Atlanta preserves and celebrates its African-American heritage

October 11, 1992|By June G. Naylor | June G. Naylor,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

ATLANTA -- To have an ethnic background today is fashionable, and heritage identification -- among individuals and entire social groups, alike -- has become increasingly popular.

But in Atlanta, the feeling is that of a city and a whole geographic region eager to not only preserve its African-American fiber but also to study the culture and learn lessons from its past.

Several cities throughout the South -- including Montgomery and Mobile, Ala., and Macon, Ga. -- are forging black history touring trails, but Atlanta's claims are most impressive. It's the Smithsonian of a complete people.

A recent look around the city was enough to fill one busy day, or two taken at a more leisurely pace -- complete with museums, stores and restaurants.

The best starting point is APEX -- African-American Panoramic Experience -- in a revitalized warehouse at 135 Auburn Ave. N.E. The introductory video presentation is a mix of moody creativity and a parade of historic figures, with narration by actress Cicely Tyson and a former Atlanta Mayor Julian Bond. Within the center is an assortment of changing art and culture exhibits including photography, crafts and heritage detail on Sweet Auburn, the melodic name given to black Atlanta's most important historic thoroughfare.

Among sites in the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District -- also on Auburn Avenue -- is the civil rights leader's tomb at the Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Rising from a long, placid reflecting pool, the huge stark block of white marble is stoic and poignant, its inscription reading, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last." Though the words have been heard thousands of times, they have greater power when seen carved into the smooth stone.

The National Park Service helps run the memorial -- visited annually by some 500,000 people -- by assisting the center with information and tours.

Inside the exhibition hall, scores of King family photos are highlighted by one of Coretta King leading a sanitation workers' march in Memphis in one of the days in April 1968 between her husband's assassination and his funeral. Among several other interesting items are a roll call vote from the U.S. Senate in 1983 that led to the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday; King's Nobel Peace Prize medal, awarded Dec. 10, 1964; the alligator wallet he carried when he was killed in Memphis; and the key to his room -- No. 307 -- at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, outside of which he was shot.

The gift shop sells books and keepsakes, as well as King's celebrated "I have a dream" speech on video, which is about $20.

Within the historic district also is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father were pastors. It's a comfortable place where staffers urge visitors to come in, have a seat or take photos.

Down the street, King's Victorian-accented childhood home is a pleasant pale yellow house with dark brown trim. A steady stream of traffic makes this one of the busier sites in the whole Sweet Auburn area.

In Atlanta's West End district, Hammonds House dates to 1857 and is named for a local black anesthesiologist who bought and restored the home in 1979. The home presents four to six art exhibits annually (through October, the featured artist is Atlanta resident Wadsworth Jarrell, whose emphasis is acrylic on fabric that creates a vivid batik-like look).

In the permanent collection is extensive work by North Carolina artist Romare Bearden, whose colorful collages and watercolors are in a distinct Caribbean style. Other permanent pieces include Haitian abstracts and still life paintings.

Around the corner on Abernathy Boulevard Southwest, Wren's Nest is the exquisite, recently restored home of Joel Chandler Harris, who penned the "Uncle Remus Tales." The National Historic District site is home to a storytelling program and a museum dedicated to Harris' efforts to bring races together and soothe pains wrought by the Civil War through the sharing of folk tales -- and universal messages -- originally brought from Africa.

Harris, an editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was one of the few white writers in American literature to deal with authentic black folklore at the turn of the century. He transformed tales he heard from slaves as a child to his stories, using characters that had relevance to Georgia of that period.

The stories were first published in 1878 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Harris continued his creation for more than 25 years. In all, there are 223 tales -- composing the largest collection of its kind in the United States -- and they now appear in dozens of languages.

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