Editor's note: The following op-ed originally appeared at the National Council for Public History’s History@Work site.
By David S. Rotenstein
In December 2013, an African American man was detained by Decatur, Georgia, police after he was seen leaving his home. An officer issued a suspicious person alert based on the “reasonable articulable suspicion” premise–the legal basis for many states’ “stop and frisk” laws.
Don Denard has lived in the Decatur home he was seen leaving since 1987. He is a former school board member and an active participant in Decatur’s civic life. Yet on December 15, 2013, he was just another black man walking in a community that is becoming steadily whiter and wealthier and where all such men are regarded, as Denard says, with the presumption of guilt.
As Denard walked farther away from his home that chilly December day, three Decatur police cruisers descended on him. He was questioned and subsequently released. Officers wrote in their reports that he was not detained. To them, it was a “contact,” and, they wrote, Denard was free to leave at any time.
Denard filed a complaint with the Decatur Police Department alleging racial profiling. A subsequent internal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by Decatur officers. “I apologize for any embarrassment you might have suffered due to this incident,” wrote Decatur’s police chief in a January 2014 letter to Denard. “Based on the information in the investigation, the officers acted in accordance with City of Decatur Police Department policies, standard investigative procedures, state and federal laws.”
Denard emerged physically unscathed from his encounter with Decatur officers, but the situation might have played out differently had he exercised his constitutional rights to simply walk away from the officers.
Decatur’s internal investigation left Denard unsatisfied, and he organized a meeting in his home to discuss a response. I was invited to attend because I have collected accounts of historical and contemporary racial bias in my research into the gentrification of a Decatur neighborhood. I have also documented Decatur’s systematic erasure of black history and culture from the city’s landscape—a process linked on many levels with the kinds of racial divisions and inequalities that continue to reverberate in Decatur and too many other American places. White-skinned people have the luxury of noticing it only when a case—for example, the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin—gains national attention. But as Don Denard’s December encounter with the police shows, the legacy of that past remains a lived experience for many within the city—and beyond it—in the present day.
Decatur effectively deploys what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls the “minimization of racism” frame: the assertion that discrimination no longer affects people of color in the United States. It’s easy for Decatur to minimize contemporary racism since there’s little civic dialogue around race (see Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Roman and Littlefield, 2006). Those who try to speak about it on community listservs and in public discourse are labeled as trolls or race baiters. The physical erasure of Decatur’s African American history also helps to reify the fallacy that all of the city’s bias is buried in a distant, invisible, and unreachable past.
The oral history interviews that I have been conducting with Decatur’s African American residents since late 2011 make it clear that racial inequality is alive and well in the contemporary city. Many have told me about the “Decatur talk” that all black children and even some adults get: no hoodies, stop immediately, and speak respectfully.
At Denard’s dining room table, folks described how they give driving directions to African American family members and friends to help them avoid passing through Decatur. A Presbyterian pastor described how he told his new associate pastor on the first day of work that he–a 30-something black male–should expect to be stopped repeatedly in his trips to and from work.
Two days after that meeting, Denard and his supporters addressed Decatur’s City Commission. They asked for an independent investigation, and they wanted the city’s ways to change. According to my informants, this is a place Decatur’s been many times in the past and a mistake that its officials keep repeating.
Decatur has never reconciled its segregationist past with the civic image it conveys: a liberal, diverse, and progressive Atlanta metropolitan suburb. Influential elements in the community would rather erase its past than confront it and learn from it. In 2013, the city demolished its historic African American schools just four years after a citywide historic resources survey failed to mention the city’s African Americans or their heritage sites. In the weeks leading up to the publication of this article a historically significant, but officially unrecognized, black church has been prepared for demolition to enable the construction of new townhouses.
As these historic properties are removed from the landscape, so too are segregation and urban renewal’s visible reminders. Though not pretty and painful for some, they are important tangible places where Jim Crow’s survivors and their descendants could commemorate their lost community. And they are places where generations who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era could confront racism’s destructive violence.
Historians and historic preservationists understand the power that the past wields in making people think about past wrongs. Old places teach about the past, and they provide people in the now with the tools to ensure that the past’s mistakes are not repeated. It’s now cliché, but true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Decatur’s Beacon and Trinity schools and the former Antioch AME church weren’t Manzanar, Auschwitz, or Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island. But they had the same potential for reflection, education, and compassion. If allowed to remain, they could have said to future generations, “We did wrong here but we can do better.”
~ David Rotenstein (Historian for Hire) is an independent consultant working in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and beyond. In previous History@Work posts, he has written about his preservationist’s-eye-view of gentrification in Decatur.