It is New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, and its story speaks to Atlanta’s complex past as it pertains to race. The land belonged to a white slave owner named James “Whispering” Smith. Where the church and the small cemetery are today was a church camp, which was on his property.
In the Christian tradition camps referred to pilgrimages, where in this case black families traveled from all over to gather for several days of praise and song. Amazingly, when the former slave owner died in 1872, he left the 2 acres to be used for a church and a school for “colored persons.”
According to New Hope AME’s application to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the church dates back to before Smith’s passing, pegging its founding year as 1869. Buckhead was all woods and farmland with few dirt roads cutting through it back then.
It was on these grounds that newly freed slaves began to form their own, independent community in the post-Civil War South. In the 1920s, the congregation built the foundation of the current church and a small school house as called for in Smith’s will. In 2009, New Hope AME gained a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the church has about 75 members, many of whom are descended from those early founders and who travel across Atlanta to worship. The story of New Hope AME is the exception rather than the rule. Whereas New Hope continues to thrive, most of the historic African-American communities in Buckhead have all but been erased over the years, whether through government land grabs or real estate speculation.
The most well-known of these was Macedonia Park, which is now Frankie Allen Park. The only reminder of this community today is the small Mount Olive Cemetery on Pharr Road, which someone tried to develop, as unconscionable as that sounds. As Buckhead grew, Fulton County determined that the land under Macedonia Park would be perfect for a park.
Using imminent domain, the county purchased the land for what is now tennis courts, baseball fields and underused picnic pavilions. There was also an African-American neighborhood in the vicinity of the MARTA station behind Lenox Square mall off East Paces Ferry and Roxboro roads, but it is no longer there.
Until recently there was a similar neighborhood off Windsor Parkway called Lynwood Park. Land developers had been salivating over the prospects of redeveloping the shabby historic neighborhood, which was basically in Brookhaven. Many of these neighborhoods were made up of people who worked in white households in Buckhead, harkening back to the days described in “The Help.”
The land values in Buckhead continued to climb, forcing these longtime residents to sell their ancestral land. I write about this because February is Black History Month. I tended to agree for a time with a quote attributed to actor Morgan Freeman that Black History Month was “ridiculous” because black history is our history.
I find, however, as far as made-up celebratory months are concerned, Black History Month allows us the opportunity to delve into a history rarely explored.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.