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Former Decatur Mayor Recalls How Urban Renewal Changed Beacon Hill

"I was a country girl, so coming from Greensboro, Ga., it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen."

Former Decatur Mayor Elizabeth Wilson remembers , Decatur's early black community, as a warm and lively place when she was growing up.

One restaurant sold pig ear sandwiches, knicknamed "hearing aid sandwiches." All the adults looked after all the children, giving credence to the adage that it takes a village to raise a child.

"I was a country girl," she said, "so coming from Greensboro, Ga., it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen."

But starting in the late 1930s, the homes, schools and churches of Beacon Hill were gradually torn down in the name of urban renewal. She said the powers that be looked upon her neighborhood "as a cancer."

Wilson described Beacon Hill's history and remembered some of the leading residents Tuesday in a talk to about 100 people at the .

She moved to Beacon Hill in 1949. After helping to desegregate Decatur's public institutions, she was elected to the City Commission in 1984. She became Decatur's first African-American mayor in 1993.

The teardowns started about the time the was formed in 1938.

"The absentee landlords were the problem," she said, "not the people who lived there."

The first units of public housing opened in 1944 in the area residents called "the Bottom." Many streets were closed and important places in the life of Decatur's black community were wiped out. Black people used to live where now stands, she said.

Likewise, the names of some of the leading black citizens were almost wiped out.

Henry Oliver was a blacksmith and a leading black businessman, so important a street was named after him. But the town decided to rename Oliver Street Commerce Street without really consulting the black community, Wilson said.

Later, a meeting room at the Holiday Inn was named for Oliver, and the will also bear his name.

Wilson said the community lost a lot because of urban renewal. She hopes that remants of Beacon Hill, like the , will be left as a reminder. The gym was called "the Matchbox" because of its tiny size.

"We all understood urban renewal was about providing quality housing," she said. "But we were not smart enough to know we were destroying the whole community.

"I wish we'd been smart enough during those years so people didn't have to give up their homes, schools and places of worship."

The next Lunch and Learn session will be at noon March 20 when Mera Cardenas, executive director of the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance, Inc.

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