“A lot of people have taken money out the community and not invested into it. It is very sad and depressing,” says Tom Houck over the bus’ microphone. “Even Dr. King’s old house is in need of repair. Location after location needs repair. People need to be aware of it.”
‘Makes connection real for people’
On Saturday, Houck, who moved to Atlanta in 1966 to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, planned to launch the King-inspired three-hour tour "through the past, present and future of the civil rights movement."
The tour — one of several civil rights-themed tours throughout Atlanta — starts and ends at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and covers nine miles. Tourists travel down Auburn Avenue, visit the Atlanta University Center, the West End, Southwest Atlanta and South View Cemetery, among other places.
It is a snapshot of black Atlanta that highlights the spots where civil rights history was made.
In his trademark gravelly voice, Houck explains the significance of “Sweet Auburn” and the rise of Maynard Jackson as the city’s first black mayor. Having worked as King’s driver in the late 1960s, Houck knows a million stories: King’s first real job (at a mattress factory, where he quit after two weeks), where he walked to buy cigarettes, shoot pool, eat barbecue.
Judith Service Montier, vice president of marketing for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, attended the recent preview and said the tour brings context to what people later see at the museum.
“What this tour does is dimensionalize history,” said Montier, adding that tour will also come with a voucher for the new museum. “The things you see help you connect the dots to see the strength of the story. It makes the connection real for people.”
But by default, the decay of many historic black landmarks can’t be missed. At least half the sites on the tour are in various states of distress.
‘Many places need to be repaired’
Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will speak Monday at the King Center about preservation. The Sweet Auburn Historic District has been on the organization's radar for years and has twice been on the Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, most recently in 2012.
“Too few places that represent the diversity of our country are in a protected status,” Meeks said. “For a very long time the preservation movement has focused on great houses … like Mount Vernon and Monticello. But we are entering a period where there is a lot more focus on where the stories of America were told.”
Almost immediately after the bus leaves the spotless confines of the National Park Service-run National Historic Site, it rolls down Auburn Avenue deep into the district.
“Many of the places we will see need to be repaired,” Houck says as the bus slowly moves down Auburn Avenue.
The first site is the former headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. The windows of the yellow-brick building that housed the SCLC for much of its existence are whited-out and show few signs of life.
In 2007, a new $3 million headquarters opened a few doors down, leaving the front of the building vacant. Across the street is an abandoned chicken restaurant that a fresh coat of paint can’t hide.
The buildings lies at the heart of what many hope will be a revitalized Auburn Avenue, thanks to the launching of the Atlanta Streetcar, a multimillion-dollar project that carries tourists through Sweet Auburn and parts of downtown Atlanta’s tourist section.
Butler Street Y, home of the Hungry Club
As the bus rolls along the streetcar’s tracks, it passes by the old Butler Street YMCA.
Lifelong Atlanta resident Albert Cooper, who will be one of the tour guides, mentioned that the building was once an important meeting place. The first black police officers in the city were stationed there, and the Hungry Club Forum met there for decades.
“In 1956, Forbes Magazine called this the richest black street in America. Because they were shut out of other areas, black businesses congregated on Auburn Avenue. Nobody had to go out of this neighborhood for anything that they needed.”
When Andrew Young first moved to Atlanta in 1960, two decades before he was elected mayor, he lived in the Butler Street YMCA.
The building is now completely boarded up.
As the bus continues across town, it spots Morehouse College’s Ray Charles Performing Arts Center and stops at the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel.
But to get there, it had to pass through Morris Brown, where the historic 133-year-old Fountain Hall is boarded up; where the former honors dorm Gaines Hall is falling down; and where the burned-out shell of Sarah Allen Quads barely stands.
Further into the trip, it is hard to see the former home of Grace Hamilton, the first black woman elected to the state Legislature, because of the weeds and growth.
It is across the street from the Herndon Home, a grand mansion – itself in need of a rehab – built by a former slave Alonzo Herndon, who rose to become the city’s first black millionaire.
A visit to King’s home in Vine City
A highlight of the trip is a stop in Vine City, where King lived until his death in 1968 and Coretta Scott King remained until moving to Buckhead shortly before her death.
The modest brick home is remarkable in its simplicity. But unlike King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue, there are no signs announcing it. No pilgrimages to it.
Houck recalled playing football in the tiny front yard with Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, who unironically called him “Uncle Tom.”
King’s blue 1964 Chevy Impala — that Houck drove — is still in the garage.
The King Estate is working to refurbish the house. Talks to have the property assumed by the National Park Service have been on and off since the late 1990s.
Before King moved to Sunset Avenue, he lived in houses on Boulevard and on Johnson Avenue. Both have been torn down.
“It shows we don’t have the appreciation of history that we should,” Houck said.