To be or not to be Mayberry

This is fourth in a series about the history of Avondale Estates, GA

Ask people what the image of Avondale Estates is and you will get a lot of talk about a “tight-knit” community, rooted in old-fashioned traditions and local institutions that embody the shared values of family, community, and a sense of place. The enduring customs of fireworks at the lake every July 4, the lighting of the Christmas tree, pancake breakfasts, pig roasts, and the Labor Day race are all beloved occasions for the community to gather together. Also, inevitably at some point someone will say Avondale Estates is “Mayberry.”

What does it mean to be Mayberry in the 21st century? Mayberry is a fictional place, the setting for “The Andy Griffith Show,” a major TV hit of the 1960s. I grew up watching and loving this show, and so did a lot of people. When you say “Mayberry” you evoke, with nostalgia, the sense of small town life: a peaceful, safe, close-knit community presided over by a benevolent patriarch, Andy Taylor, the calm, understanding sheriff who doesn’t need a gun and dispenses common sense wisdom and aid to his community of eccentric characters.

27 Jun 1956,
Dewey Brown in 1956, when he was hired as Avondale Estates City Manager (Atlanta Constitution, June 27, 1956)

If Avondale Estates was or is Mayberry, then perhaps Dewey Cleveland Brown Jr was its Andy Taylor. Brown, who served as City Manager and Chief of Police for 46 years, was born in Salisbury, NC and grew up in Decatur, GA. He attended Decatur Boys High School where he was a star football player and served as a Sergeant in World War II. After obtaining a degree of Bachelor of Laws from the Atlanta Law School, Brown became City Manager of Avondale Estates in 1954. Having shaken off a sex and corruption scandal in 1964, he would go on to serve for three more decades.[1] Dewey Brown certainly had law enforcement aspirations—he ran unsuccessfully for DeKalb County Sheriff in 1956. In 1957, he took on the position of Chief of Police in addition to City Manager, effectively merging the positions until his retirement.

Dewey Brown is so shrouded in mythology it’s difficult to get a handle on the guy. He is beloved by Avondale’s long-time residents, who extol his responsiveness to his constituents, his long-time love of and service to the community. One newspaper report from 1969 shows Brown dressed as a bride for a community fundraising event, underscoring the image that his involvement went beyond paid manager to beloved resident. Today one hears rumors of shenanigans, but nothing definitive, and barring the collection of oral histories, the historical record on Brown is strangely quiet after 1964.

When he was on record, Brown actively promoted an image of Avondale Estates as a safe, old-time haven, with himself as devoted, attentive patriarch. This image was perpetuated throughout the 1980s and 90s, as in this article, “Safe and Sound,” from the Atlanta Constitution in 1984:

In Avondale, people take care of their own, or they let Dewey Brown do it. Every morning, Dewey Brown straps on his pistol, gets in his police car and travels the one-mile length and breadth of Avondale, making sure the garbage Is picked up… And if you’re sick, Dewey Brown will come visit you in the hospital, and, if you don’t pull through, he will be there in person to lead the final procession through town. Dewey Brown takes medicine to shut-ins, calls elderly women during snowstorms to see if they need one of his officers to go get them groceries and once volunteered his services as a plumber when a citizen couldn’t get one on the phone. When a new family moves into town, Dewey Brown comes by to say hello, to find out if you need anything, to find out who you are and what you’re up to.[2]

Here Dewey Brown embodies paternalistic surveillance and control (“to see what you are up to”) portrayed as service (“let Dewey Brown do it”). One of the cornerstones of Brown’s reign, and of Avondale now, is the presence of a “highly visible police force,” in the words of a 1981 Atlanta Constitution article on the absence of crime in Avondale. In the 1980s the police were not only highly visible, they were highly responsive to resident calls.

Dewey Brown in 1984 (Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984)

Dewey Brown boasted: “If somebody looks out the window and sees something they don’t think looks right, they call City Hall and we can be there in three minutes.”[3] Today we hear something similar, that the number of police in the city is necessary to keep those response times fast. Neighbors call the police when they see someone or something suspicious, usually a non-resident. The implication is that attitudes toward outsiders are not that far removed from 1984, when Avondale Estates Police Lieutenant E. H. Chitwood, one of Avondale’s six police officers, declared, “Here, everybody knows everybody…We know who belongs, and who don’t.” [4]

Knowing “who belongs and who don’t” implies a sense of vigilance against outsiders, a “nosiness…the kind of collective prying that helps small towns regulate themselves.”  In Avondale Estates, such “nosiness” was integrally tied to and served governmental power through that visible police force and its Chief, who was also City Manager. In December 1984’s “Safe and Sound,” safety was clearly provided for those who belonged:

Citizens routinely report, yea, are encouraged to report, any strange cars in town. “If there is an out-of-state car in the driveway, the police might call and ask you if you have company,” says Martha Smith. “My friends in Atlanta are appalled. They say, ‘Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?’ I say, ‘No, I love it.’ I’m glad somebody’s looking out for me.” To keep up with who belongs (and who doesn’t), Avondale police issue decals that citizens can put on the bumpers of their cars to identify them as authentic citizens of the town. Tom Smith says he was pulled over three times by Avondale cops and cited for having a missing taillight when he first moved in. One officer, he says, told him that if he would get a decal, police would quit bothering him. He got the decal and a new taillight and the police quit pulling him over. He doesn’t know which remedy worked, but he has his suspicions. One policeman admits that Avondale officers are more likely to ignore a minor infraction by a local than by a stranger.[5]

Who were locals? Who were strangers? Dewey Brown declared Avondale insiderness as race neutral: “We don’t have no white trash and we don’t have no black trash.”[6] In practice, however, Avondale Estates maintained its whiteness indirectly through measures such as resident car decals and policies against yard signs. Policies that on the face seemed race neutral but in practice helped maintained de facto segregation.

Historian Matthew Lassiter has argued that middle class white residents of the Sunbelt South’s suburbs in the second half of the 20th century rejected the outright racism of rural or urban working class white communities, communities that were most challenged by racial integration. Rather these whites embraced more liberal “race neutral” attitudes, even as they built and maintained white-only communities. Abetted by federal housing and transportation policy, this  so-called “silent majority” could benefit from larger systems of segregation while espousing seemingly race-neutral attitudes.[7]

Like “Norman Rockwell’s America”: A young man fishes in Lake Avondale while visiting his grandparents, 1984 (Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984)

Avondale predates this time but shares some similarities with other suburbs during the same period. During the 1980s, Avondale Estates appeared immune to the passage of time, even though its schools were forcibly desegregating and the surrounding communities were impacted by white flight. “Time has seemed to stand still in English Tudor Suburb,” gushed the Atlanta Constitution in 1990. The population was “remarkably stable and homogenous” a “carefully nurtured” “anomaly” in DeKalb County, according to the Mayor John Lawson (also a member of one of Avondale’s first families). The city was described as having all “the historical flavor of Norman Rockwell’s America.” Some of this sense of timelessness was due not only to the historic landscape, but also to the unchanging racial character of Avondale Estates. Other southern towns could be rocked by segregation battles or transformed by white flight, but Avondale Estates was just “stubborn,” trying to keep what it had.[8]

So what does it mean to be “Mayberry” in 2020? To be Mayberry seems to mean not to be historical, but to be ahistorical, white-washed in nostalgia for a time and place that never was.

Opening credits, The Andy Griffith Show, 1961

Mayberry, like Avondale, was almost to a person, entirely white. Aside from a few extras early in its run, the show only featured a Black character in one episode during its 7th season. At a time when life in the South was changing dramatically, Mayberry was removed from such convulsions. There was no segregation, no protests, no racial expression of any kind. This quaint white-only town reassured mainstream white audiences primarily through the figure of Andy Taylor. Andy is an important vehicle for this reassurance, as his character rehabilitates the prevailing image and role of the white Southern sheriff as a figure most associated with enforcing the violent regimes of slavery and Jim Crow. In this way, Mayberry was “inferentially racist,” in the words of Phoebe Bronstein, marked by the “presence and absence of racial signifiers.”[9]

What does this mean? To put this idea into context, let’s look at the real town that Mayberry is based on, Mt. Airy, NC.  Mt. Airy is most associated with The Andy Griffith Show, and a whole tourist industry there has been created around that experience. Today demographically Mt. Airy is 80% white, 10% Black, and 8% Latino among the most populous groups.[10]

Students organizing a sit-in in Mt. Airy, NC, 1963 Mt. Airy News, February 24, 2020

Historically, Mt. Airy was a racially segregated community, with Black residents, businesses, residences, houses of worship, schools, and community institutions concentrated around Needmore—now Virginia—Street.[11] Mt. Airy also was not immune from the struggles of the Civil Rights era. Schools were desegregated there in early 1960s and in August 1963 students staged a lunch counter sit-in (undoubtedly inspired by the same in Greensboro, NC three years before). As early as 1949, a housekeeper named Smithy Reynolds was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Mt Airy.[12] So the idea that a southern town like Mt. Airy/Mayberry would be all white, with no racial dynamic or change at all, was “inferentially racist” because it erased not only the Black population that lived there and challenged segregation, but also accepted and erased the racial boundaries that kept Andy Taylor’s part of Mayberry white. It’s peaceful, close-knit, quaint identity was predicated on larger systemic exclusion and racial homogeneity. Thus race was always both always present and absent at the same time.

Today, Avondale Estates is still marked by the absence and presence of racial signifiers, particularly around its policing practices. In Avondale Estates, where resident cars still are marked with stickers to identify them as insiders, the bulk of those stopped by police for traffic violations (80% by recent count) are people of color. The argument defending this practice is essentially a race neutral one –ie: drivers stopped are breaking the law, and anyone who is breaking the law can be stopped. White people get stopped too. But Black people get stopped a lot more. This pattern may not be due to discriminatory police policies per se. But it is due to a larger systemic situation in which the surrounding areas are largely populated by people of color and Avondale is not. Like the suburbanites documented by Matthew Lassiter, we are not overtly or individually racist but still perpetuate and benefit from a larger racist geography, subsidizing our middle class community through traffic fees levied against predominately Black neighbors. By focusing on the race-neutral policy and not its effects, Avondale Estates is, like Mayberry, inferentially racist, afforded the luxury of appearing to be race neutral by virtue of its overwhelming whiteness.

But Avondale, as we’ve seen in past posts, is not race neutral, and never has been. And the historic relationship between Avondale Estates and the adjacent community Scottdale is an important context for Avondale’s racial identity. This context will be the subject of a future post.

[1]Mrs. M. E. Baldwin’s claims centered around sexual harassment by Mr. Brown and the granting of favors by and to policemen. Mr. Brown countered: “I have never grabbed Mrs. Baldwin and tried to kiss her in the City Hall. This incident did not happen. I have always treated Mrs. Baldwin with respect. I have not done the acts that she charged or stated. I have devoted my best efforts and ability at all times to render good and efficient service to our city. I love the city of Avondale Estates and its people, and it is my desire to continue to serve as its city manager.” WSB-TV newsflim clips of Avondale Estates City Manager Dewey Brown refuting Mrs. M. E. Baldwin’s claims of sexual harassment and favors by policemen, Avondale Estates, Georgia, February 10, 1964. Simmons, Ted. “Avondale Manager Hits Widow’s Story,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 11, 1964.

[2] “Safe and Sound,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984

[3] The Atlanta Constitution, August 9, 1981

[4] “Safe and Sound,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984

[5] “Safe and Sound,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984

[6] The Atlanta Constitution, November 18, 1990

[7] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton University Press, 2006).

[8] “Safe and Sound,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 23, 1984

[9] Phoebe Bronstein, “Comic Relief: The Andy Griffith Show, White Southern Sheriffs, and Regional Rehabilitation,” Camera Obscura 89, 30: 2, 124-155.

[10] Census Reporter, sourced from the American Community Study, 2018.

[11] Kate Rauhauser-Smith “Black community banded together for good,” Mt. Airy News, January 13, 2020.

[12] Kate Rauhauser-Smith, “Exploring black history in Surry County,” Mt. Airy News, March 30, 2020 “Mount Airy struggled with desegregation,” Mt. Airy News, February 24, 2020. Also Mt Airy was home to the famous 19th century Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, whose descendants still live there. although this history does not seem to be celebrated by the town. Yunte Huang, “Mayberry, USA,”  Yale Review 106:2 (April 2018), 57-73.

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