ATLANTA-- Critics say a new project on Atlanta’s west-side will destroy a significant Atlanta civil rights landmark. The landmark is the first public school built for African American children – which will give way for a new YMCA facility.
Jordan Hall has been vacant for years, and it shows – an overgrown eyesore brushing the campus of Morris Brown college. The Atlanta YMCA aims to build a headquarters and education facility here.
"What we love about the project is the benefits it’s going to bring to the community," said John Ahmann, director of the Westside Future Fund. Ahmann says that will include high quality early learning instruction, in an area that needs it.
But when John H. Lewis III sees the vacant building, he sees a school that black Atlantans fought hard to get built during the darkest days of Jim Crow.
"Even with the building being empty, it still speaks volumes for what it was," said Lewis, a retired pastor whose mother and aunt attended E.A. Ware Elementary School before Morris Brown College renamed it Jordan Hall.
Lewis says the city built E.A. Ware Elementary after Atlanta's black voters defeated two city-wide bond issue referenda to build exclusively white new schools. A third bond issue vote passed in 1919. It included Ware and two other public schools for black children.
Historic Civil Rights building headed for demolition
Lewis is among those who’d prefer to see Jordan Hall restored. But it’s an uphill battle in a city that has let countless civil rights landmarks decay – from Ralph Abernathy’s original Hunter Street Baptist Church, to the original Paschal’s motor hotel, where Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. plotted strategies to win voting rights and equality for African Americans.
"Most civil rights sites in America, you have where people were hurt," said Jay Scott, an urban planner and preservationist. He says Atlanta’s mostly overlooked and decaying civil rights landmarks tell a story unique to this city.
"The civil rights movement was a very complex thing. It wasn’t just, 'lets get out and march.' It was strategizing," Scott said. "And we in Atlanta are in a unique position to tell that story."
Scott says he’s glad the YMCA is moving into this part of town, but wishes it wasn’t at the expense of the building.
The YMCA says it considered renovating the building, but it was cost prohibitive. The non-profit plans to keep only the facade and replace the rest of the building.