Atlanta became the first major southern city to elect an African-American mayor in 1974 and has selected one in every election since. Black citizens in the Atlanta metro earn college degrees at a rate almost 50% higher than the national black average.
When Ebony magazine named Atlanta, Georgia as the “Black Mecca of the South” in 1971, it was less than a decade after the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In Atlanta, according to writer Phyllis “Phyl” T. Garland, “black folks have more, live better, accomplish more and deal with whites more effectively than they do anywhere else in the South — or North.” Slowly but surely, this trend is extending beyond the city limits.
Farming communities outside of the city that once relied on enslaved people for labor are now home to many African-American professionals who commute to the city for work. One such community is Stockbridge, located 30 minutes south of Atlanta and the birthplace of Martin Luther King Sr. in 1899.
Martin Luther King Sr. Heritage Trail
The racial divide has thinned in Stockbridge since 1899. Signs along the historic downtown streets guide visitors along the Martin Luther King Sr. Heritage Trail established in 2015. The eponymously named thoroughfare connects downtown to this community. It leads to the Floyd Chapel Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Sr. worshiped as a child and preached his first sermon in 1915, at age 15.
The elder King, also known as “Daddy King,” was a civil rights leader in his own right. He became assistant pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta in 1927 and senior pastor in 1931. He guided the church through the Great Depression and was a widely respected church leader by 1934.
Daddy King was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church for four decades, influencing the black community and earning respect from the enlightened portions of the white community. As a local leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he served on the executive committee of the Atlanta NAACP chapter and as an officer in the Civic and Political League.
He also inspired his son to become active in the movement.
In his essay, “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I guess the influence of my father also had a great deal to do with my going into the ministry. This is not to say that he ever spoke to me in terms of being a minister, but that my admiration for him was the great moving factor; He set forth a noble example that I didn’t mind following.”
Juxtaposition of Old and New
Just 30 miles to the North is Stone Mountain, Georgia, only 16 miles from downtown Atlanta. The site of the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture, which depicts three Confederate leaders: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, was completed in 1972. Stone Mountain Park officially opened on April 14, 1965, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Thankfully, things are changing.
You can see the difference in Henry County as you walk along Stockbridge’s downtown strip. You’ll notice the BarnBeautiful woodshop among the downtown boutiques, where craftsmen transform wood reclaimed from old barns into hand-crafted home decor. Store manager and head craftsman Chris Bradley will often work on his latest project behind the counter.
Bradley is always open to conversation, and he doesn’t take long to tell you why he loves his work. “I’ve found that working with your hands can bring you a much closer connection to the world than anything else,” says Bradley with a smile. “To work with woods that have seen thousands of experiences over, sometimes, hundreds of years, to feel the history, to help shape a future, is spiritually fulfilling.”
He picks up a board and explains that the wood’s imperfections are the most beautiful parts, and he reveals that beauty with polish and hard work.
The juxtaposition of old and new is evident as you walk out of BarnBeautiful and continue along the downtown strip. Looking past the bare foundation of the Stockbridge Station, torn down in the 1980s, you’ll see the new city hall and amphitheater. This construction wasn’t the first time Stockbridge relocated.
Over 140 years ago, in 1882, present-day Stockbridge was established a mile south of Old Stockbridge to accommodate the Southern Railroad expansion and plans for a rail station. Trains still pass through Stockbridge, although they no longer stop or even sound their horns. Their legacy lives on, though, including delineating the historic center of Stockbridge’s African-American community once viewed as, “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Traveling the Martin Luther King Sr. Heritage Trail
The Green Front Café is a little farther down the street. This historical marker in front of the building reads, “The Green Front Café was a popular gathering place from the late 1940s until the early 2000s. The establishment was synonymous with Mrs. Carrie Mae Hambrick, who became the proprietor in 1949. She was known for serving tasty hamburgers, hot dogs, and soul food delicacies, especially her famous cornbread.”
It’s believed this little cafe was the first restaurant in Henry County. Under Hambrick’s management, all were welcome. Both black and white residents dined together under the same roof, regardless of prevalent segregation practices.
Ms. Carrie Mae must have had some mighty good cornbread to challenge the color barrier in 1940s Georgia.
Just mentioning its name evokes fond memories in the many who frequented this place when Ms. Carrie Mae owned and operated it. Diane D. Miller, the new owner and curator of the Green Front Café, told us why it was important to her to reopen “The Green Lady” and restore it with authentic Henry County touches wherever possible.
Miller recognized the café was an icon of a resilient community full of hope. When she started renovating the building, she turned to BarnBeautiful to help weave the community into the very fabric of the café by incorporating reclaimed wood from nearby Broder Farm into the beams of the ceiling.
Visitors who step through the front door of the Green Front Café today are welcomed like family. This is a throwback to a time when neighbors knew each other and the community cared for those living there. It was essential to Miller to create a place to preserve, “the stories and to make new memories.”
After the grand reopening of the Café in May 2023, Miller commissioned BarnBeautiful to create a miniature replica of the Green Front Café as a symbol of the community to help tell the story beyond the four walls of the place. The Green Front Café welcomes all who visit Stockbridge for a history lesson, a great meal, and a dose of Southern hospitality.
The King Legacy
It’s easy to feel welcome when eating a delicious plate of cornbread and fried catfish, but change isn’t always simple, and there’s still work to be done. If asked, Miller will tell you how she helps local charities with coat drives and participates in other community outreach programs because there are still pockets of poverty in the area.
During the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, the King family gave everything they had to the movement.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech. His voice strong and assured, he opened with, “If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”
King’s speech traveled through great moments of change and freedom. He made stops at the exodus from Egypt, the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece, the growth of civic leadership in the Roman Empire, and the rebirth of learning in the Renaissance. He touched on the leadership of Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation and President Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address.
After honoring the past, he embraced living in the present, “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’”
Later that night, a single shot fired outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis took King’s life. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M. King Sr.’s wife, Alberta, was murdered on June 30, 1974. The elder King lived until age 84 and died of natural causes in Atlanta.
Stockbridge Embodies the Dream
Between Mrs. Carrie Mae’s cornbread, Daddy King’s preaching, and the hard work of the Civil Rights Movement, the color barrier is coming down not only in Stockbridge, but also in all of Henry County.
The 2000 census showed that of the nearly 122,000 people who live in the county, 81.38% were White, and 14.68% were Black or African-American. By 2020, that percentage was 35.85% White and 48.37% Black or African American, with a county population of 239,000.
Residents embrace this shift from a farming community to a bedroom community for affluent Atlanta families pursuing the American Dream. Stockbridge, Henry County’s largest city, was even named among the “10 best cities in the nation for African Americans to live,” according to Livability.com.
History is a winding, complex road navigated through conscious preservation, whether barn wood, cornbread recipes, or historic trails. The Martin Luther King Sr. Heritage Trail and Stockbridge, Georgia, tell the story of great people who have come before us — their challenges and victories, heartbreak and hard work, but most of all, their unwavering commitment to a dream of freedom and equality for all.
This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.