Seeing the signs in Avondale Estates, or, When the NAACP picketed my town

It was a warm day in early September of 1998 as marchers gathered in front of City Hall in Avondale Estates, a small residential enclave outside Atlanta where I currently live. Many were carrying signs with slogans like “Reject Racism in Avondale Estates,” “N-word is an evil word,” and “Parker Must Go!” The reason for the protest: the City Manager of Avondale Estates, who was also the Chief of Police, had used the n-word in a public forum. Even worse, it seems, he declared that the badge for the Avondale Estates police force should be a “n***er and a noose.” An investigation was completed, and although it could never be conclusively determined exactly what the City Manager had said, it was clear that he had routinely used the n-word in public and had uttered those two words together in a sentence on at least one occasion. On the public record. But also off record, he was also known to use racial epithets when referring to City sanitation workers, who were (and still are) all Black. [i]

People marching with signs outside AE City Hall
NAACP demonstrators picket outside Avondale Estates City Hall to protest City Manager John Parker, September 1998 (Source: The Atlanta Constitution, September 11, 1998 image by Renee Hannans)

For these transgressions, Parker was suspended and required to pay a fine. But he did not lose his job because residents loved the level of service he provided the community. So the NAACP got to work. It had been busy that year in Avondale as the community organized opposition to a new public school on its boundaries. Additionally conflict was heating up over free speech and yard signs, which were prohibited by City resolution in 1967. The ban on yard signs served to support segregation because it kept properties for being seen more generally as “for sale” and allowed local realtors to control who saw such properties. But any sign, including political signs, were also not ok. The resolution was legally challenged in a lengthy court battle lasting from 2000-2008, and one of the residents named was a Ms. Laurie Hunt, who had put a sign in her front yard in 1998 criticizing the City for not firing Parker, who promptly told the police to visit Ms. Hunt and “just stop and ask the people to remove the sign.” Eventually, three squad cars arrived and Ms. Hunt was issued a citation with a potential $100 fine. The City lost the lawsuit.[ii]

The NAACP picketing lasted two weeks, until the permit expired. In mid-October a group called “Avondale Residents for Racial Harmony” was formed. The group, angry that Parker was not fired for using racial epithets, circulated a petition residents could sign asking for his removal. Parker stayed in his job. Until very recently, he was still celebrated by a portrait in City Hall.

1998. Ten years before my interracial family moved from Philadelphia to Avondale. Twelve years before our biracial son was born. Our son, who is now 9 and rides his bike and skateboard around the neighborhood, plays soccer at the park, walks the dog around the lake, and runs with his gang at the pool.

When we first moved to Avondale Estates, a Black colleague who also lived here was happy to see an interracial couple living on Clarendon Avenue, the main street through town. Truth is we weren’t even the first on our block. But she recalled when she first moved to the city, in the 1980s. Her sons could not walk around the lake or hang out there without being harassed by the Avondale police. Now signs around that lake don’t restrict non-residents and all are presumably welcome. Guess what? It would be illegal to do otherwise. I often see people of all races fishing and recreating there. But just the other day, I heard about a young man of color, a resident, who was stopped and searched by the police at the lake. I know this because his mother posted the story on Facebook. He was scared to death by the encounter. Some others are claiming it “wasn’t racist” or we don’t know the “veracity” of the account. Because we can claim Black Lives Matter, but not believe Black people when they tell us something is really happening. We should be listening and believing. I have been listening and I have heard one thing over and over again: Avondale Estates is not welcoming to Black people. Whether it’s being followed by the police, the microaggressions at the pool, the residents who threaten to call the police or actually call the police. The traffic stops, the assumption that non-residents are threatening, that any Black person must be a non-resident, and therefore that Black people are suspicious. It’s embarrassing to say you are from Avondale Estates when someone tells you “I avoid that place” because of the police presence. The truth is that reputations are earned and that racism and white supremacy were baked into Avondale Estates at its origin. But that’s a post for another time.

A couple of weeks ago, residents lined the main thoroughfare through Avondale holding “Black Lives Matter” signs. I hope that given recent events, my fellow residents are seeing the signs, ready to address this legacy.

[i]“NAACP Stages Protest, The Atlanta Constitution, September 11, 1998, 98; “Avondale City Manager fined for racial slurs,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 27 1998, 56; “Pressure Increases on Avondale Estates City Manager, Atlanta Voice, September 19, 1998, 3; “Price to be paid for racist remarks,” The Atlanta Constitution, August 28 1998, 18.

[ii] “Voting Rights Act: Evidence of Continued Need,” Hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, March 8, 2006, Serial No. 109-103, Volume 1, 679-681.

2 thoughts on “Seeing the signs in Avondale Estates, or, When the NAACP picketed my town

  1. You mention how much has changed, and then express hope that your fellow residents are “…ready to address this legacy.” What form will that take? What will it take for you – or anyone, for that matter – to believe that Avondale has changed?

    1. Asking what success looks like is always important. Obviously we don’t go around using racial slurs in Avondale anymore. But we can do a lot more to be anti-racist. 1. Pass a non-discrimination ordinance for the City, 2. stop predatory traffic citations that finance 14% of our city budget on the backs of our less affluent and largely Black/people of color neighbors, 3. change the attitude that residents are okay and outsiders are suspicious (and the common assumption that non-whites are probably not residents), ie: no more racial profiling, 4. nurture a more diverse demographic of residents in the city, 5. Some of this is systemic, some of it is attitudinal. Some of it is unintentional; seemingly race neutral policies that result in racial disparity. We can’t necessarily change the larger situation in DeKalb County but we can be more mindful of the environment in which we live, try to be more open to difference, and make decisions as a community that welcome more and isolate less. Because historically almost every decision this community has made has led to closing Avondale off, not opening it up.

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