Judy Forte, who led King District for 17 years, retires

Superintendent steps down as birthplace closes and park enters new phase
Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, is retiring at the end of 2023. She was photographed in the King birth home  Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, is retiring at the end of 2023. She was photographed in the King birth home Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Over the next five years or so, the National Park Service is scheduled to pump millions of dollars into the infrastructure of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park to make significant changes while restoring, preserving and adding to its historical context.

As early as today, the Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home will close for at least two years for a complete rehab, followed by the closing of the park’s visitors center. At some point, they will incorporate Auburn Avenue’s old Prince Hall Masonic Lodge Temple, which once housed King’s SCLC office, into the district.

And plans are underway to refurbish King’s old Sunset Avenue home in Vine City and make it a museum.

“This is a very exciting time for us,” said the park’s long time superintendent Judy Forte. But while Forte has put the plans in motion, she will not be around to see them through.

After 17 years at the helm of the urban park dedicated to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the 66-year-old Forte, who has been at the park since 2006, has announced her retirement. Her last day will be Dec. 31.

Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, is retiring at the end of 2023. She was photographed in the King birth home  Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

“I have struggled with the decision, but I feel at peace,” Forte said. “I thought about retiring a couple of years ago, but we were doing so much. But this year... it is time to pass the baton.”

Mark Foust, director of National Park Service’s South Atlantic-Gulf region, said the King site—one of 75 parks in the region, including three in metro Atlanta—is one of the most important and significant sites in the system’s portfolio.

President Jimmy Carter signed a law establishing the 35-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Oct. 10, 1980. Its purpose was to preserve the places where King was born, lived, worked, worshipped and was entombed.

The park, which has 27 employees, with an annual operating budget of $5.5 million, was redesignated a National Historical Park in 2017.

The Eternal Flame burns near the King tomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on Thursday Jan. 10th, 2013.

Credit: AJC file

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Credit: AJC file

Aside from the house and visitor center, the site includes the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and a collection of row houses, though not the King Center itself.

The King Center, which houses the crypts of the Rev. and Mrs. King, as well as historical photos and documents, is still owned by the King family and is not part of the National Park Service.

In 2019, the last full reporting year before the pandemic, the park received 761,000 visitors. Over the 5-year period ending in 2019, the park averaged 625,865 visitors annually.

Foust said 16 of the parks are designed to tell the African-American story.

“What we do at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park has an impact on what we do at the other parks, as it relates to the African-American experience,” Foust said. “What we are looking to do in the future is expand those connections by connecting people to the park and letting them experience what Dr. King experienced at different stages of his life.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site would expand its boundaries to include the former headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on Auburn Avenue under legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Lewis. As president of the SCLC, King led a national campaign to end segregation from this building. Plans include restoring the SCLC office to its original condition. Other legislation would allow for the expansion of the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and the Ocmulgee National Monument. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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With the park on the brink of a new era, Forte’s departure closely parallels her arrival.

In January of 2006, she succeeded long-time superintendent Frank Catroppa, who retired after leading the park for eight years, where he was credited with doubling its attendance and solidifying the site’s place as an important community, civic and civil rights destination.

Catroppa left Forte – who at 49-year-old was the first Black woman and first product of the Civil Rights Movement to lead the park, one of the country’s most active national parks and one of Atlanta’s biggest tourist attractions -- with a long to-do list.

Topping that list was a $4 million project to renovate the inside of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, restoring the building to its 1960s condition, complete with coral pink walls, when King served as co-pastor with his father.

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church
407 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312
Throughout its long history, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a spiritual home to many citizens of the "Sweet Auburn" community. Its most famous member, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptized as a child in the church.
 (FRANK NIEMEIR/AJC staff)

Credit: Frank Niemeir

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Credit: Frank Niemeir

Just days after Forte was named superintendent, Coretta Scott King, whose work to honor the legacy of her husband helped create the park district, died.

Her death, followed shortly by the passing of Martin and Coretta’s eldest child Yolanda, prompted an unprecedented surge in attendance and activity within the King district.

“It was a lot, but if I had come in the middle of a lot of things that Catroppa had done, I would have been unsettled,” Forte said. “He completed a lot of what he started, so I was able to bring my vision and bring my team to support a vision that I had for the park.”

A native of Phenix City, Ala., Forte’s family closely followed King’s work.

She was seven years old when her father participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march and was one of the first Black students to integrate her middle school. She studied physical education and forestry at Tuskegee Institute.

After 17 years at the helm of the urban park dedicated to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,  long-time superintendent Judy Forte is stepping down. The 66-year-old Forte, who has been at the park since 2006, has announced her retirement. Her last day will be Dec. 31.

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

While in college, she took her first jobs with the National Park Service—at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and at the George W. Carver Museum on Tuskegee’s campus.

She spent 13 years at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, then three years as superintendent of the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Daviston, Ala.

Forte then went to the Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, where she served as chief ranger, and acting associate regional director for park operations and education, before coming to the King site.

“Judy has taken the park a long way, helping the public realize the legacy of Martin Luther King,” Foust said. He added that an interim superintendent will be named in January until a permanent one is hired.

“The new leader will bring their own perspective, vision, style of management and ability to work with the community. All of that is personal to them,” Forte said of the park’s future. “That is what is going to make them successful in that park, which is so iconic and important.”

A photo caption with the Black history sites story on page B2 of the Jan. 27 Go Guide incorrectly stated the relationship of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home to the King Center. The home is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Credit: Jessica McGowan/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Jessica McGowan/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

King was born in the home of his maternal grandparents in 1929 and lived there until he was 12 years old. Until the National Park Service started giving tours of the home in 1984, a visitor might have been guided through the home by Coretta Scott King or King’s sister, Christine King Farris, who initially went about preserving the home while building King’s legacy.

In 2018, the Park officially purchased the home, as well as the house on Sunset Avenue where King lived until his death.

The room where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born will once again be on display beginning Monday, Jan. 15. AJC file photo

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The first step in the site’s next phase will be the rehabilitation of the King Birth Home, which had more than 80,000 visitors in 2019.

Like Ebenezer, the house will go back to its 1930s glamour with period-era windows, wallpaper, furniture and fixtures. The $4.8 million rehabilitation will also include fixing leaks and flooring; upgrading electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems; shoring up the foundation; and fencing in the backyard.

Sometime in 2024, the visitors center, which had 400,000 visitors in 2019, will close to install new restrooms, upgrade the HVAC system, and address roof, flooring and water issues.

Later, the park will partner with the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge to interpret King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference Office once the Lodge completes its restoration. And the Sunset Avenue property, about three miles from the main King site, will become a museum to tell King’s story up to his death.

The Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue, built in 1940 and the first home to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the first Black-owned radio station, is set to be renovated with parts of it being used for the National Park Service King Memorial Site. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

For Forte, who said she will work until New Year’s Eve, it is time to go.

Her mother is aging and her grandkids are getting bigger. She plans on spending more time with her husband and traveling. She may even write a book.

“We still have a lot going on,” Forte said. “But I have done my part.”

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