Historic Decatur home of ‘Confederate heroine’ rebranded

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The Mary Gay House, now known as 716 West, is a popular wedding and event venue

Mercedes Ball stood behind a microphone in the back room of an antebellum house in Decatur last week, getting a little teary-eyed as she spoke.

“I make a conscious effort not to be prideful about much,” she said. “But today, I’ve never been prouder to be a member of this organization.”

The organization? The Junior League of DeKalb County, which for decades has helped local women learn leadership skills and maximize their contributions to the community.

The reason for the tears? A rebranding of the house on West Trinity Place that serves not only as their headquarters but a popular wedding and event venue.

The historic home will, moving forward, be known as 716 West, a nod to its street address. It will no longer bear the name of Mary Gay — the slave-owning, so-called “Confederate heroine” who once lived there.

“She was just a nasty person,” Laurel Wilson, a public historian and genealogist who has studied local Black heritage, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And there’s really no reason to laud her at all.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

‘Life in Dixie’

Mary Ann Harris Gay was born in Jones County, a little north of what would become Macon, in 1829. She died alone in a Milledgeville hospital 89 years later.

In the intervening years, she’d be raised on family plantations in various parts of the state, establish her own home in Decatur, witness the Union siege of Atlanta and, by writing a book describing her wartime experiences, become an early champion of Lost Cause mythology and the Confederate monuments that remain objects of contention more than a century later.

Gay’s “Life in Dixie During The War” was first published in 1892, nearly four decades before the controversial blockbuster it’s said to have helped inspire: fellow Atlantan Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind.” The earlier work provides a harrowing tale of Gay’s survival during the war, her pluckiness in the face of the “beasts” from the North, and her work to aid and care for Confederate soldiers.

The Atlanta Constitution praised it at the time as a “conspicuous success.” Joel Chandler Harris, the Georgian author best known for his “Uncle Remus” folktales, dubbed it “one of the sources from which history must get its supplies.”

But Gay’s tale also takes great pains to paint slavery as a benevolent institution.

Credit: GEORGIA ARCHIVES

Credit: GEORGIA ARCHIVES

Right in her introduction, she claims that enslaved people “received in return more than any other people in bondage has ever received — as a usual thing, good wholesome food, comfortable homes and [clothing], and tender treatment in sickness.” She claims that “no people held in bondage ever received so many benefits,” describes slavery as having evils “far greater to the slaveholder than to the slaves.”

This is all false in a universal sense, of course. But also in Gay’s life specifically.

In a book published in England in 1854, a former slave named John Brown described at great length horrific treatment endured at the hands of Gay’s own grandfather and uncle.

In “Life in Dixie,” Gay writes about a 16-year-old enslaved boy named Toby who dies of exhaustion and illness after helping her spirit supplies to Confederate forces.

“...as I held his soft black hand in mine,” Gay wrote, “I thought of its willing service to ‘our boys,’ and wept to think I could do no more for him, and that his young life was going out before he knew the result of the cruel war that was waged by the Abolitionists!”

Gay was destitute after the war, having invested her family’s fortunes in Confederate war bonds. She hawked her writing — including a set of poetry later mocked by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” — as a means of survival.

She was a charter member of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that became primary propagators of a sanitized version of the pre-Civil War South and the perpetuation of white supremacy.

In 1908, a decade before Gay’s death, they installed a 30-foot monument to the Confederacy outside of what’s now the Historic DeKalb County Courthouse.

It came down just recently.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

‘The focal point’

The Junior League of DeKalb County purchased Gay’s house in the late 1970s, saving it from destruction by moving it from its original site along downtown Decatur’s Marshall Street. They restored the home and added rooms on the back to host community events.

It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, until very recently, has been known simply as “the Mary Gay House.”

The road to changing that began in 2020, during the same nationwide reckoning that ultimately led to the removal of Confederate obelisk on the nearby square. Junior League President Beth Daniell said her organization — which only in the last decade or so has gone from a majority white members to a majority Black — quickly began looking for ways to “make the outside [of the house] match the inside.”

In an “overwhelmingly approved” vote, they decided to rebrand as 716 West.

Fonta High, a spokesperson for the local Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, called the decision “timely,” with DeKalb County’s looming bicentennial offering an opportunity to “remember the Confederacy’s attempt to keep stolen African people enslaved to further develop the land so that elite white families could establish their wealth.”

While changes to the Mary Gay home’s public branding is a step away from honoring one of the county’s most famous slaveowners, there may be more work to do.

There’s still a historic marker out front that pays homage to Gay as a “Confederate heroine.” The junior league owns the house but the city of Decatur owns the land it sits on — and Georgia law prohibits the removal or relocation of Confederate monuments on public property.

(The Decatur obelisk, like some others in the state, was removed via creative legal means; a county judge ruled it to be a “public nuisance” after it was vandalized multiple times).

The Junior League is exploring its options, including seeking a legal opinion about whether or not the marker actually qualifies as a monument.

“It’s important that we acknowledge the history that comes with the house,” Daniell said. “But it doesn’t need to be the focal point anymore.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com