Black bridgebuilder honored at Stone Mountain Park

At park famed for its Confederate carving, bridge built by Washington W. King is first addition to National Register of Historic Places

A century-old covered bridge at Stone Mountain Park — home of the world’s largest Confederate monument — is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was built by a Black man.

“It speaks to who they were, who we are, and more importantly to who we can become,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said at an emotional Friday ceremony recognizing the bridge and its groundbreaking builder Washington W. King.

“In this park that was built on the concept of bigotry and racism,” Thurmond said, “this bridge opens a whole new opportunity and panorama for us and the state to bridge the divides that have separated us. And to evolve into better people.”

ExplorePromised changes to Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain slow coming

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The bridge — which today helps connect Robert E. Lee Boulevard to “Indian Island” — was completed in 1891 by King, the son of renowned engineer and bridgebuilder Horace King. The elder King bought his own freedom after being born into slavery.

What’s now known as the Washington W. King Bridge originally crossed the Oconee River in Athens, tying more rural areas to the University of Georgia. After being knocked out of commission by a pair of floods, the bridge was moved to Stone Mountain Park in DeKalb (and reinforced with granite and concrete) in 1965.

During Friday afternoon’s ceremony, Thurmond, an Athens native, recalled riding across the bridge with his sharecropper father. The CEO declared it Washington W. King Day in DeKalb as park officials announced the nearby walking trails would also bear King’s name.

“W.W. King, as well as his family and descendants, have been great bridgebuilders, literally and figuratively,” said Stone Mountain Memorial Association chairman Rev. Abraham Mosley.

“We at (the memorial association) are striving to build bridges of collaboration, understanding and appreciation for our many similarities as Southerners, Americans and simply people,” Mosley said. “This beautiful and well-designed bridge has been doing just that for 131 years.”

While a formal recognition for the bridge had been discussed for a few years, the memorial association board formally agreed to seek a federal designation in May 2021.

It was part of a package of initiatives meant to help soften Stone Mountain Park’s Confederate reputation.

Stone Mountain is the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan and a park dedicated, by state law, to the glorification of the Confederacy. But the county where it sits, DeKalb, is now a majority Black community, and social justice protests in 2020 reignited calls for removal of Confederate imagery at the park.

Park leaders have largely balked at wholesale changes like removing the mountain’s infamous carving of Confederate leaders or renaming streets that bear similar names. But, under economic stress and pressure from activists, they have vowed to become more welcoming by “making additions” and providing more context about the history of the Civil War South and the mountain itself.

Progress on that front has been relatively slow.

Some 16 months later, the memorial association has not yet moved a cluster of Confederate flags that fly at the base of the mountain’s walk-up trail. Relocating them to a different area of the park, activists say, would at least mean visitors seeking to summit the mountain for exercise or entertainment wouldn’t see the flags without specifically seeking them out.

Memorial association CEO Bill Stephens recently told the AJC that the flag plaza was “put on the back burner” during the park’s transition to a new private management company. It’s unclear when the project might resume.

The memorial association also approved last year the creation of a new “truth-telling” exhibit at the park’s on-site museum, which leaders have vowed will lay bare the ugly history of Stone Mountain and its Confederate carving. The carving’s creation has ties to the Jim Crow era and the rebirth of the Klan as well as, decades later, state leaders’ resistance to desegregation.

ExploreWhat 'telling the truth' about Stone Mountain might look like

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A request for proposals from museum companies interested in creating the exhibit was issued last October and the submission period ended in April.

Stephens has said a winner could be chosen as soon as next week. The memorial association board is scheduled to meet on Monday.

Two great-great-great-grandnieces of Washington W. King, meanwhile, traveled from other states to attend Friday’s bridge ceremony.

Kathleen King and Rebecca King Rosenberg said they hadn’t previously known a lot about Stone Mountain’s history or its potential for a more inclusive future.

“If Washington King has something to do with” the latter, King Rosenberg said, “we are honored.”

“And that’s a lot to live up to for us.”