Stone Mountain: A Confederate memorial in a black neighborhood

People exercise under gray skies Thursday at Stone Mountain Park. A large proportion of the park’s visitors are African-American, despite the park’s Confederate themes. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

People exercise under gray skies Thursday at Stone Mountain Park. A large proportion of the park’s visitors are African-American, despite the park’s Confederate themes. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

About two years ago, about 20 brothers of the DeKalb chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity started gathering on Saturdays at the base of Stone Mountain for the one-mile vertical hike to the top.

“It was convenient. It was well-known. There are no parking issues. You could go around or up the mountain and it was a challenge,” said Erlando Mason, one of the brothers of the black fraternity. “We wanted to become healthy and socialize as a brotherhood.”

But there was always something looming over those weekend workouts. Robert E. Lee, 90 feet tall and 27 feet wide, and his companions Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis are forever astride their noble stone steeds, calling to mind the courage of the Confederate soldier and the squalid legacy of his cause. Stone Mountain is a peculiar monument steeped in loyalty, bravery, white supremacy, racial oppression, the Ku Klux Klan.

And many, perhaps most, of its visitors now are African-Americans.

This may be particularly apparent on Saturday, when Confederate flag supporters are expected to gather at the park to protest the plan to put a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the mountaintop. They are likely to encounter hundreds of African-Americans, doing what they do every weekend, working out in the park, having fun, and minding their business.

Stone Mountain itself isn’t likely to change much during the next millennium. But the neighborhoods around it have undergone a rapid racial transition, flipping from predominantly white to predominantly black, in just a few decades. The result is that people who live nearest the Confederate shrine and are most likely to visit the park are black residents.

“It does have a little impact,” said Mason, 48, who works as an assistant director for patient access at Emory Hospital. “In the beginning, and especially when the Confederate flag controversy was heating up in South Carolina, it created some conversation among the brothers about whether we were going to keep coming. Honestly, it was never resolved and we talked about it both ways.”

'I wouldn't want them to change the history'

Carvings and Confederate symbols notwithstanding, Stone Mountain is a 3,300-acre natural paradise just 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta. It's ideal for family outings, relaxing and exercising.

“None of it bothers me,” said Halima Mason (no relation to Erlando Mason), who uses Stone Mountain regularly to train for triathlons. “I don’t think about it, I just go there to work out. It is history. I see it as a learning experience to go there and learn. And I actually wouldn’t want them to change the history of the mountain. It is what it is.”

When she works out – especially on the weekends – one thing is clear to Mason: there are a lot of black people there.

Jeanine Jones, public relations manager for Herschend, the agency that runs Stone Mountain Park, said the park doesn’t keep demographic information on its 4 million annual visitors.

“Most of the information on this subject is anecdotal, gleaned from visits to the park,” Jones wrote in an email. “While we don’t release demographic numbers on visitors, family reunions or other gatherings at the park, we are proud of the diversity that can be seen on any given day at Stone Mountain Park.”

'I don't even think about the Confederate symbols'

Every month, Penny Moore of the DeKalb Convention and Visitors Bureau, hosts a family reunion workshop. DeKalb likes to call itself the “Family Reunion Capitol of the South,” and Moore spends much of her time attracting and working with families to get them to celebrate their families in DeKalb.

She said about “99 percent” of her clients are black, and a majority of them end up at Stone Mountain, either renting the hotel or reserving a pavilion for the day.

“I would say a decent amount end up there,” Moore said. “A lot of families want a lot of activities. So I sell them on the picnic areas, the many attractions and, of course, the laser show at night. The whole family can take advantage of everything out there. In one place. That is why it is so popular.”

Proximity also plays a role.

DeKalb County, where Stone Mountain sits, is about 55 percent black and the city of Stone Mountain is about 75 percent black. Nearby Lithonia is 85 percent black. There is also a significant amount of apartments near Stone Mountain.

So convenience matters for people looking to get some exercise.

“When I go, I run the six miles from my house, and then run around the five-mile base of the mountain. Then I run home, 17 miles,” said Glenn Smith, a 50-year-old computer programmer, who lives in the city of Stone Mountain and has also taken his family to the mountain for fireworks. “I use it for exercise and the fact that it is a closed loop. There is no traffic, so I can run and feel safe. One less thing I have to worry about. I don’t even think about the Confederate symbols.”

'I am conflicted by the history of it'

Rich Wright is also a regular at the mountain and like Smith, runs with the popular fitness group, Black Men Run. But he is conflicted, a little.

“When I first started coming here, I loved it. I saw black people of all fitness levels out here working out. And I like the park as a training area, but I am conflicted by the history of it,” Wright said Thursday morning before a workout. “I have a problem, but people do have a right to keep their history. As an African-American community, if we are not taking the steps as a whole to do something, I see no need to make a move.”

Wright said following last summer’s activity surrounding the removal of the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre, he heard talk of boycotting Stone Mountain, but nothing ever materialized. Two weeks ago, he renewed his annual parking pass.

Halima Mason, the triathelete, said she knows people who said they would never go to Stone Mountain, because of what it represents.

“They think they are going to go and see people standing on the corner in white sheets. No!” said Mason, a 44-year-old insurance casualty specialist living in Snellville. “I encourage them to go and hang out. They might get a different understanding of what the park is. I hadn’t planned on going, but I might be up there Saturday. I really wouldn’t know what to expect from the flaggers. But they might enlighten me to what I ignore when I go there.”

'We can't blame the people running the park'

Erlando Mason, the Alpha, said he wasn’t sure whether the brothers were going to climb this Saturday – although it has nothing to do with the flag rally. The last few weeks have been rough with the rain and it has been tough to gather brothers.

But while the brothers are still on the fence about the mountain, a shift might be coming. Martin Luther King Jr., is their most famous fraternity brother. With talk of a memorial going up, Mason said the chapter is talking about ways they can become directly involved in the process.

“Boycotting is not the answer,” said Mason, a resident of Stone Mountain. “To make a change, we need to put more pressure on the Legislature to remove the flag. We can’t blame the people running the park.”

Moore, who does the family reunions for the convention and visitors bureau, said that over the “last three-six months,” at least two family reunion coordinators have refused to consider Stone Mountain, based on its history.

“Everything that has happened recently has opened old wounds. Older generations may say this is a wound they can’t close, versus someone in the younger generation who doesn’t care,” Moore said. “I basically try to let them know that that might be one strike against it, but Stone Mountain Park has worked hard to welcome more people. History is history. It is not all about what is on top of the mountain.”