Chamber leader says Decatur street name erased vital links to past, community

DeKalb Chamber in 1984 said ‘Commerce Drive’ in Decatur denoted progress; Original name, says Chamber leader now, reflected people’s history

Decades of urban renewal projects had started to pay off in Decatur by 1984. The tiny city that considered itself the cultural and business center of DeKalb County was growing.

New office buildings replaced aging hotels, and “grand opening” signs welcomed customers to shops and restaurants. The DeKalb Chamber of Commerce had just moved into a hulking red brick building on the northern edge of downtown.

Its leaders, coming off the Chamber’s 45th anniversary celebration, asked the Decatur City Commission for a gift. They wanted to name the street where the headquarters was located after their organization.

This is the origin story for Commerce Drive.

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Little attention was paid at the time — or in the 35 years since — to what was there before. Half of what is now Commerce Drive used to be Oliver Street. That road was named after Henry Oliver, a former slave and one of Decatur’s first entrepreneurs.

Back in 1984, Chamber leaders and city commissioners paid little attention to the people who argued against the street name change and what they believed was an erasure of Oliver’s legacy. But now, 35 years later, a powerful advocate from with the Chamber itself is taking up the cause.

Katerina Taylor, the Chamber's president and CEO, learned about the origins of Commerce Drive last year while combing archives for the organization's 80th anniversary. She learned that Henry Oliver was also a landowner who sold parcels to black and white families and helped shape early Decatur.

Taylor discovered that the City Commission signed off on the name change without considering the impact on people who had ties to the historic black neighborhood where Oliver Street originated and where Henry Oliver once worked and lived. In fact, many of them had no idea it was happening until it was too late to do anything about it.

‘A community who remembers’

“There is still a community who remembers,” Taylor said recently. “There are probably some open wounds from that as well.”

Initially, she was unsure what to do about this information. Then she read in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about efforts in DeKalb and elsewhere to expose and atone for past mistreatment of African-Americans.

This was another example of DeKalb’s “hidden history” that needed to be told and rectified, Taylor decided. And she believes the Chamber should take the lead, just as it did when it drove the campaign in 1984 to rename Oliver Street.

“The oral story that is told to everyone that comes to the Chamber is: The street was named after the Chamber,” she said. “While I believe the Chamber is still very significant to this community, I think it is important to be thoughtful about the community’s past. It is who we are, it is how we determine where we want to go in the future.”

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Taylor is now in the early stages of a campaign to restore Oliver Street.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the street was part of the Beacon Hill neighborhood where African-Americans lived in a segregated society. Things began to change when Decatur used federal urban renewal grants to overhaul communities and build new housing.

Beacon Hill's homes and businesses were torn down and its residents were relocated farther from downtown as the white ruling class forged ahead with the makeover. The construction of the MARTA line through the center Decatur would provide a final, devastating impact many years later.

Pioneer’s legacy: ‘We had a village’

Meanwhile, Henry Oliver’s legacy was not well documented. He was born in 1826 but the exact day is unknown. Local historians say his father, who was also his slave master, freed him and gave him land southwest of Decatur’s town square.

Oliver owned a blacksmith business, and he sold off his land to both blacks and whites who were some of Decatur’s earliest residents. He died in 1904 without ever being acknowledged as one of the city’s pioneers.

There are no known photos of Oliver, and until recently his grave in a segregated section of the city's historic cemetery was unmarked. This past summer, the Friends of Decatur Cemetery raised the money to install a headstone.

“Patriarch, blacksmith, entrepreneur, valued member of the Decatur community for over 40 years,” it says.

Read more | Decatur's cemetery tells of a vibrant black life a century ago

Also | Decatur to renovate remnants of Beacon Hill community, former all-black schools

Back in the early 1900s when the Beacon Hill community was still intact, Oliver Street was a small stretch between what we now know as Trinity Place and Robin Street. Elizabeth Wilson, who became Decatur's first African-American commissioner and later its first black mayor, found a place on Oliver Street when she moved to the city in 1949.

Beacon Hill had churches, cafes and schools. There were beauty shops, funeral homes and even a theater.

“We had our own community,” Wilson recalled of those days. “I think people forget that we grew up in this separate but unequal world, but we had a life. We had a village.”

By 1984, most of Beacon Hill had disappeared but Oliver Street remained. It had been extended north and east around downtown. Somewhere near Clairemont Avenue, Oliver Street became Columbia Drive.

Although the Chamber’s building was on the Columbia part, the application to rename the street included Oliver Street, too. The Chamber’s president said it would benefit the downtown business district to rebrand the road completely. “It is a name which connotes business and commercial activity,” Sid Johnson said at the time.

The DeKalb Historical Society was among the few to object. Its historians said the plan would erase one of the only visible reminders of Oliver’s contributions to the city. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

One city commissioner said then that residents he spoke to had never heard of Henry Oliver. But there were people in Decatur who had a connection to Oliver and Oliver Street, if only they had been asked.

“They just didn’t know the history of Mr. Oliver,” Wilson said about city leaders during the era of the name change. “I think that there was not enough support to stop it from happening. Like the people who did live here, who did know about Oliver Street: I just don’t think that we had that support.”

Name change not simple

Today, about half of Commerce Drive is controlled by the city and the other half is the purview of the Georgia Department of Transportation. That would require coordination between multiple agencies for the Oliver Street name to be restored.

Opposition from homeowners or businesses with Commerce Drive addresses would complicate things even more. The Housing Authority of DeKalb County is located in the old Chamber building. There are also a large apartment building and a Fellini’s Pizza on Commerce.

One of the first people Taylor spoke to about her plan to rename Oliver Street was Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett, who suggested an alternative. She believes the city could add ceremonial signs along Commerce Drive without officially changing the name.

“I recognize that the street is important, and I believe that the commemorative signs would pay homage and honor to him,” Garrett said. “It would be very easy to accomplish, and it would achieve that recognition without having the addresses changed. Commerce is a very large street.”

Wilson, the former Decatur mayor, is on board with that plan. As a former Oliver Street resident who has worked to preserve and highlight Beacon Hill’s history, she doesn’t think that a name change is necessary to honor Henry Oliver’s contributions.

Plus, she just isn’t sure that another attempt to restore the Oliver Street name would work. People have tried and failed before, leaving Henry Oliver with nothing, she said.

Taylor said she would be amenable to the ceremonial street-sign toppers as a first step. But she still has a goal of officially reclaiming the street name.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It really is a restoration.”

Perhaps the most prominent building on Commerce Drive is the one that houses the county government, including the offices of DeKalb’s chief executive officer and county commission.

CEO Michael Thurmond said he has not been approached about a name change and notes that any decisions would not be up to him because the city controls its streets. However, he is ready to embrace a new address.

“Based on what I know, I personally would be honored just as a citizen of DeKalb County and someone who works in the city of Decatur every day,” Thurmond said.

Taylor is just now starting her campaign. Garrett has invited her to attend a Decatur City Commission meeting to provide some history about Oliver Street and Henry Oliver and outline her street restoration plan.

Taylor also wants to launch an awareness campaign so that more Decatur residents can learn about this history and how Commerce Drive got its name. Even Thurmond, the author of several books about Georgia’s black history, had no idea of the story behind the name change.

Taylor said she is taking the campaign on as a personal project, a responsibility she feels as the leader of the organization behind what occurred in 1984. She wants people who once called Beacon Hill home and who have felt overlooked by previous leaders to know that the Chamber of today wants to make things right.

Hidden History

Henry Oliver, a former slave, was one of Decatur’s first black business owners and a landowner. Oliver Street, named after him, was renamed Commerce Drive in 1984 at the urging of DeKalb’s Chamber of Commerce.

Oliver’s name lives on in Decatur in other ways.

  • A senior living facility on Commerce Drive is named Oliver House, and big brown letters mark the building facade.
  • There is a Henry Oliver meeting room in the Courtyard Marriott hotel on Clairemont Avenue.
  • The city's Beacon Municipal Center, built on the site of the schools that black children attended before desegregation, has historical displays that include nuggets about Oliver Street and its namesake.

“We had our own community. I think people forget that we grew up in this separate but unequal world, but we had a life. We had a village.”

— Elizabeth Wilson, Decatur’s first African-American commissioner and its first black mayor, who lived on Oliver Street in the Beacon Hill community.