The spacious ranch and split-level homes with manicured lawns spreading for block after block in northwest Atlanta's Collier Heights were the picture of midcentury American suburbia. The black families who moved into them were not.
ATLANTA — The spacious ranch and split-level homes with manicured lawns spreading for block after block in northwest Atlanta’s Collier Heights were the picture of midcentury American suburbia. The black families who moved into them were not.
Built at the end of the Jim Crow era, Collier Heights stood as a testament to Atlanta’s black elite and powerful, home to civil-rights leaders, educators, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Today, supporters of the neighborhood are vying to put the first major black suburb built after World War II on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It was one of the first in the country created by and for African Americans,” said Richard Laub, a preservationist at Georgia State University. “The African-American community was flexing [its] muscles.”
This week, Collier Heights has been highlighted by the Docomomo/US society, which promotes conservation of buildings and architectural styles from the Modern Movement.
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In the mid-1940s, a group black business and civic leaders went to the white city fathers with a plan they called “Proposed Areas for Negro Expansion,” said Andrew Wiese, a history professor at San Diego State University and author of “Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the 20th Century.”
They spent years acquiring land on Atlanta’s west side in hopes of improving housing options in the city, for blacks in particular. In the end, nearly 2,000 homes were built.
A Who’s Who of black Atlanta called Collier Heights home: the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.; Ralph David Abernathy, an ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; prominent civil-rights attorney Donald Hollowell; and entrepreneur Herman Russell.
Though the suburb barely qualifies as historic — the first of its 55 subdivisions weren’t built until the 1950s — it was ripe for research in a way that is normally impossible on older districts.
“It’s very rare to be able to talk to the people who settled the neighborhood,” Laub said. “In talking to the residents, this was really their piece of the American dream.”
Gigi Dickens felt like she and her husband, Robert, had arrived when they moved into the Woodlawn Heights section of the neighborhood in 1961, next door to her brother. She was a schoolteacher and her husband worked for the federal housing department.
“We used to have a great, big neighborhood picnic,” Gigi Dickens said. “It was a very close-knit neighborhood.”
The neighborhood is not what it was a few decades ago. Its richest resource — the many original residents — is aging and unable to maintain the homes. Younger prospective residents now have their choice of where to live in Atlanta. Crime has also become an issue, as evidenced by iron bars covering some of homes’ entries.
Those who remain know they are part of something unique, said Richard Cloues, who works for the state historic-preservation office.
He is preparing Collier Heights’ application for the National Register. “It was on land owned by African Americans, financing was provided by African-American institutions, much of the development that took place, many of the contractors, and all of the people who bought houses were African-American,” he said.
Organizers expect Collier Heights will be listed on the National Register in a few months.