The lost communities: A preservation group unearths Buckhead’s African American history

Wright Mitchell launched the Buckhead Heritage Society to research and protect the neighborhood’s past
Harmony Grove Cemetery
Harmony Grove Cemetery

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

On a spring morning in 2005, Wright Mitchell leashed up his two dogs and went for his usual jog around his Buckhead neighborhood. An impulsive detour took him along Chatham Road, where Mitchell spotted an odd shape among the trees in what appeared to be a vacant wooded lot.

Stepping through the underbrush, he found a 15-foot-tall stone obelisk tinged green by moss. Only then did he notice a number of scattered headstones, many lying flat and overgrown with weeds and vines.

The next day Mitchell consulted the late Franklin Garrett’s semiofficial civic history, Atlanta and Environs. The small Harmony Grove Cemetery dated to the 1870s, he learned, and included some of the area’s most prominent families from a century earlier. After an adjacent church was torn down to make room for new homes in 1918, the property became abandoned and slid gradually into disrepair.

“I was surprised that I’d lived in Buckhead all my life and had no idea that cemetery was there,” says Mitchell, 46, an attorney. “It seemed a shame that it was so neglected.”

A longtime history buff who lived within walking distance of the Atlanta History Center, Mitchell decided to launch a historic preservation group, Buckhead Heritage Society, to research and protect Buckhead’s past. Restoring Harmony Grove Cemetery became the fledgling organization’s first undertaking, with a mortuary archaeologist hired to map out the graves.

In the southern half of the cemetery, many graves were marked with simple fieldstones, and the ground was found to contain clusters of broken crockery, an old African American burial custom. Harmony Grove had been divided evenly between white and black, its tenants separated by race but sharing the same resting place.

“Harmony Grove is our signature project, and it speaks to the duality of the community’s history,” says Erica Danylchak, Buckhead Heritage’s executive director. Since that early discovery, the group has spent considerable time researching the little-known black history of Atlanta’s whitest neighborhood.

Many blacks moved north of the city into unincorporated Buckhead after the 1906 Atlanta race riot downtown, Danylchak says, seeking domestic work in the big houses or construction jobs as the affluent area grew. A 1917 fire that destroyed much of the not-yet-old Fourth Ward contributed to the migration.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Atlanta’s then northern suburbs were home to a number of black communities. Some, like Piney Grove, which sat just west of Lenox Road near I-75, have long since disappeared largely without a trace. Others left behind intriguing artifacts, like the white clapboard church and modest cemetery along the otherwise swanky Arden Road that mark the onetime location of the New Hope community.

Lynwood Park, which lay along Windsor Parkway in what is now the city of Brookhaven, had its own all-black DeKalb County school in the era before segregation. It was one of the few African American enclaves to survive into the 1990s, until gentrification and redevelopment finally rendered the neighborhood unrecognizable to earlier generations. Today three small midcentury black churches are among the only hints of its past.

Most of Buckhead’s other black communities did not suffer as gradual a demise, says Danylchak. “Our African American neighborhoods have been displaced by park spaces and transportation infrastructure,” she says. “That’s not just a Buckhead story; it’s an Atlanta story and beyond.”

Macedonia Park
A photograph from Macedonia Park

Photograph courtesy of Buckhead Heritage

The most notorious example is that of Macedonia Park, a community founded by former slaves that in the 1920s became a tight-knit subdivision of about 50 families in the very heart of Buckhead, complete with grocery stores, a saloon, and several churches. When the all-white Garden Hills was developed next door, the new neighbors complained in a 1942 petition that Macedonia Park was a nuisance: “This Negro section is located on the headwaters of a stream that flows southwardly through Fulton County and having no sewerage it constitutes a health menace to the welfare to the entire county.”

In the mid-1940s Fulton County decided to replace the neighborhood with a public park and began buying up houses, usually for just a few hundred dollars, under the threat of eminent domain. Bagley Park finally opened in the mid-1950s, named—in an apparent concession to ousted residents—for William Bagley, a respected neighborhood leader. In 1980, however, the property was rechristened Frankie Allen Park in honor of a beloved umpire for the local baseball leagues.

Macedonia Park
Macedonia Park

Photograph courtesy of Buckhead Heritage

A final affront to the legacy of Macedonia Park came in 2009, when its only physical remnant, the small Mt. Olive church cemetery on the edge of the park, was sold by the county on the courthouse steps for back taxes. Although the county acknowledged its mistake—cemeteries are exempt from property taxes—the sale was final.

When a developer applied for a permit to remove the graves, Buckhead Heritage’s Mitchell, who practices business litigation, filed a lawsuit pro bono on behalf of Elon Butts Osby, a Bagley descendant whose parents had moved to the city’s largely undeveloped northwestern fringe after leaving Macedonia Park. The permit was denied, and Buckhead Heritage adopted the cemetery—informally, that is, since the land is still privately owned. Last year the group repaired the work of vandals who’d toppled several of the headstones.

“Honestly, I think Mt. Olive is in the best condition it’s been in a long time,” Danylchak says.

One former African American community that didn’t require extensive research was Johnsontown, which survived after Lenox Square opened next door in 1959, only to be targeted in the late 1970s as the site for a MARTA parking deck.

“In those days, if they wanted your property, they’d condemn it and take it,” says Sam Sawyer, 85, then the pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Johnsontown.

Fortunately, T.M. Alexander Jr., a Morehouse graduate and banker who’d served as the first president of the Atlanta Economic Development Corporation (now Invest Atlanta), volunteered his expertise in helping landowners negotiate settlements many times larger than their original offers. The neighborhood, which saw its first paved street only in its final years, was extensively documented as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey by the Library of Congress before it was razed.

Still, Sawyer laments, “If you go there now, you’d never know there had been a black community named Johnsontown.”

Mitchell is proud that his group doesn’t function simply to burnish Buckhead’s image. Instead it has followed history’s trail into some dark places, such as the influence of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s and 1930s, when its national headquarters occupied a mansion on Peachtree Road.

“At Buckhead Heritage, we don’t shy away from history because it might be uncomfortable,” he says. “We’re going to tell [it] as it happened and let people draw their own conclusions.”

The group’s next and most ambitious project, beginning this summer, will be to erect more than 50 interpretive signs and permanent exhibits across Buckhead to tell the story of the area’s past. If the group is able to raise the projected $1.5 million to carry out its plans, Danylchak says, it would make Buckhead the first community in Georgia to install such an extensive series of historical markers.

It will also ensure that Macedonia Park, Johnsontown, and other bygone African American neighborhoods won’t be forgotten.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.