AARL and Hammonds House Museum Artist’s Talk

I recently heard that to have meaning; history must have both occurrence and narrative. Although I was not here as part of creating history, I am proud to be part of creating the narrative through images, a book, and video.

When I first came to Collier Heights, I was visiting a friend who had just moved into the neighborhood. By then, Collier Heights had achieved national historic designation and was working towards local designation as a way to protect at least the appearance of Collier Heights if not the social construct.

At the time I was interested in portraiture and I had been studying Bill Owens’ “Suburbia” project and of course knew about the iconic “American Gothic” painting by Grants Woods that Gordon Parks had modeled his portraits after of his earlier classmates from Fort Scott, Kansas.

In 2010, I had asked several of the Collier Heights residents whether I could make their portraits as a way to extend the portrait project that I was working on with my old fashioned large format camera.

As I learned about the people’s stories, I set out to capture the proud homeowners framed by distinctive architectural features of wrought iron and brick.

What I didn’t know, at that particular time, was that I was capturing an important part of American history.

Many of us have heard about the great black American figures that lived in the neighborhood such as Hamilton E. Holmes, Ralph Abernathy, Leroy Johnson, Geneva Haugabrooks, Martin Luther King Sr., Herman Russell, and Asa G. Yancey, just to name a few. However, when I recently visited Iris Williams and she commented upon seeing her words in my book, “I really was part of history” – it made me start to think.

It made me start to think, what would Atlanta be like if the Williams, Benton and Maize family didn’t move onto Godfrey Drive as the only three black families in the already established white neighborhood in 1954.

What if Dr. William Bruce Shropshire, III, Dr. Harvey B. Smith, Dr. Charles Shorter, Dr. Calvin Brown and their associates did not take the chance of investing in Woodlawn Development Company that later became the area of Woodlawn Heights?

What would Atlanta be like if Dr. McLendon had not overcome the obstacles that black men faced in purchasing property in the 1950s and purchased a wooded tract of land from Mr. Ham to create Royal Oaks Manor?

Would Atlanta and America be the same if Mr. Alfred Knox did not create an entertainment area in his basement that also held important neighborhood meetings?

What would the public health system in Atlanta be like if Mrs. Dorothy Knox wasn’t willing to go to Virginia to get her degree and then come back to settle in Collier Heights and work as a public housing specialist in Perry Homes and Bowen Homes?

What would Atlanta be like if Iris Williams had not been there the day that Grady Hospital was integrated moving “one white patient, one black patient, all day long?”

What would the U.S. Postal System be like for black Americans if Mr. Evans hadn’t decided to take a chance on Atlanta, hadn’t taken the postal exam and become superintendent changing working conditions for black workers?

What would be the impact on the children of Collier Heights if Mrs. Elsie Evans hadn’t been so many kids’ favorite English teacher at Turner High?

How many children would have struggled in math if Dr. Harriett Walton hadn’t studied for her doctorate at the same time as raising three children and establishing a home in Collier Heights?

Would Collier Heights be such a close-knit neighborhood if Dorothy Cotton Johnson, Sylvia Andrews, and Connie Pruitt had not kept the Larchmont-Kildare community club going all these years?

And would Jeffrey Tompkins and J. T. Blasingame have moved back into the neighborhood with their young families if it hadn’t been for teachers like Mrs. Dansby who still lives on Caron Circle?

What would Harwell Heights Park be like if Billy McKinney had not secured a $7,500 grant for lights in the 1970s?

The legacy of Joseph W. Robinson is visible as we ride through the neighborhood and look at the homes he designed.

With the personal stories of the lives of residents, Collier Heights has meaning – important meaning – for those who settled here, lived here, and remain here.

But the meaning reaches far beyond that into the lives of American across the country.

Not unlike how the 54 subdivisions of Collier Heights were developed, I have met and became friends with many residents of Collier Heights one person or family at a time.  Slowly at first and then with similar speed as how King’s Grant Drive and Crescendo Valley were developed, I have captured images and stories that tell of the interconnected lives throughout Collier Heights.

Classy Rosa on East Simon Terrace came to this neighborhood to make sure her children “got a decent education.” And Collier Heights continues to teach, continues to grow, develop, and change.

Look at Jennie Drake Park, the Local Historic Designation, and the Collier Heights Community Club that has been in existence since 1946 – all collaborative efforts that continue the spirit of Collier Heights.

The streets might not have been paved in 1957 and I don’t know if the residents knew that they were making history back then, but it is a history that has meaning and has paved the way for opportunity for many.

I thank the citizens of Collier Heights for letting me and helping me tell the story through pictures, historical artifacts, and their own voices, voices I hear every time I look at the images.