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Working to Save, Restore Historic Black Structures in Georgia

Many sites across the state that were important during the modern civil rights movement have met the 50-year threshold for historic consideration in recent years, but finding the money to save the crumbling buildings is a challenge.

a woman stands in front of Gaines Hall of Morris Brown College in Atlanta
Morris Brown College alumna Carmen Richardson poses for a photo across the street from Gaines Hall, the dorm she resided in as a freshman in 1975 on Tuesday, September 5, 2023. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Carmen Richardson has a hard time driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Atlanta’s west side.

It used to not be that way.

When she arrived in Atlanta in fall 1975 from Orangeburg, South Carolina, she had never seen anything as grand and beautiful as her freshman dormitory at Morris Brown College — Gaines Hall.

Built in 1869, Gaines Hall was the first permanent building on the Atlanta University campus. By the time Richardson arrived more than a century later, it was a freshman dorm for Morris Brown women, who still ran around campus wearing purple beanies.

“That building means so much,” said Richardson, who is retired from Delta. “Gaines Hall was my introduction to college life, so it holds a dear place in my heart.”

Fast forward 48 years and Gaines Hall is a burned-out husk, a giant shell that took a series of fires — the last one in February — to finish destroying what vagrants, indifference and financial neglect had already started.

“It breaks my heart to see it now,” Richardson said.

That story is a common one in Atlanta and throughout Georgia.

Ben Sutton, the preservation director for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, said that over the last decade, preservationists and conservationists throughout the South have seen a rise in attention paid to crumbling, but historic, Black spaces.

In part, that is because many sites that were important or significant during the modern civil rights movement have met the 50-year threshold for historic consideration in recent years. But local organizations and communities have also become more savvy in identifying and mobilizing resources to save important spaces.

“We have seen a real ongoing and growing interest through grassroots advocacy,” Sutton said. “There is a real understanding of the need to recognize underrepresented communities that have been overlooked because they didn’t have high architectural value. But when you consider the historical significance, they are very important.”

Gaines Hall is but one facility of historic significance to Georgia’s Black legacy that the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has targeted as a place that needs to be saved.

Since 2006, the Trust has annually published a list of Places in Peril, to, according to their website, “raise awareness about Georgia’s significant historic, archaeological and cultural resources, including buildings, structures, districts, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes that are threatened by demolition, neglect, lack of maintenance, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.”

“It is fair to say that we have seen an uptick in Black spaces being nominated,” Sutton said. “From a preservation standpoint, we want to preserve as much of the building as possible, no matter how bad it looks. Sometimes it means saving things that don’t look important.”

‘Why Don’t They Do Something?’

For every Gaines Hall, there is a Cherry Grove Schoolhouse, a century-old, one-room schoolhouse in Wilkes County that was rehabbed and refurbished after locals and people whose grandparents once attended the school raised more than $100,000 to save it.

Added to the list of Places in Peril in 2021, the structure has since been removed thanks to a “strong local group and their willingness to see a project through,” said Sutton.

In 2023, the site won the Trust’s Marguerite Williams Award, presented annually to the preservation project that has had the greatest impact in the state.

Built in 1910 behind Cherry Grove Baptist Church, the school was created to educate Black children in the tenant farming community in Wilkes County. It remained in use until 1956.

One-room schoolhouses, heated by pot belly stoves and offering few supplies in terms of books, were often the only option for educating Blacks. Churches or benevolent organizations usually ran them, and students typically only got up to about the fifth or sixth grade.

One of the first students to attend the Cherry Grove School was Ethel Willis Anderson, born in 1900.

Her grandson, the Rev. Ed Anderson, said she likely attended the school for about six years.

Ella W. Hanson attended in the early 1920s and made it through the fifth grade. Her grandson Barrett Hanson grew up in Atlanta but vividly remembers his annual trips to Wilkes County to visit his grandmother, especially during homecoming for Cherry Grove Baptist Church, established in 1875.

After service, he said, his grandmother and others would go out back and look at the old Cherry Grove Schoolhouse, which was barely standing.

“My grandmother would walk around, right to left, then go inside,” Hanson said. “Every year, I would hear the stories of that old school. And every year, she would ask, ‘Why don’t they do something?’ I never knew who ‘they’ were.”

“They” became Hanson, a warehouse and distribution manager for a Japanese-based company in Stone Mountain.

Eight years ago, he helped start the Friends of Cherry Grove School House Inc. and stocked it with a board of people with direct ties to the old school, including Anderson, his wife Kathryn and interior designer Linda Chesnut, who has experience in historic preservation.

The building had a collapsed roof, broken floor, termite damage and broken joists. In addition, the structure — which sits on a gentle slope — was leaning, after part of the foundation had fallen apart.

They raised more than $100,000, with money coming in from as far as Canada; Puerto Rico; Buffalo, New York; and California to rehab the school and get it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But a bulk of the assistance, Hanson said, came from locals.

“Washington and Wilkes County really stepped forward,” Hanson said. “The community that built the school in 1910, with their meager funds, is the same community that rebuilt and refurbished it.”

The school stands on the very spot it did in 1910. Tourists can visit and learn about the school, which now has running water and air conditioning. Three oak trees and five holly trees recently were planted around it to protect it from the harsh winds.

Anderson said despite his grandmother’s limited education, it was a good one — and an inspiring one.

Ethel Willis Anderson’s son, Leroy Anderson Sr. and his wife Veola, had nine children, including Ed Anderson. Each of them — Ethel Willis Anderson’s grandchildren — graduated from college and more than half of them have graduate degrees. One of Ethel Willis Anderson’s great-grandchildren is a graduate of the Harvard University Business School.

“The value that she put on education led to four or five generations to be successful, educated citizens,” said Anderson, assistant pastor of New Ford Baptist Church in Tignall. “So I honor my grandmother by telling the role she played and honoring this schoolhouse.”

‘Too Painful’

In the fall of 1974, a year before Richardson arrived on the Morris Brown Campus, Shyril Beck arrived from Biloxi, Mississippi, as a 17-year-old freshman.

She remembers the friendships made and the one precious phone on each floor. Outside of her window, she could see the historic clock tower atop Fountain Hall, which was across the then-vibrant Hunter Street (now MLK Drive).

Along with Fountain Hall with its iconic clock tower, Gaines Hall was once a jewel of the Diamond Hill section of the heart of Black Atlanta. For decades it housed the sons and daughters of former slaves who sought an education.

But in 2012, Morris Brown College filed for bankruptcy amid years of spiraling financial mismanagement. In 2015, the college emerged from bankruptcy and struck a deal to sell 26 acres of property and buildings to Invest Atlanta and Friendship Baptist Church for $14.7 million. That same year, Gaines Hall caught fire for the first time. It has burned at least twice since 2015 including once this year.

For years after she graduated in 1978, Beck refused to go back to campus because it was too painful.

“With much urging from my classmates and friends, I have started to go back,” said Beck, who will return to campus in October to celebrate her class’ 45th anniversary. “But there is still a sadness. Gaines Hall is too far gone.”

Gaines Hall is now owned by Clark Atlanta University, which didn’t return calls requesting comment. And it isn’t the only building associated with Morris Brown that is endangered. Also on the Georgia Trust’s list of Places in Peril are Furber Cottage, Towns House and the Hamilton House. Although Fountain Hall is not on the list, it has also fallen into disrepair.

Closed since 2003, Fountain Hall is still owned by Morris Brown and is still millions of dollars away from being restored. But through a recent National Park Service African American Civil Rights Grant, the building that once housed W.E.B. Du Bois’ office received a new roof, and the iconic clock tower was restored to its original, natural stone composition.

Kevin James, the president of Morris Brown, said the school, which recently won reaccreditation, is continuing to raise money for Fountain Hall while making incremental repairs.

But something stirs in Sutton when he looks across the street at Gaines Hall.

“The people responsible for taking care of that building have done nothing to make sure that building is preserved,” Sutton said. “The Georgia Trust has tried to offer every opportunity to find a temporary solution. I am concerned that it is intentionally being left that way so someone can argue that it can’t be saved. They are just asking for it to be lost.”

The List

At the request of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Trust provided a list of endangered African American sites throughout Georgia.

Dudley Motel, Cafe and Service Station
In 1958, Herbert “Hub” Dudley, a prominent Black business owner in Dublin, opened the 12-unit Dudley Motel to accommodate Black travelers during the tumultuous civil rights era. Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have stayed at the motel, which was listed in the Green Book. It closed in the 1980s and has been vacant since.

Masonic Lodge #238
Built in 1915 in Dalton, the lodge offered commercial space on the ground floor while the second floor served as the Masonic meeting hall for Black members. It was a vital part of the fabric of a small but vibrant Black community that included a doctor’s office, a beauty shop, a funeral parlor and a school. In April, the Dalton City Council voted to demolish the building after the Masons failed to raise enough money to repair the 108-year-old facility.

Cohutta African American Civic District
The Cohutta African American Civic District represents the history of a small but vibrant enclave of Black Georgians. It consists of three contiguous properties: Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, built in 1941; the Old Colored School, built in 1930; and Andrews Chapel, built in 1902 for a congregation established the 1870s and moved to its current location in 1923. When the district was listed as a Place in Peril in 2021, the project received grant funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation for planning and a feasibility study.

Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home
The Georgia B. Williams Nursing Home was a nursing center and private residence of Beatrice “Miss Bea” Borders, a third-generation African American midwife who helped deliver mostly white children in and around Camilla. But when she noticed the neonatal health disparities among Black women, she opened her home for expectant mothers within her community in 1940. This home became a refuge for more than 6,000 Black mothers who had nowhere else to go, allowing their newborns to enter the world in a safe and healthy environment during the Jim Crow era. It was recently awarded $75,000 from the National Trust African American Cultural Heritage Grant Fund to assist with the stabilization of the building.

Red Oak Creek Covered Bridge
The Red Oak Creek Covered Bridge was built in the 1840s in Woodbury by Horace King. Born into enslavement on a South Carolina plantation, King was a widely respected builder and engineer who was able to travel freely constructing dozens of bridges in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The Red Oak Creek Bridge is the only bridge connected to King that is still in use, but because it has remained open to traffic, there is a consistent threat of damage to the structure.

Chickamauga Masonic Lodge No. 221
A Prince Hall Affiliate of the Free and Accepted Masons, the lodge was organized in 1916 by former enslaved and first-generation freed African Americans. The current building was completed in 1924 after the previous building burned. The interior and exterior of the building need repair. Pressing needs include a new roof and structural evaluation.

Dasher High School
Built in 1928 as the third public high school for African American students in Valdosta, Dasher High School is the only remaining school building from that era. The Coastal Plain Area Economic Opportunity Authority now uses the building to provide services to low-income households, but parts of the building, particularly the auditorium, are unsafe for the public.

Wilkes County Training School
An equalization school established in 1956 by the state to maintain segregation following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Wilkes Country Training School combined students from the county’s roughly 40 rural African American schools and taught first through 12th grades. The building has been vacant since 2011.

229 Auburn Ave.
Built in 1908, this Atlanta structure was home to several Black businesses during the 20th century including Atlanta’s first Black bank. In March 2008, a tornado damaged several buildings in the district and destroyed the Herndon Building, next door. The former home of Atlanta Life Insurance Branch Office, still stands, but it has been vacant for years and was identified by a National Park Service study as the most imperiled building in the Sweet Auburn District.

Beulah Grove Lodge and School
In 1881, Freedman Jack Smith provided the land for a church, lodge and school to be built for the African American community in Douglasville. The building was later constructed by Lodge members around 1910, with a schoolroom for the Pleasant Grove Colored School on the ground floor and a Masonic lodge space on the second floor. Owned by the neighboring Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, the building has not been in regular use for almost four decades.

Imperial Hotel
Built in 1949 by Harvey and Dorothy Lewis Thompson, the Imperial Hotel was Thomasville’s only hotel that exclusively accommodated Black travelers before integration. The hotel featured a restaurant on the first floor and a barbershop, eight guest rooms and communal baths on the second floor. The hotel closed in 1969 and the building was converted to offices. It has been vacant since 2001.

©2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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