Atlanta, West End, Part 1: Meditations on Heritage
There’s a room hidden behind a curtain at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore that houses shackles and hand-written slave documents. Down the block is the historical home of Joel Chandler Harris, who gained fame and fortune as the publisher of the tales of Uncle Remus. Across the street is a funeral director with a bridge named in his honor and a fleet of custom limousines. We visit these sites and talk with residents new and old in an Atlanta neighborhood that’s been around longer than Atlanta itself.
Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Cohen Opportunity Fund, The Hoffberger Foundation, and The Muse Web Foundation.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it’s a special edition of Out of the Blocks from the West End in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story.
West End was the first neighborhood in Atlanta and it’s a really tight-knit community. I like to tell people it’s a community where we really go next door and ask for a cup of sugar. And that actually happens. I love the West End. I love the energy of the West End, but it is certainly changing. This is now becoming very hot property. We see prices, homes that—six figures—when twenty years ago you could buy the block for six figures. I don’t have a problem with diversity, I have a problem when it renders us scarce.
From the minds of Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with WABE, it’s a special edition of Out of the Blocks right after this.
Aaron Henkin: It’s a special kind of feeling to open up a photo album, isn’t it?
Kalin Thomas: It is. I love looking at photos. As a matter of fact, if I go to someone’s home and I see all the photos, I’m just in heaven. I love looking at everybody else’s old photos as well. Ah, well that’s a shot of me in sixth grade I think.
AH: You were an adorable kid.
KT: (laughs) Thank you. My name is Kalin Thomas, and we are in the West End right now on my street of Holderness. I graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC with a broadcast journalism degree and I was recruited by CNN, and so that’s how I ended up coming to Atlanta. I didn’t really have any family here. I moved to Atlanta from Baltimore, and I have to say that when I first came to Atlanta, I thought, “I have just landed in Mayberry.” I thought, “OK, I’ll give CNN two years and I’m out.” You know, I thought this was just such a little country town when I came in. But Atlanta continued to grow and I started to really, really love it and hence my being here for 34 years. So I’ve really, really loved Atlanta. To me, Atlanta is the city in the south to be in. I have a shot here of my high school prom.
AH: You guys look good!
KT: Senior prom, junior prom.
AH: How do you think that teenager
compares to the person you are now?
KT: You know, I wish I could tell that young girl to not be too stuck on deadlines of when everything has to happen in your life, because I had a whole plan of what age I would be for everything that would happen in my life, and just to realize that life changes and you have to go with the flow.
AH: And life turned out differently for you than you expected it would when you were the girl in that picture?
KT: Oh, yes, yes. I did get married, but I got divorced, you know? I did work at CNN but I got laid off. So, you know, you have to be prepared for the changes in life and know how to move with the changes.
AH: What’s next for you?
KT: Well, I have to say that I’m hoping what’s next is moving back to Baltimore. And it’s interesting because it’s something that I always said I would never do. But as I get older and my parents get older, I realize I really need more time with my family. My parents gave us such a good life and sacrificed a lot for us to have a good life, so I really want them to have a really good last chapter.
Karl Barnes: My father had dementia and passed away about five years ago, so if you’ve ever lived with a person that has any type of dementia, you learn to appreciate smaller things in life. So, as I tell folks, if you wake up in the morning and you look at the ceiling and you know who you are and where you are, it’s a wonderful day. My name is Karl Barnes. I’m a resident of West End since 1973. Graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, ’73. Masters’ in City Planning from Georgia Tech in ’77. MBA from The Wharton School. As I have to make young folks understand, this is not the Atlanta of my youth. Atlanta, back in the 50s and 60s, I’ve seen signs on the public accommodations, on the bus in particular, that say, “Whites to front, colored to rear.” I’ve seen colored water fountains in Atlanta. So, it has evolved over time.
AH: How old are you now, if I can ask?
KB: I was born in 1950, so I’m 68. Both of my parents were HBCU graduates back in the 40s, so education’s always been a gateway in my family. I may be—I’m thinking right now about getting a PhD over at Georgia Tech, obviously in city planning, because we’ve got to get young folks to understand that when you see the bulldozers show up, the game’s been over. So, I would tell young folks and old folks, keep reading—we ain’t got no choice. A lot of times, you’ve got to help the young folks to see that their story is not new. If you talk to someone who has been here before, they can tell you where the potholes are on the street, and you ain’t got to step in the potholes.
Velma Maia Thomas: We trace Christianity back to its African roots, so it’s not like we took a white Jesus and painted him black, okay? It’s really the other way! You took a black Madonna and a black child and painted that deity white, so we brought it back to its roots. I am Velma Maia Thomas and we are at the Shrines of the Black Madonna Culture Center and Bookstore in the historic West End of Atlanta. We opened here in 1975. We started in Detroit, Michigan. There’s a Shrines of the Black Madonna there and then some young people came down and opened here. So, we have our church and inside the church is chance old portrait of a black Madonna and child, so hence the name of the church. We see her as the mother of the community and the church needs to be the mother of the community, so she is embracing a black child which the church needs to do. So, that is that portion of it. We also have this portion, which is the Culture Center & Bookstore, we have a legacy center, we have a youth center, we have—sort of like a home school center… So, we’ve kind of embraced the block, and have said we want to give back to the black community and we want to be a home, we want to be a place where people can come and say, “Wow, look what black people can do.” Our theology is one of using the power that God gives us to change our earthly conditions. So, we will get involved in education and we will get involved in politics. So, the black church has to be what the black church has always been, which has been that center that we own and that we can control and that we can put out the message about who we are and what’s important to us.
AH: I understand from some of your colleagues here that there’s—behind this curtain here—a Museum of the African Holocaust. Is that correct?
VMT: Yes. That’s a collection of original documents on slavery and resistance. I think I started that in 1995, just collecting a few documents and then putting them on display.
AH: Are you interested in showing us some of the documents in there?
VMT: Sure, I would love to do that. This document is dated around 1750 of a slave ship that just talks about the sale of slaves in Buenos Aires. And when you look at it, you’re going, “Oh my God, this is real.” If you come over, we have a child that is sold here, “sold and delivered and by these do bargain and sell and deliver until one person, one mulatto girl named Fannie, said-girl being a slave and aged about eight years old.” And it’s handwritten and signed, 1860.
AH: Talk to me about what’s hanging on this shelf over here.
VMT: Shackles. So, this would be around someone’s neck, and any movement—you would hear the sound of these bells. So, if they keep running away, you’d just put the bells on them like a cat or a dog. If we don’t continue to have this before us, we will forget the struggles and once you forget the struggles, you won’t appreciate where you are. And then you’ll begin to think, “If I’m struggling, it’s something wrong with me, personally,” and don’t realize that it’s an institution, that society has done this to us. So it’s grounding. I don’t want people to walk through and get depressed, but I do want you to know a lot of people died for us to have what we have and this struggle continues.
Gina Caison: I wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the Civil War. My great grandfather—he and his best friend—I have no idea why they chose to fight for the Confederacy. I wasn’t there. They did, his best friend died, my great-great grandfather, I guess, stepped over his body, came home, married his widow, had my great grandfather. That’s why I exist. Okay, so, to be crass I guess I’m glad that other dude died in the war because I’m glad I’m here, but like, when we see these debates about monuments and things, and people are like, “It’s my heritage,” I’m like, “Well, you know what? It’s also my heritage and I say take it down.”
[Audio from “Song of the South”]
GC: I didn’t see “Song of the South” until I was an adult. It’s, you know, pretty reductive to say the least. I know people really, really, really love that film but I would ask people, you know, to kind of step back and think, like, “What message does this film send?” And how, honestly, how faithful is it even to some of the original text and the original concerns, because the answer is, like, not great. My name is Gina Caison. We are at the Wren’s Nest, which is the historic home of the author Joel Chandler Harris, who collected and published what are popularly known as the Uncle Remus stories, or the Brer Rabbit stories. This is the foyer. We come in. There are a couple interesting things in here. Most importantly, I think, is this portrait of George Terrell, who was enslaved on the Turnwold Plantation by Joseph Addison Turner. George Terrell is the figure that Harris largely based Uncle Remus on. Harris was employed as a printer’s apprentice, because Turner wanted to start a newspaper for the plantation. So, while he was there working during these tumultuous times of the Civil War, he spent a lot of time with George Terrell and other enslaved people, listening to these stories, and that’s in the fraying tale of the Uncle Remus stories. There’s always the conceit that these stories are being told to a young white child. Presumably, that young white child is Harris, reimagining himself as a boy. So his first book—Uncle Remus: His Songs & His Sayings—it was wildly successful. Harris did really credit Terrell. He gave a lot of credit to the African American people and enslaved people he heard stories from. At the same time, one person got really rich off of this and it was not George Terrell, right? There was one guy in this story that has this house, and that’s Harris.
Multiple Voices: From the West End in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s one neighborhood, everybody’s story. Out of the Blocks.
AH: What would you like your funeral to be like?
Willie A. Watkins: Celebratory. They’d know to change me four times. Change me, in my clothes, four times.
AH: You want to change your attire four times during the course of your funeral?
WAW: No, during the course of me laying out. You know, people getting laid out four, five days. I want to get changed every day.
AH: A different suit every day while you’re laid out.
WAW: I think I got enough of them. Hi, my name is Willie A. Watkins. I am the president of the Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home here in historical West End. I’m not a dead undertaker. I’m very much alive because we are all about celebration. This is a ministry about celebrating one life. These are all my fleet of cars. They go out all week. I’ve probably got—I don’t know—forty, fifty cars, but they’re gonna bring one down so I can show you. Jerry! Jerry, do me a favor. Tell someone to get a white limo down here for me and a black limo. Tell them to come bring it up, they can park over here. This is a newer one right here. See, we put the flowers on the top.
AH: These racks on the top of the hearse are for flowers, and then the coffin goes in here, where you’ve got the rollers and the…okay. And you say these have external speakers that will play music.
WAW: Yeah, they play music on the outside. This song—they’re singing that song, “One glad morning when this life’s over, I’ll fly away,” That’s what that song is.
AH: That’s the song.
WAW: Yeah, that’s what it is.
AH: I’ll fly away. I get the sense, Mr. Watkins, and you can tell me if I’m wrong, that your funeral services are…there’s a lot of attention to detail, they’re very lush, I was reading about the signature package, plus part of your signature funeral service also includes releasing doves.
WAW: Yes, we release doves. You know, there’s a thing in the Bible that says, “Paul says, ‘If I had wings of a dove, I would just fly away and be at rest.’” Well, we tried to put that into it because this is the last earthly thing that you’re going to be able to do for your loved one. By releasing that dove… You’ll pay for the service, you’ll pay for the cemetery, now it’s time for you to release that dove and release him too. And once you release that dove, now it’s time for you to go back and start living.
AH: And I heard the doves—that they’re actually homing pigeons. The doves are homing pigeons so that they’ll come back and you can use them over and over again.
WAW: Yeah, when I first started doing it, they had the animal rights people call me up and said to me, “You’re releasing a dove and it can’t defend itself when they end up in the wilderness,” and I had to explain to them that they’re homing pigeons.
AH: This is the viewing parlor. Can I ask you a quick question? Talk to me about that time that you get to spend with a departed when it’s just you and him, and you’re doing your work before everybody else views him. That must be a very special, sacred time.
WAW: I’m glad you asked that. You know, before anybody sees the remains, I want to make sure that everything’s right. Tie needs to be straight—that should be up under there. Just a little something to make it look better. You know, I love what I do and I present a celebration service because I really believe that death is not so bad when you look at life in itself. When a person comes into the world, that’s when all the crying and stuff should go on because that’s when they come into the world, full of trouble, full of whatever. But when they leave here, they’ve got the victory. So, you celebrate the victory.
Suna Om: My name is Suna Om. I’m a resident of West End. We immigrated from Korea to Hawaii, and then to U.S. mainland, so we moved to Georgia from Hawaii. When I left Hawaii, I was passing through Georgia to go live in Florida, which is close weather to Florida, but when I passed here in April I saw these beautiful dogwoods and azaleas—all these flowers I fell in love with. I decided to stay a couple of months and then I never left, so that’s 1975.
AH: So, you came here, and you took over a restaurant, then you opened another restaurant, and the restaurants did well and then, with your growing success, you became landlords and began renting spaces to other people for their businesses.
AH: I’m talking to you in one of the business spaces that you rent. Talk about what’s happening in this space this week.
SO: Yes, it is Kim’s Fashion. Everything that you need about the hair, about the beauty, and about fashion… that’s why they call it Kim’s Fashion. They’ve been here for forty years. The family owned it for twenty years, and then Mrs. Kim take over twenty years ago, and then I took over in January because she was retiring and the business really went down so fast. We tried to stay in business, but sometimes they’d make two hundred dollars there and we can’t live on that, so we decided to close the business.
AH: After forty years, you’re putting the wigs and the hats and the handbags and the makeup and the jewelry and the nail polish in boxes. It’s going to go into storage. The shelves in here are almost empty now. Tomorrow’s the last day in business. Tell me what’s in your heart right now. It must be bittersweet.
SO: Yes. I cannot blame Amazon or internet because they took away, I would say, about 60% of the business, but that’s the way it goes in the economy, which means we have to change our strategy to different kind of business. But millennials can do that. We are old school, we don’t know how to follow up with all this electronics and all the techniques.
AH: It sounds like what you’re saying is your business is a business from another era and now young people do their shopping online. You two are older and it’s time to pack up and rest or figure out what’s next.
SO: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That is true and I might as well pack myself in the box with the storage items.
Sarah Gormley: The chickens are running towards us, or at least one is. I’ve got six chickens, two ducks, and four baby chickens now and two bunnies, mostly just for the eggs and then the bunnies are really cute. This is the garden, which is where I get the majority of my food. I’m a vegetarian, which makes it easy. I have my beehive right there, so I get honey from them. My name is Sarah Gormley and we’re at my home in the West End. The food scraps from cooking and the garden go into the compost. The chickens go into the compost and they eat it and they scratch it and turn it over, which means I don’t have to turn it over myself or buy an expensive compost thing that you have to turn. So they get a lot of their nutrients from the food scraps, but then the pellets are just to make sure that they have everything that they need. So, I moved to Atlanta almost four years ago. I was working on the Hill as a staff photographer for, like, three years after college and felt super lucky to have a paid job as a twenty-one-year-old photographer, but I wasn’t happy. It was a very corporate environment, a very male-dominated environment. I had no life, like a work-life balance, and so I went to Southeast Asia for three months and got certified to teach yoga and then came back and quit and decided to move to Atlanta.
AH: You were a staff photographer on the Hill. Talk about what that job entailed.
SG: A lot of old white men at podiums. I was working for an organization that I was not politically aligned with, so that was kind of hard. It was a huge learning experience for my photography company now, but I wasn’t happy. I was, for the past four years here in Atlanta, working as a destination wedding photographer, and that meant travelling every weekend—usually thirty to thirty-five weddings every year. So, I started to reign back on the amount of weddings that I took, and as that was happening I was starting to fall in love with birth work, which is what I’m doing now in Atlanta. So in the last year, I made a conscious decision to take less weddings and start to really dive into being a birth worker and a yoga instructor in Atlanta. Probably the biggest transition that went along with DC to Atlanta was switching from a macro-level for issues of social justice—so, at first I thought I’d be a photojournalist and I would work on the Hill, and that went very much with my education and thinking that that was the role that I was supposed to play, and then eventually recognizing that prioritizing my own joy and peace and happiness by creating an environment like I’ve create here… That put peace out into the world.
Child: Well, we used pink and, like, a burgundy color for the outline of both of their shirts, and then we use a light blue and dark blue for the jeans. We haven’t done the shoes yet, so I don’t really know what the colors will be, but we used a dark brown for the outline of the people and a caramel color for their skin.
Ramel Westry: So, what’s going on here is an Art in the Park program that we do every summer for kids over here in the West End. My name is Ramel Westry and I am the executive director of Evolving Arts of America and they’re creating a mural here with Muhammad, who is the artist.
Muhammad Suber: My name is Muhammad Suber. I’m a local artist in Atlanta. The image you have here is called “Bonds,” and of course you have a young lady and a young man bonding, on top of the world.
Child 1: On the wall, it’s actually outer space with like… It’s supposed to be the moon, we’re gonna paint it blue and outside, the white, that’s supposed to be the stars.
Child 2: So the wall… it looks like a sister, like, hugging his little brother and the brother puts his feet up with his Nikes on and looking up at the stars and the world at night.
RW: They have been dedicated to the week-long… coming out here from 10 am to 3 pm creating this mural. It’s been a great experience for them just to have something to do this summer, especially in this community, the West End community, instead of just going and hanging out in the streets. We wanted to give them something, an opportunity to experience art.
MS: I think the best part about it is that the kids are going to have it throughout their whole life.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to a special edition of Out of the Blocks, produced by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick in collaboration with WABE. Special thanks to field producer Gabby Watts and WYPR’s Katie Marquette. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is the West End in Atlanta signing off.
AH: Hey guys, Aaron Henkin here for a quick minute as we get ready to wrap up. Special thanks to the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, for making this episode possible with their generous support as we continue to travel the country with Out of the Blocks. You can check out our back catalogue of episodes from St. Louis, Seattle, and Detroit, and of course hear all the episodes we’ve done in neighborhoods all across Baltimore. Drop us a review on Apple Podcasts, tell a friend about us. Thank you for spreading the good word about Out of the Blocks, and we’ll be back again next time with more stories and voices from Atlanta’s West End, including a visit to the Truly Living Well urban farm where Noah White helps to garden three and a half acres of land, reclaimed from a demolished housing development.
Noah White: It’s just kind of to be outside, the free environment, it just helps you to build a lot of character and life skills. Your patience, determination, especially being out here in the hot sun, you really have to persevere. I think the coolest part of all is just seeing the plants go through the stages of being a small seed to fully harvested fruit. I think that just kind of shows us about ourselves, also.
AH: We’ll catch you next time on Out of the Blocks. Thanks for listening. Out of the Blocks is produced with grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and from the Cohen Opportunity Fund, the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, Patricia and Mark Joseph, Jonathan Melnick, the Andy and Sauna Brooks Family Foundation, the Hoffberger Foundation, Associated Jewish Charities, the John J. Leighty Foundation, the Kenneth S. Batty Charitable Trust, and the MuseWeb Foundation.