East Point, Ga.
During my 12.5 years at Atlanta Tribune, I’ve composed, on average, two bylined pieces per monthly issue (11 per year) plus non-bylined departmental verbiage and online exclusives requisite of a staff writer and associate editorship. For Atlanta Daily World, last I checked, my filing count was close to 800 in roughly a two-year span, many of which have been syndicated to Chicago Defender, Michigan Chronicle and New Pittsburgh Courier. Of those, I’ve selected the following pieces for now. Whether it was the archival research I had to conduct, the interviews, working with interns to build the narrative, or exercising a new compositional muscle, for one reason or another, these are the pieces that stood out to me the most in my efforts to document historical slivers of Atlanta’s institutions within the publications’ editorial scope of primarily business, economics, culture, community development and politics. Eventually, I'll update this with selected works from other publications.*
It’s nearing noon, and the Atlanta City Council has just adjourned for a 20-minute recess in name only. The question prompting the huddled discussion before the 15 members of council returned to adopt the fiscal year 2009 $583.9 million budget was whether the city council should stick to a rigid, across-the-board 2.5 percent cut in every government department or if they should give Mayor Shirley Franklin the leeway to make the cuts where she saw fit to recoup the $140 million budget deficit. The strategy, according to Councilman Ceasar Mitchell, was to skirt an almost inevitable veto by giving the mayor broader discretion in what she chose to cut. The latitude served as a proverbial peace offering for taking her proposed $40 million tax increase — which would raise the current 9.82 millage rate by 0.43 mills — off the negotiation table.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to farm,” mutters Cornelius Key, carefully choosing the words to describe the paradox that is the African-American farmer — he is modern, yet steeped in a complicated tradition of tilling the same soil that was stained with the sweat of enslaved African Americans who, less than two centuries ago, arguably laid the foundation for the United States’ entire economic infrastructure. It is a puzzling conundrum, for in many ways, the black farm is the point of intersection for the African-American experience. Some call it ‘the last plantation’ because, like the system of slavery, many of the policies that govern the trade are still at the mercy of the federal government. Others, more optimistically, deem it the final threshold toward economic sufficiency, as land ownership, in America, often translated into power, citizenship and suffrage. Beyond America’s borders, the connection to the land is even more intrinsic, as the concept of ownership is less defined: Land is simply considered sacred.
In what will likely be historicized as one of its most prescient endeavors, the National Black Arts Festival, in its 25th anniversary year, chose to honor the late Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) as a Legend — a hallowed designation shared with art stalwarts such as Sonia Sanchez, Katherine Dunham and Gordon Parks. Who better to crown a quarter century of being the United States’ largest conglomeration of the African Diaspora’s cultural offerings; and to christen the next 25 years, than the veritable progenitor of the Black Arts Movement, the Black Power Movement’s aesthetic brethren? In this long view genealogy, the National Black Arts Festival becomes only the most recent iteration in a vein of festival-like gatherings dedicated to the arts — free spirited, unapologetic, unassimilated black art.
Morris Brown College exists on hallowed ground. The portraits of distinguished alumni line the walls of the seemingly vacant administration building where the spirits of faculty and students once hustled and bustled. There is no winding, serpentine financial aid line as is characteristic of Historically Black Colleges and Universities at any given time of the year, or rush to register before classes close. There are only two degree programs now, with just a handful of students pursuing them and even fewer faculty members — seven to be exact — to instruct. Yet, there is undeniable history and tradition here — at least enough worth preserving.
Seven minutes. That’s how long it took for the Atlanta BeltLine Driving Tour to make its most persuasive pitch. Quite frankly, it didn’t come from anything said by the tour guide or the hope-filled call for transformation by Mayor Shirley Franklin who booms from a video the underlying premise of why the BeltLine makes sense for the city of Atlanta — “no vision is too bold for Atlanta; no dream is too large. The Atlanta BeltLine Project will transform Atlanta and will define it for the next generation.” Atlanta, after all, has always been an ambitious city. But, if you avert your attention from the guide rattling off stats and figures, and just look out the windows you’ll see it for yourself. On Bill Kennedy Parkway, shortly after pulling off from the tour’s starting point in Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood, there’s a burnt out shell of a boarded housing complex with torn couches strewn across the patches of dirt and grass behind a chain linked fence. Though no longer inhabitable, fronting what used to be the entrance reads a sign: “Welcome Home.”
On the eve of the launch of the Beltline in 2008, a not-yet Atlanta mayoral candidate Senator Vincent Fort chided the City of Atlanta for the amount of economic attention that areas of Atlanta deemed Tax Allocation Districts – or TADs – were getting and would be getting anyway, irrespective of government intervention. “We should not be engaging in developer welfare by setting aside TAD money. I don’t believe we taxpayers should rush to subsidize wealthy developers for areas they were planning on developing anyway.” In the same year, at a public hearing held by Atlanta City Council, members of the community pointed out that TAD money can only be collected and used in economically and social depressed areas and that many sections do not meet that criteria. Furthermore, in order to achieve TAD status; it must be proven that redevelopment would not be possible for the area without government intervention. The areas in question: Piedmont Park, Inman Park, Virginia Highland, Morningside and Ansley Park – not exactly underserved.
A fascinating morsel about Atlanta’s insider politics comes midway into the “Mixing Business and Politics” chapter of Herman J. Russell’s memoir, “Building Atlanta.” At the time, many of Atlanta’s African Methodist Episcopal churches’ bishops were close friends of Russell and businessman Jesse Hill Jr. Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who wanted to be elected to Georgia’s Fifth District Seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, knew he needed to go through the bishops after speaking with local political strategist Fred Bennett. “Nobody can get the preachers together but Mr. Hill and Mr. Russell,” said Bennett. “Why would they come together?” asked Young. “Well, Herman built all those churches and Jessie financed them.”
The West End is not exactly what the USDA would consider a food desert. There's a Kroger within walking distance and on the bus route from the West End Station. But when surveyed, more than 75 percent of West End residents and MARTA customers who responded expressed interest in a fresh market at the station, citing a lack of access to fresh produce and fresh fruit. And so MARTA delivered by launching the Fresh MARTA Markets in an effort to spread its Transient Oriented Development projects equitably throughout the city and bring amenities to its TOD projects that are not currently in transit-dependent communities -- specifically to its weaker, more challenging markets like the south and west side.
Who did Mayor Maynard Jackson think he was? That was the collective sentiment toward Atlanta’s first African-American mayor when he ran and won on a platform of making Atlanta a “World Class City.” In 1974, Jackson told resistant city leadership that Atlanta would move forward with the expansion of then-Hartsfield Airport with 25 percent of all contracts set aside for minority firms. City-wide, between 1974 and 1981, the proportion of contracts awarded by the city to women and minorities increased from 1 percent to an average of 24 percent, worth more than $600 million. In those eight years, nine pieces of legislation designed to ensure minority and woman business participation were adopted by the city council, including a law requiring 25 percent of projects to be filled by minority- and women-owned firms.
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom galvanized thousands in the streets of the nation’s capital. On August 25,1925, A. Philip Randolph helped to establish the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Harlem. It was in August 1791, when the Haitian Revolution rid the country of French colonialism and enslavement — precursors to the Nat Turner Rebellion of August 1831 and Watts Uprising of 1965. It was on August 8, 1978, that the Philadelphia Police Department first raided the MOVE Organization, giving way to the MOVE 9. August also bears the births of Fred Hampton, Mutulu Shakur, Marcus Garvey – whose organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, formed in August 1914 as well. The month also marks the deaths of W.E.B. Du Bois and, much more recently, young Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of the police.
August, Black August, has always been a month of struggle and resistance.
”People is ravin’ ‘bout hard times, tell me what it’s all about. People is hollerin’ ‘bout hard times, tell me what it’s all about. Hard times don’t worry me; I was broke when it first started out.” -- Lonnie Johnson, ”Hard Times” Georgia’s own Ray Charles sang about it too. Hard times. The crooners managed to channel the sentiment well: Hard times are relative and largely tempered by simply living within one’s means. Until recently, African Americans had no choice but to do so. So, it should come as no surprise when it is asserted that the Great Depression affected African Americans severely -- to be sure -- but not dramatically.
Morris Jones chuckles modestly at the notion of his wife, Dr. Brenda Watts Jones, being “nervous” about assuming the helm of Atlanta Technical College — the oft-overlooked higher learning alternative that, 12 years ago, was marked with a poor public school image, low enrollment, and gaping morale amongst the faculty, staff and students alike. It wasn’t that the thought of her being nervous was far-fetched or beyond the scope of her normal disposition, rather, for Dr. Jones, there was little room for trepidation in the grand scheme of things. A firm believer in chance favoring the prepared, she meticulously accounted for every detail and conceived every possible scenario. So, if Dr. Jones was apprehensive about what was arguably the greatest feat by an African-American woman in Atlanta collegiate history — you wouldn’t have been able to tell.
In the books, the final score of the famed ’77-’78 season NCAA Championship matchup pitting the University of Kentucky Wildcats against the Duke University Blue Devils was 94-88, Kentucky. In front of a frenzied crowd of 18,271, Kentucky’s Jack “Goose” Givens score a career-topping 41 points; hitting 18 of 27 from the floor in scoring the third highest total for an individual in the NCAA finals history. No matter. By Lisa Borders’ account, Duke was the winner.
What are the chances of Georgia turning “Blue” in the next election cycle? Dr. William Boone, professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University and political strategist Howard Franklin, wax political on the state of the electorate, past, present and future. Much of what we can predict about the next couple of decades of Southern politics already has its roots in what W.E.B. Du Bois addressed so thoroughly in his text, “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880.” The story of Reconstruction is also the story of the rise of the modern American state — and its respective political and economic consolidations for certain segments of society. If the black “worker,” as Du Bois termed them, was so pivotal in forming the roots of the political landscape of the South — what is the connection between then and now?
Grace Stanislaus describes herself as a child and a product of the African Diaspora. She was born in the Caribbean, on the small island of Carriacou, which is a sister island to Grenada. And true to the story of many immigrants from the West Indies her family relocated to Brooklyn, NY. Her personal and professional journey has led her to extensive travels in Africa during her early 20s when she organized a show of contemporary African art for the Studio Museum in Harlem and another for the Venice Biennale, to directing the Museum of African Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Romare Bearden Foundation in New York before relocating to San Francisco to direct the Museum of the African Diaspora. And now, by design, she’s in Atlanta, to take forward the National Black Arts Festival — an organization at the center of an incredible history and legacy.
*I've posted some of my soft features and travel writing at the creative narrative collective Jump At The Suns.