Hartsfield International. What’s missing?

Bill Torpy at Large: A gentle correction for the times the AJC did not call the place where airplanes land Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

It was the Hartsfield that broke the camel’s back.

An AJC website headline Jan. 25 mentioned “Hartsfield” but did not include the airport’s other namesake, so Valerie Jackson complained.

In the previous month, the widow of late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson had jotted down three times where the AJC did not call the place where airplanes land Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. (I had to look up that name before typing it, because I always forget to include “Atlanta,” and I sure don’t want to get a scolding call from Mayor Kasim Reed.

Delta Air Lines planes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport April 15, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. James Davenport, a limo driver awaiting a pickup, sounded like an Atlanta Chamber emissary in talking about the name of the airport, which includes two former Atlanta mayors. “I think they came to the perfect compromise,” he said. “You have the vision of Hartsfield, and then Maynard built it even greater. Both should have their name attached to it. I love my city!”.  (Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images)
Photo: Barry Williams/Getty Images

To be honest, Wendy Eley Jackson, Hizzoner’s daughter-in-law, was polite and unscolding when we spoke. She saw it more as a teaching moment.

The family is tired of Atlanta’s first black mayor becoming Roebuck to Hartsfield’s Sears.

Eley Jackson said the family makes calls and sends emails “as often as we see it. There’s no need for us to be quiet when it’s not right.”

“I think it’s a discredit not to use the name Hartsfield-Jackson,” she said. “I don’t think its done maliciously, though.”

It’s just that TV, the newspaper and online news sites help sway public opinion or reinforce behavior, she said. “You are an influence. People tend to believe you.”

But it looks like the Jacksons need to load up on stationery if they are to continue the campaign. Last week, Miguel Southwell, a high-ranking city official, testified before a congressional subcommittee on airport safety. He mentioned Hartsfield-Jackson several times in his prepared statement, the one written ahead of time. But in discussion, it became “Hartsfield Atlanta.”

Southwell, by the way, is the airport’s general manager.

Likewise, in that hearing, our own Congressman Hank Johnson was spot on with the proper name in prepared statements. But, again, in open conversation, he referred to “Atlanta Hartsfield Airport,” forgetting both the Jackson AND International, which is a bit of a slight to an International City.

And a letter needs to be sent to 2424 Piedmont Road NE, MARTA’s headquarters: The agency’s website has a diagram of “Hartsfield International Airport.”

I got to thinking about all this because a fellow named Dale Hartsfield just wrote a book called “What’s in a Name?” (It’s sub-titled “A Historical Perspective of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, 1925-2014.”)

Hartsfield, who is in the automotive parts business, was the point man for pro-Hartsfield forces in 2003, when an energetic movement pushed to lose Hartsfield and rename the airport Jackson International. The effort gained momentum when Valerie Jackson spoke publicly for the name change and supporters submitted a petition with 42,000 signatures.

The debate largely fell along racial lines, with whites supporting the long-dead mayor and blacks going with the recently departed.

“If we had not fought it, they probably would have named it Jackson,” said Hartsfield. He might be right. A committee appointed by then-Mayor Shirley Franklin recommended staying with Hartsfield’s name. But Franklin, wanting to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness, helped broker a deal that used both names. At the time it was called The Atlanta Compromise.

But compromises, by their nature, leave unhappy constituencies.

Dale Hartsfield, exemplifies one of them. Dale is a distant cousin of Mayor William Hartsfield, Atlanta’s longest serving chief executive (1937 to 1961) who helped create “The City Too Busy to Hate.” The mayor was an unabashed cheerleader for commerce who helped shepherd his hometown away from the viciousness seen in other Southern cities during the Civil Rights Movement.

Although he was a partisan in the airport-naming debate, Hartsfield’s book has a pretty clear-eyed view of history, even mentioning that his relative did not early on support black people voting. The elder Hartsfield did push the city to buy Candler Field, the fledgling airport to the city’s south, and built it step by step until it became an international operation and a regional growth engine.

Hartsfield was at the airport last week selling his book at a Concourse A magazine store. “What’s in a Name?” brims with long-ago photos of men in fedoras and grainy shots that show the airport’s previous incarnations. Ironically, the name changed to Atlanta Municipal Airport in 1929 but people called it Candler Field, into the 1940s, he wrote.

The airport changed to William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in 1971 after Mayor Hartsfield died. Maynard Jackson was elected two years later, a seismic moment in the South.

He oversaw the construction of a new terminal in 1980, which he liked to boast was “ahead of schedule and under budget.” The process mandated minority contracts, which spread the pie around and helped make Jackson an Atlanta icon. His family still does quite a bit of business in airport contracts.

Dale Hartsfield said the name Hartsfield-Jackson dilutes both men’s achievements. He added that Jackson’s name also graces the massive new international terminal.

While visiting Dale at the airport, I took an unscientific survey of popular use, which revealed that “Hartsfield” and “Atlanta Airport” seem to be numbers 1 and 2, with Hartsfield-Jackson still lagging behind.

“We call it ‘Atlanta,’” said Steve Stockmeier, a Delta pilot from Cincinnati, summing up what several pilots said.

James Davenport, a limo driver awaiting a pickup, sounded like an Atlanta Chamber emissary.

“I think they came to the perfect compromise,” he said. “You have the vision of Hartsfield, and then Maynard built it even greater. Both should have their name attached to it. I love my city!”

Mario Jeffrey works the airport ramps and has smelled jet fuel for 22 years. He calls it Hartsfield, as do most people he knows. “I guess since it’s been Hartsfield so long that its etched in people’s minds,” he said, quickly adding, “No disrespect to the Jacksons.”

Valerie Jackson was gracious but firm: “I still try to be patient and understanding when people don’t use the proper name. But it’s been 11 years.” (It will be 12 in October.)

It’s a matter of repeating it again and again, she said. Eventually, one assumes, the proper name will catch on.

“Every time I hear commercials on TV saying, ‘Near Hartsfield,’ I cringe,” she said. “It’s an ongoing struggle, but I’m not going to give up.”

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