I don’t remember exactly when during our tenure living south of Interstate 20 the passionate debate about Confederate Avenue first became so — well, passionate — but I do remember the first time I ran across the street name.
We’d been living in Atlanta for about nine months and I was house-hunting. I came across a listing for a house in southeast Atlanta on Confederate Avenue, and though the better story would be that I elected not to take a look at it because of the name of the street it sat on, the reality was that I passed it by because it had trey ceilings in its living room.
For years, whenever something really bad happened in the wide world, people in Grant and Ormewood Parks, the neighborhoods Confederate runs through, would use the Nextdoor online forum to debate whether or not the name should be changed. “Considerate Avenue” was suggested as a replacement. So was “United Avenue,” referring more to Atlanta’s soccer team, the Atlanta United, than to any meeting of the minds about a potential name change or even for the need for one.
The online debate would ebb, and it would flow. Occasionally, when I took a walk through the neighborhood, I’d notice that one of the street signs would be spraypainted out. Once, a home-made sign — “Considerate Ave” — had been duct-taped over the more official one.
Then, Charlottesville happened. Sentiment that the street name should be changed, while still not unanimous, grew. Discussions about it became more organized and jumped off-line and into real life.
After meetings, after listening sessions, after straw polls taken over new name ideas, after A.P. wire stories were picked up and nationally run, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously this past October that the name of Confederate Avenue should be changed to United Avenue.
Confederate Avenue, so named because it ran in front of the Confederate Soldiers’ Home built in 1900. Dig a little deeper, and you discover that construction of the Home, one of Henry W. Grady’s pet projects, may have been at least in part a sop thrown to disaffected rural farmers who felt that the urban “silk-hats” in Atlanta didn’t have their interests at heart. If those farmers, many of whom were veterans, (because the Civil War was, above all, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”) became too disgruntled, they might form a third political party, which in turn might allow the Republican party — whom newly-franchised African-Americans might vote for — to influence, if not, throw, elections.
There’s a story behind every story.
Dig deeper still and you learn that the Old Soldiers’ Home cornerstone contained “Confederate currency, some minie balls, letters from Jefferson and Varina Davis… and a copy of Lee’s plans on how to use blacks in the war.”
This morning, intent on the music spilling from my earbuds and the to-do list running through my head, I walked past an idling City of Atlanta Public Works truck and just happened to look up.
—Y’all putting up the new street signs? I blurted out, surprised.
—Yes, one of the workers said. Cautiously, it seemed to me, or was I reading into things?
—I’m so happy to see them! I said. Full of pride in my adopted city, I was.
—It’s a beautiful day in Atlanta, the worker said, smiling, a beautiful day.
It was in fact a gray day, one promising rain, but I agreed wholeheartedly, and the two of us grinned at each other, and then I walked on.