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VIA: Creative Loafing Atlanta

During the ’40s and ’50s, John Wesley Dobbs was known as the “mayor of Sweet Auburn,” the most politically influential black man in Atlanta and a pillar of the African-American business community that thrived on the eastern edge of downtown. After his death in 1961, the Dobbs family home — a modest 1910 bungalow to which he added a second floor a few decades later — was sold and became a base of operations for Mennonites involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

But by 1994, when the street out front was renamed in Dobbs’ honor by his grandson, then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, the home had become a rooming house and had fallen into disrepair. A decade later, two other Dobbs grandchildren bought the house back with plans to transform it as a memorial to their family’s legacy. Since then, however, the property has remained empty and its restoration has progressed slowly. Owner Benjamin Blackburn II says he’s received plenty of encouragement in his efforts to fix up the Dobbs House, but little in the way of material aid.

“I’d like to honor my grandfather, but I don’t know if a museum is realistic and I don’t have a lot of resources,” says Blackburn, who now plans to lease the finished house as a rental property.

To many, the concept of a restored Dobbs House that can serve to remind visitors of a key period in the life of black Atlanta is a dream deferred. And it’s not the only one.

The City Too Busy to Hate has long been criticized for pursuing economic progress at the expense of history. From the demolition of the Kimball House Hotel to make way for a parking deck in 1959 through the razing of the Art Deco Terminal Station in the early ’70s, and the near-destruction of the Fox Theatre, Atlanta has a pitiful track record when it comes to preserving its past.

Particularly hard-hit are many places of significance to Atlanta’s black community. With the exception of the well-maintained Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site — kept up, it should be noted, with federal dollars — few of the city’s black historic landmarks can be said to be flourishing.

The original Paschal’s Restaurant and Motor Hotel, where King and other Civil Rights titans met to discuss strategy, sits boarded up and decaying. So does the old Atlanta Life Insurance building that housed Atlanta’s first black-owned million-dollar business.

Even as Black History Month strives to focus attention on the survival and achievements of African-Americans, tangible pieces of the city’s black history remain endangered and under-recognized.

“In preservation circles, we’ve sometimes done a poor job of advocating for African-American buildings and educating that community about what’s out there,” says Richard Laub, director of Georgia State University’s Heritage Preservation Program.

There are myriad reasons why the city’s black historic sites are troubled, explains Skip Mason, archivist for Morehouse College and a specialist in Atlanta history. “The city itself has to promote a philosophy that cherishes its history and sees buildings as important to preserve,” says Mason. But there are other, more mundane factors at play, he adds, such as property ownership, community interest, and often, simple economics.

“It takes people with vision and, of course, money,” Mason says.

Paschal’s, for instance, is universally acknowledged as a place worth saving. As the late Coretta Scott King once said, “Paschal’s is as important a historical site for the American Civil Rights Movement as Boston’s Faneuil Hall is to the American Revolution.”

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