American population, these communities generally developed around institutions such as churches and schools. South Atlanta was no different. Soon after slavery had ended the Freedmen's Aid Society, a society of northern Methodist's who believed in the intellectual and moral elevation of the recently-freed African Americans, began its first major educational effort in our neighborhood. Their goal was to develop a school into a fully accredited institution of higher learning.
To that end, the Freedman's Aid Society established Clark University (now Clark Atlanta University), "to promote learning, afford suitable opportunities for the acquirement of knowledge, and to foster piety and virtue as essentials of proper education." Gammon Theological Seminary began as a Department of Religion and Philosophy at Clark. By 1883, through a gift of $20,000 from Reverend Elijah Gammon (a member of the Aid Society), Gammon Theological Seminary was officially opened. A few years later Reverend Gammon willed additional funds to bring his total endowment gift to more than $650,000. This educational anchor became the springboard for the establishment of a healthy neighborhood.
Surrounding the school, the South Atlanta neighborhood was strategically mapped out and planned by the founders of Clark University and Gammon Theological Seminary. The school"s founders formed committees to lay out the streets and lots, advertise them for sale, and encourage development. The neighborhood developed outside the then-city limits of Atlanta because of segregation, but once the railroad began its expansion towards the southeast side of downtown South Atlanta had the transportation crucial for growth and development. In fact, the railroad lines still intersect in South Atlanta and the train's whistle can be heard throughout the area, especially from our bedroom in the middle of the night! At the turn of the century, the population was approximately 700 and was considered one of the best areas for African Americans to reside. Most of the homes were owner occupied and described "as good as the white-owned homes". Magnolia Lane, within walking distance from our home, was and still is a captivating and fragrant path full of tress, considered one of the most beautiful areas of its kind in all of Atlanta.
At the entrance to the neighborhood leading directly to the local campus, Gammon Avenue was the most prestigious address in South Atlanta. Two houses down from ours is a large two-story, haphazardly restored, vacant blue house built by Dr. Price, a businessman and Atlanta's first African American postmaster. Three houses down is a boarded up green house where the former dean of Clark College once lived. Other faculty and administrators lived throughout the community (many neighborhood streets bear their names). In these once-fine homes students enjoyed Sunday meals with their professors and received a little extra tutoring before exams. The campus was on one end of Gammon Avenue, and at the other end there was a thriving business district. The business corner boasted the Price General Store and Post Office. Adjacent buildings housed a restaurant, ice cream parlor, beauty shop, bakery, cab company, physician’s office, shoe shop, and theater.
In the early 1940s, though, the community lost its anchor. Clark University and Gammon Theological Seminary relocated to the west side of Atlanta. Professors sold their homes. Student housing, an L-shaped brick complex that can be seen from our home, was sold to an absentee landlord. The philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, economists and budding leaders left. The economic base also left with them. Then in the 1950s a 990-unit public housing project was developed on Clark and Gammon’s campus. Originally hailed as a landmark provision for the poor, Carver Homes would eventually become an alienated breeding ground for trouble. The inspiring Leete Hall edifice eventually became part of Carver High School and picnickers have never again visited Magnolia Lane. The theater was converted into a liquor store. The Price General Store and Post Office became J.D.’s Tavern for a while, and then was abandoned. Several vacant homes, including the house that once stood on our lot, were so badly neglected that the city bulldozed them down. In the places where wisdom, community, and health once flourished, now old tires, junk appliances and waste are dumped. Our property ended up becoming a cut-through for liquor store customers. Over time South Atlanta would become 80% rental occupants and the vested homeowners were a dwindling minority. The transition was nearly fatal to the neighborhood.
But more than historical street names and the deteriorating reminders of splendid architecture remain. Still holding on are a faithful remnant of aging residents who remember what the neighborhood once was and envision what it can be once again. Because of their persistence and prayers, a new generation of young professionals with faith, goodwill, and determination is starting to return. We have been caught by that early pioneering spirit, along with a growing number of others—house by house, block by block we are taking on the places that have plagued the neighborhood. The theater, turned liquor store, has been recently renovated into the Gateway Building, which will now house a community center, offices and retail. The public housing project has been demolished and replaced by mixed income apartments. FCS's housing branch is acquiring all vacant land possible in order to build charming homes for low-income families as well as attractive homes for young professionals. Our community chaplain spearheads multiple programs for families and neighborhood children. Volunteer groups regularly join us in important neighborhood repair and clean-up projects. Our house now occupies what once was a place for illicit activity. The post office turned local tavern is now an innovative loft-style dwelling for a couple and their baby daughter.
Our organization's efforts are neither new nor novel. We are simply carrying on the legacy of South Atlanta's rich history and continuing the good work that began over a century before us. Gammon's glory was dimmed for a while, but its light is increasingly shining again!
Chris and Rebecca Gray
*Special thanks to Dee Robinson for her research. Thank you also to the Spring's, Haygood's, Allen's, Mrs. Partridge, Mrs. Thomas, and Nicholas' for sharing their stories.