The march, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, caps a years-long battle to change the contentious name of a major street that runs through racially mixed neighborhoods on the city’s south side. Organizers of the march expect hundreds of people to participate, including congregants from 24 churches, as well as residents of the surrounding communities of Grant Park and Ormewood Park.
“This is a landmark moment in the history of the city,” said Arthur Breland, pastor of Woodland Hills Baptist Church and organizer of the march. “We shouldn’t forget history. The history of the Confederacy and Civil War should be taught in schools and displayed in museums, but we should not memorialize them and celebrate them. They may have fought nobly, but the cause they fought for was not noble.”
The former Confederate Avenue is just one of at least 25 streets in Atlanta that are believed to be named for military figures and leaders who supported the Southern cause during the Civil War. A blue-ribbon panel convened by former Mayor Kasim Reed recommended in 2017 that those streets be immediately renamed. Now an Atlanta City Council committee is trying to figure out how to fully execute that recommendation. If the lessons of Confederate Avenue are any indication, it will be a long journey.
The removal of Confederate markers has triggered heated debate and sometimes violent confrontations in some parts of the South. Opponents of the changes often argue that activists are trying to erase history. But when Confederate Avenue was officially renamed in October, the decision sparked little outcry. Supporters of the move far outnumbered opponents at public hearings.
That campaign garnered much of the attention last year, but other streets with the same Civil War association went largely unnoticed.
Gordon Avenue NE is a short street in Atlanta’s Lake Claire neighborhood. The road is lined with vintage bungalows and towering Foursquare homes off DeKalb Avenue. It’s a liberal area in the 5th Congressional District represented by civil rights veteran and icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Across town, Gordon Terrace SW is a predominantly African-American, working-class area that’s a stone’s throw from a frontage road along I-20 in the Mozley Park neighborhood.
Both are named for John B. Gordon, a Confederate general who was the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia after the Civil War. He was the state’s U.S. senator and later its governor. The street in Lake Claire is on what was once his former estate, Southerland House, according to the city’s Office of Historic Preservation. Gordon was a developer of the neighborhood, and so far, there has been no movement to change the name of the street.
“I just don’t think (residents) make the connection with the street,” said Joe Agee, president of the Lake Claire neighborhood association. “They are aware of the background, but they’re not clamoring to rename the street.”
The blue-ribbon panel recommended that the city immediately change the names of the streets honoring Gordon, as well as those named after Robert E. Lee; Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan; Stephen Dill Lee, a Confederate soldier and founder of an organization that championed the Lost Cause; and Howell Cobb, an opponent of Reconstruction.
Except for Confederate Avenue, which was named for a convalescent home on the street that served the war’s veterans until 1941, it took considerable research to determine whether those common street names — Lee, Forrest, Cobb — were in honor of rebel leaders. This is one of the obstacles the current City Council committee charged with addressing the street names faces: Long before legislation is drafted, public meetings are held, property owners agree to a new name and the council votes on it, there must be a degree of certainty about exactly whom the street is named for.
“It takes a bit of detective work,” said Doug Young, assistant director of urban design and historic preservation for the city. “There isn’t always explicit evidence as to why a street has a name. You have to compile a case based on inference. Unless you have that archival reference, you have to have that tiny degree of uncertainty.”
Gathering evidence involves looking at the time period when the street was named. Did it happen in the early 20th century, when monuments and other memorials to Confederates were being erected across the South? Or as a reaction to the civil rights movement? Newspaper archives, city legislation records, all can yield clues. So can, as in the case of Gordon Avenue, the street’s location.
Of the 25 streets identified by the blue-ribbon panel, Young’s office could say for certain only that the streets bearing the name Gordon were definitely named for the Confederate general. The other streets have been given a designation of “likely” or that it’s “possible” it is named for a Confederate leader. Only one was ruled out — Dill Avenue in the Capitol View neighborhood.
Those designations — of being possibly named for a certain person, or likely — are sometimes as good as it will get, said Calinda Lee. Lee is vice president for historical interpretation and community partnerships at the Atlanta History Center. Uncovering unassailable documentation can often take years, not months, she said.
“There should be a paper trail, but it might involve forays into many different archives,” Lee said. “This is not a project that is going to be wrapped up in short order.”
But if people drive on these streets every day and have no clue whom they are named for, is any change really necessary? Monuments and memorials can be obvious targets for protesters when they occupy prominent places in public spaces, such as the towering Confederate obelisk in front of the history DeKalb County Courthouse. But streets?
“There’s a reason why, when I’m in Savannah, I travel down Congress Street and not Parliament Street or President Street and not King Street,” said Francys Johnson, former president of the Georgia NAACP. “We changed all the names after the Revolutionary War to reflect the political climate of this new country. Every generation reserves the right to curate their own public space.”
Lee said that, even though she isn’t always certain if a street called “Lee” is named for the Confederate general, that uncertainty doesn’t mitigate the original intent of naming a street after a rebel soldier.
“The function of monuments and street names is to venerate,” Lee said. “The principles of that war and the repression and violence that came after, we don’t want to venerate that.”
The City Council’s street names committee will meet again in the coming weeks. The United Avenue battle was viewed as a success by the committee, and was led by its chair, Council Member Carla Smith. Smith said recently that, for now, the committee was going to use the United experience as a “template” for neighborhoods that want to rename a street on the list. For Grant Park and Ormewood Park, that meant a series of community meetings over several months, petitions to get at least 75 percent of property owners on board with the change, picking a new name, getting a council member to sponsor legislation, then holding a round of public hearings.
Whether other communities feel it’s a process worth undertaking remains to be seen. Pastor Breland of Grant Park, who is co-sponsoring Saturday’s march down United Avenue, said it was a hard journey that he’s happy his neighborhood embarked on.
A small ceremony marking the name change is scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m. at the intersection of United Avenue SE and Edie Avenue SE.
“We’re laying aside the baggage of the past and saying this is a new narrative,” Breland said.
Street name change recommendations
The advisory committee recommended immediately renaming the following streets: Cobb Street, Confederate Avenue, East Confederate Avenue, Forrest Street, Gordon Place and Lee Street.
The committee also asked for more research and guidance on the following streets: Anderson Way, Bartow Street, Bell Street, Cleburne Avenue, Cleburne Terrace, Colquitt Street, Cumming Drive, Deshler Street, Gartrell Street, Hardee Avenue/Circle/Street, Holtzclaw Street, Longstreet Circle, Maney Lane, Manigault Street, Memorial Drive, Miller Drive, Pickett Street, Sayer Street, Stovall Street, Walker Avenue/Street, Walthall Court/Drive/Street, Wetzel Drive, Wilson Street.
Rosalind Bentley is an award-winning feature writer focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food, as they are expressed and experienced in Atlanta. She is a two-time James Beard Award finalist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.