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For Black History Month: What's in a street name?

Have you ever found yourself stopped at a traffic light, glancing up at the street sign and pondering the origin of the road's name?

Atlanta has a multitude of streets named after people, places and things that are often immediately identifiable: Ralph McGill Boulevard, Lawrenceville Highway and Peachtree Street are just a few.

But what about the street names that aren't so obvious?

In celebration of Black History Month we decided to dig behind the stories of a handful of roads named after lesser-known individuals. You won't find Andrew Young International Boulevard or Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive included here. However, you will find a collection of streets named after men who made a significant mark in the struggle for African-American civil equality in Atlanta.

Previously known as Houston Street, John Wesley Dobbs Ave. runs parallel to the Freedom Parkway, just a few blocks over from Auburn Ave. Fitting because the man the street is named after was once referred to as the unofficial "Mayor of Auburn Avenue." Born in 1882, Dobbs' work with the community there, involvement with the NAACP and his continued efforts to achieve racial equality in segregated Atlanta made him a much-beloved figure within the city's African-American community.

“He was a very grandiose character,” says Paul Crater, the vice president of research services at the Atlanta History Center. “He was very active in Atlanta politics when the black community was searching for unity. He helped form the Atlanta Negro Voter's League and was a heavy promoter of Auburn Avenue businesses."

Another interesting note about Dobbs, who passed away in 1961: he was the grandfather of the late Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Also in the Auburn Avenue area, William Holmes Borders Drive was once called Yonge Street. The man the road is named for served as a minister for the Wheat Street Baptist Church for more than 50 years (1937-1988).

During that time, he was active in campaigning for civil rights and stepped up to become a leading spokesman for the city's poor and homeless. He was at the forefront of many firsts in the city of Atlanta: the hiring of black police officers in the 1940s, desegregation of public transportation in the 1960s and the establishment of the nation's first federally subsidized housing project in the 1960s. Borders passed away in 1993 at the age of 88.

The street formerly known as Sewell Road, Benjamin E. Mays Drive runs parallel to Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta.

“Dr. Benjamin Mays was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.,” Crater explains. “As the president of Morehouse College, he was very influential with the students. They looked to him as the embodiment of what it meant to be a ‘Morehouse Man.'"

Born in 1894, Mays was an outspoken and articulate critic of segregation in a time well before the modern civil rights movement. The author of “Born To Rebel,” he came to be seen as not just a leader for the black community, but for the city as a whole. Mays passed away in 1984 at the age of 89.

Joseph E. Boone Boulevard still frequently comes up as Simpson Road on any number of GPS modules. Located in the West Lake area, it is surrounded by Maddox Park and Washington Park. Named after a key civil rights organizer who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., residents of the area have been slow to take to the name change and most still don't know who Boone is.

“I have no idea who he is,” said a woman who answered the phone at City of Refuge, an organization that provides assistance to needy families.

Boone was a central organizer of the Atlanta civil rights movement during the early 1960s. In addition to King, he also worked with Ralph David Abernathy, John Lewis and Andrew Young.

In a 2006 article published in the AJC, State Representative Tyrone Brooks proclaimed Boone "an unsung hero who never received the proper credit for all he did.”

In 2003, he was awarded the Civil Rights Legend Award and in 2006 he was given special recognition by Congress. He died at 83 in 2006.

Jesse Hill Jr. Drive is located right in the heart of Atlanta. It's a short street, once known as Butler Street, and populated predominantly by offices for physicians, medical professionals and Grady Memorial Hospital.

Hill is a former CEO of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. He also served as the first African-American president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and he was appointed chair of the Minority Business Resource Center by then-President Jimmy Carter.

“He was heavily involved with the Atlanta Student Movement in 1960,” Crater, the Atlanta History Center official, recalls. “As an activist, he was instrumental in the boycotts of stores like Woolworth, Rich's and Kress.”

Born in 1926, Jesse Hill Jr. can boast one claim to fame none of the other individuals included here can: he's still alive.

In 2008, he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was a recipient of the prestigious Ivan Allen Award. Hill will turn 84 in May.