The city of Brookhaven’s decision to officially honor Lynwood Park, considered the oldest historically Black neighborhood in DeKalb County, is drawing praise from its longtime residents — and from one of the several celebrities born and raised in the tight-knit community.
“We can’t even explain to people what a nice village it was,” says George Wallace, a star comedian of movies and Las Vegas headlining shows who still owns the family home on Osborne Road where he grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. “We had everything we needed,” he said, describing a self-sustaining Black community. “So it may have been separate but equal. You couldn’t have asked for better schools at the time.”
The city’s pledge to erect historical signs and provide other support for Lynwood Park, now gentrifying rapidly, came out of discussions about local responses to the protests about racism and police brutality that have rocked the nation since the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May. Another city initiative is a Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission that will meet for a year to consider policy changes.
“Ooh, man, I wish I could be there for that,” Wallace said of the commission, describing “systemic racism” within Lynwood Park of his era from White cops who did things like enter the family garage in the middle of the night to figure out why his hard-working father had a Cadillac. Speaking just as an emergency vehicle passed his Atlanta home, about a mile from Lynwood Park, Wallace said: “I have never known a day in my life where I don’t flinch if I see a police officer. I hear a siren coming right now — [I’m] getting ready to run in the closet.”
The Lynwood Park legacy of thriving community amid racism and segregation is what the city now aims to better preserve. On Oct. 13, the City Council passed an ordinance recognizing the history of the neighborhood, promising monuments and plaques in that community and supporting events that celebrate its past.
“Lynwood Park is known for its unity, strength and independence even in the era of legal racial segregation,” said Lynwood Park Foundation Chair Kathy Wells at the meeting. “This ordinance speaks clearly to the strong moral values of the original residents of Lynwood Park.”
Black residents settled Lynwood Park in the 1930s after being displaced from Buckhead, which was on its way to becoming majority-White in deliberate gentrification. Recognized as DeKalb County’s oldest Black community in the ordinance, it is located north of Windsor Parkway and bordered by Nancy Creek and the Fulton County line.
As Wallace recalls, the community had three grocery stores, a nightclub, its own taxi service. There was a baseball park behind Georgia Avenue where a Black league team named the Lynwood Tigers played.
During 1960s desegregation, Lynwood Park students, who are now recognized as “Lynwood Trailblazers,” integrated schools, and the community has been a former home to celebrities, such as Wallace and Olympic gold medalist relay-runner Mel Pender. Wallace’s brother Steve, a three-time Super Bowl champion in the NFL, still lives in the area.
Councilmember Linley Jones worked with the Lynwood Park Foundation, which preserves the community’s history, to help create and pass the ordinance. Jones and residents unsuccessfully tried in 2018 to get a Civil Rights history marker for the Lynwood Park Recreation Center, a former school for Black elementary and high school students, from the Georgia Historical Society.
Jones said in an interview she wants to try again for the state marker, but in the meantime, it was time for the city to recognize the community.
The city will install a historic marker at the Lynwood Park Recreation Center that provides an account of the area and its role in the city’s history. A bronze plaque will also be inside the building with the names of Lynwood Trailblazers, according to the ordinance. Granite monuments with the neighborhood’s establishing date will be installed at its entrance. The monuments will mimic the style of welcome signs that the city has installed on its borders.
The city will support the annual Lynwood Park Community Day by providing resources and promotion, according to the ordinance. It will also host the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Dinner with free admission for former Lynwood schools students and faculty with three free guest tickets. The city will also recognize other Lynwood Park events, such as the 100th anniversary of Little Zion Baptist Church in 2023.
A room in the recreation center will be dedicated to historic Lynwood Park community members and be made freely available for meetings about the neighborhood, according to the ordinance.
“The city of Brookhaven owes a great debt of gratitude to these citizens of Lynwood Park for their contributions to our community despite these difficult conditions,” the ordinance reads.
Barbara Shaw, a Lynwood Trailblazer and 62-year resident, remembers the neighborhood as a friendly and safe place growing up, where residents could call their neighbors for help and not worry about locking their doors at night. Recognizing that history has been particularly important to Shaw as the neighborhood has become more gentrified.
“This is very heartwarming for me because I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Shaw told the council.
Jones and other residents said that gentrification is one of the reasons they pushed for historical markers. Residents shared fond memories with the council of growing up in the tight-knit community, and the change of its culture has made the historic recognition more necessary.
“We’re trying to preserve the history of our ancestors,” Wells said.
The recognition coming during, and from, a new era of civil rights activism had Wallace reflecting on a new generation’s street protests unlike others Atlanta has seen. He’s no fan of the looting and rioting that spun out of some protests, but that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did a “great job” of letting the peaceful demonstrations continue with a major crackdown.
“You know what?” he said. “The young kids are always right.”
–John Ruch and Erin Schilling