Bagley Park is a monument to Buckhead’s historic Black communities—and a reminder of the racism that drove them out

Bagley Park, named for a leader in the Black community that once lived there, was renamed for Buckhead Baseball umpire Frankie Allen in 1980. Last year, William Bagley's granddaughter and the Buckhead Heritage Society helped get the park's name restored and educate residents about the land's history.

Bagley Park name restored Frankie Allen Park Buckhead
In 1980, Bagely Park was renamed for umpire Frankie Allen. In late 2022, more than 40 years later, William Bagley’s name was restored, with Allen honored as the name of the park’s baseball fields.

Courtesy of Buckhead Heritage Society

On March 30, 1980, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a “feel-good” story in the Sunday sports section: Buckhead Baseball was renaming their home park in honor of Frankie Allen, a beloved umpire who had died the year before. The AJC reported, “Old Bagley Park is now ‘Frankie Allen Park.’”

That was the only reference to William Bagley, a leading member of the Black community that once existed on that land, and until then, the namesake for the park that replaced it. No one told Bagley’s family of the name change. Instead, Bagley’s granddaughter Elon Osby happened to drive by on Pharr Road and saw an unfamiliar sign where his name once stood. “My mother was so upset, I thought she was going to die,” recalled Osby, who serves on Buckhead Heritage Society’s Board of Directors.

More than 40 years later, Osby and other members of the Buckhead Heritage Society have helped restore Bagley Park’s historic name, while inside the park, the Frankie Allen Baseball Fields still honor the umpire. The renaming of Bagley Park is part of the Buckhead Heritage Society’s larger goal to illustrate a fuller picture of the Buckhead community, celebrating its diverse history while acknowledging the racism that has dogged it for centuries.

Bagley Park name restored Frankie Allen Park Buckhead
William Bagley

Courtesy of Elon Osby

A cemetery remembers

Today, all that remains of the Bagley Park neighborhood is the Mount Olive Cemetery, located in a leafy strip of the park. Bagley, who died in 1939, is buried there, along with his wife, Ida. Mount Olive Methodist Episcopal Church, erected by formerly enslaved Georgians in the 1870s, once stood across from the cemetery: until 1945, when Fulton County cleared the residents to make a park for the nearby white community, the church stood at the center of a lively Black neighborhood of around 400 families.

A developer christened it Macedonia Park in 1921, but the community was already known colloquially as Bagley Park for the charismatic grocery store owner. “His neighbors thought of him as the mayor,” said Osby. “Because of his stature—they just started calling [the neighborhood] Bagley Park.”

Bagley Park name restored Frankie Allen Park Buckhead
Mount Olive Cemetery

Courtesy of Buckhead Heritage Society

The Buckhead Heritage Society first got involved to preserve the Mount Olive Cemetery, explained John Beach, former Buckhead Heritage president. “In 2010, the City of Atlanta sold the property where the Mount Olive Cemetery and Bagley Park sits, and the developer was going to relocate the graves,” he said. “Buckhead Heritage knew that it was a historic Black cemetery . . . so we filed suit on behalf of the Bagley family.” A judge ultimately ruled that because the Mount Olive Cemetery was public, the city had wrongly sold the land to the developer. Buckhead Heritage Society was tasked with upkeep for the cemetery, while Fulton County retained ownership of the park.

The Society’s stewardship of the cemetery sparked further interest in the park’s history—and an initiative to restore Bagley’s name. Last summer, Elon Osby delivered a public lecture on the history of the Bagley Park community, which garnered momentum for the name-change idea. “She can’t say it, but I will,” columnist Thornton Kennedy wrote in the Northside Neighbor after attending Osby’s talk. “Her grandfather’s name needs to be on the park.”

After that, things moved quickly, said Charlotte Margolin, current president of Buckhead Heritage Society. “It’s been really amazing for us to see that a public talk can really put all of this in motion so quickly.” Buckhead Heritage convened a task force to explore the name change, City Council Member Howard Shook introduced legislation, and Mayor Andre Dickens signed it into law this past November. Buckhead Baseball, too, supported the change, especially as the athletic fields remain named for umpire Allen. Osby, who hadn’t intended her talk to lead to the name change, was thrilled.

For many long-term Buckhead residents, the name isn’t so much a change as an affirmation of what has always been. “We grew up with it being Bagley Park,” said Beach, who played baseball there as a child. “Even though they changed the signs, I was still calling it that.”

But while the name may have stuck, the history slipped away. Generations of Buckhead residents visited Bagley Park without any inkling of the stories buried beneath their feet.

Forced from their home, twice over

Bagley and his family arrived in the neighborhood around 1912. They were refugees from Forsyth County, where white residents had recently chased out their Black neighbors in a horrific week of racial violence. Bagley had been a successful farmer in Forsyth, where he owned over 80 acres of land and, according to census documents, may have even run a school. But when the body of a local white woman was found in the woods, three young Black men were accused without evidence of the crime. A mob stormed the jail where one of them, Rob Edwards, was being held. The mob lynched Edwards in the town square and then began burning the homes of Black residents, who fled in wagons and on foot.

The Bagleys found a new home in a rural neighborhood north of the city. Built by formerly enslaved Georgians in the 1870s, the community had become a bustling home to dozens of working-class families, many of whom worked as farmhands or servants on nearby white properties. Census records from the neighborhood also list gardeners, brick masons, and bowling alley pin setters.

Bagley started over in his new neighborhood, opening a grocery store and building new homes for his family. In 1928, he purchased six lots from the developer for $2,100. Osby’s mother, who was a toddler when the family fled Forsyth, grew up in lively Bagley Park.

A second eviction

Osby’s grandparents died before she was born, but her mother told her stories about them: “My grandmother was the disciplinarian,” she recalled, “And my grandfather was the soft-sided one.” Osby lives in the family home in Northwest Atlanta, where her parents relocated after being forced out of Bagley Park. While they accepted a cash payment from the county in exchange for their land, the sum was far below value. It was either that or face eviction by eminent domain, explained Osby: a white subdivision, Garden Hills, had cropped up alongside Bagley Park, and residents there began complaining about bad smells and loud noises from the adjacent community.

Fulton County officials had long ignored the upkeep of Black communities, so Bagley Park was overcrowded, with no septic systems. Meanwhile, north Atlanta’s white population had exploded after World War II, and the suburban housing boom brought white and Black communities closer together. But white Atlantans fiercely resisted their newfound proximity: under the caste system of the Jim Crow South, Black Georgians were generally relegated to service jobs on behalf of whites, but were expected to live elsewhere. “People wanted these workers, but they didn’t necessarily want to live next door to them,” said Beach, adding, “It’s an ongoing problem today.”

In the mid-1940s, white residents began organizing a different kind of racial cleansing in Fulton County, one that required no direct violence but was equally effective in reducing the population of Black families.

“The elimination of the Bagley Park Negro residential area in Buckhead was urged this week,” reported the Atlanta Constitution in 1948. “Bonnie I. Smith, newly installed president of the (North Fulton Civic) Club, described the crowded area as ‘an eyesore to the North Side.’” Calls to destroy Black neighborhoods across Fulton County dovetailed with white residents’ demands for more park space, and county officials, happy to oblige, established a $50,000 “Bagley Park fund” to buy out residents. Through a combination of below-market purchases and eminent domain, Fulton County systematically eliminated Bagley Park. Census records tell the tale, according to a report by Susan M. Conger: “In 1936 . . . there were fifty ‘colored’ families listed as living on Bagley Avenue,” Conger wrote. “When the 1952 publication was issued, Bagley Avenue was in the Street Directory with no residents remaining.”  

Osby’s parents left in 1948, resettling near Westview Cemetery. According to her mother, Fulton County officials promised the family that the park replacing their neighborhood would forever be called Bagley Park. It was a small consolation for losing their homes, but it mattered. Learning that the county had broken their promise broke her mother’s heart, Osby said. “She did whatever she could—she wrote letters, trying to get them to name it back, but they didn’t [restore it].” Osby managed to retrieve one important artifact: the original Bagley Park sign. “I gave it to my mother on her last birthday,” she said.

Reckoning anew with Buckhead history

Buckhead became part of the City of Atlanta in 1953. Today, Buckhead is the richest, whitest part of Atlanta, and recently, a controversial and ultimately ill-fated cityhood movement attempted to annex it from the rest of the city. While proponents of the Buckhead City movement say they’re motivated by crime rates, critics see yet another example of white communities walling themselves off from poor, Black ones.

If this past is prologue, then the activists and historians at Buckhead Heritage Society are determined to write a more honest introduction to their community’s story. “It’s quite telling to see the story of what happened in Forsyth County, and then see this family and others in Bagley Park have the same things happen to them again,” said Beach. “It’s important for us to learn from things like this.”

Buckhead Heritage has ramped up programming about disappearing Black history in Buckhead. And people are interested, noted President Margolin: “We had folks who came to (Elon Osby’s) talk who never showed up for a Buckhead Heritage talk before,” she said.

For Osby, the restoration of her grandfather’s name to the park has been healing for her family, even for those who have passed on. “I know that the spirits are there,” she said. “They know that they are being honored and that the park is being honored.”