Wiley Roberson has deep roots in Decatur. His parents traveled from Walton County, Georgia to Decatur in 1921. They settled down in the African American community of Beacon Hill, where they raised 11 children. “I was born at 921 Atlanta Avenue, September 13, 1934. The Beacon Hill community was our village. We had everything that we needed. We had businesses, a doctor’s office, grocery stores, a movie theater, restaurants, and a funeral home where the courthouse is sitting now. We thrived.”
In the mid 1960s, urban renewal and white flight occurred. Wiley states that these changes proved to be positive for the people living in his community. “We had a chance to get out of this village and expand and go live in other areas which wasn’t possible back then because the railroad track was our dividing line. The white people started moving out and blacks started buying over there. I have had a wonderful life in Decatur but I’ve seen it change dramatically.“
Wiley is a lay minister at the Lilly Hill Baptist Church on Robin Street, the only structure that still exists from the Beacon Hill era. It has been there for 104 years. “When it’s time to go to Sunday school and church, I like to dress. God wants us to look the best we can, be the best we can, and smell the best we can. I’m not a casual person. I love to dress and I love men’s cologne.”
Wiley was a skilled carpenter, but he also had a talent for singing. “I love to sing gospel songs and I sing at funerals. I have a deep, resonant voice that comes from my stomach. It resonates with folks.” Wiley also loves to cook.” I bake cakes from scratch and and sell them to folks during the holidays. My specialties are old fashion pound cake, key lime and red velvet cakes, and potato soufflé.” Wiley’s secret for baking a successful cake? “ Take your time, have everything at room temperature, and have a good attitude.”
Valerie Gilbert was raised in a military family so she has lived in many places, including overseas. She traveled a circuitous route before landing in Decatur about 23 years ago. “I have a friend who lives around the corner on Midway and she told me about this little house that was about to come up for rent. I jumped on it. I felt like it had a lot of potential and that I belonged here. I loved Decatur, that it was close to Atlanta, but not too close, and that it was a cool funky little community.”
Valerie was involved in the professional world of art, showing, and selling her clay-based creations. Before moving into her home in Decatur she was working out of the Beacon Hill Arts Studios. After undergoing a divorce and purchasing her home, Valerie became concerned about her ability to support herself with her creative process. So, she decided to pursue a teaching certificate at Georgia State University (GSU). “While attending GSU, I’d drive past Renfroe Middle School (in Decatur). I kept thinking, ‘That’s where I want to teach.’” And eventually she did.
Valerie found teaching art at Renfroe Middle School gratifying. “I loved the students at Renfroe. Middle school kids have a great sense of humor and they are full of surprises. There was never a dull day. Some students really loved art while others didn’t. My art class was a place where I could meet all these kids in the middle.” Unfortunately, due to Valerie’s demanding teaching schedule, she did not find the time to devote to her own art.
After teaching for 15 years, Valerie retired in 2016. “I love making large figurative clay sculptures, but I don’t feel strong enough to do that anymore. So, I’m switching back to working with mixed media. I gave up my identity as an artist for a while to be a teacher. I put it in a box and buried it, and now I’m trying to recapture that identity. I have a studio in my backyard which I just cleaned and organized so I’m ready to enter the last phase of my life as an artist!”
Willie Mae Hardy was born on a plantation in 1908 in Talbot County, Junction City, Georgia. Her grandmother had been enslaved. After the Emancipation Proclamation the family remained on the plantation as tenant farmers. She recalled life on the farm as being hard. Her days were spent doing chores such as picking cotton, plowing the fields, caring for the hogs and chickens, and tending the garden. Despite her limited education she taught herself to read and write. One of the most frightening memories she has from her childhood occurred during the Jim Crow era. The Ku Klux Klan came to their family’s home and took away her cousin, Dan. She never saw him again.
In 1939, Willie Mae moved to Atlanta with her husband in search of a better life for her only child, Cassie Nell. She joined the Butler Street Baptist Church where she became a devoted member. She also worked as a housekeeper for various families over the years. Cooking was a passion and collard greens were her specialty. In 1966, Willie Mae’s daughter lost her husband unexpectedly, and Willie Mae moved to Decatur to help care for her seven grandchildren. She has continued to live in the same house with her daughter ever since. Today, Willie Mae’s granddaughter, Veronica Edwards, also lives in the house and cares for Willie Mae and Cassie, who is 91-years-old. Willie Mae’s secret to a long life is, ”Stay out of trouble, get a job, and if you do the right thing the Lord will bless you.” At 109 years old, Willie Mae is blessed.
In 2003, Robert Griffin and his partner, Andrew Currie, were invited by friends to attend a festival in Oakhurst, a neighborhood in Decatur. Although they lived in Midtown, only 6 miles away, they had never visited this area of town. That day changed the trajectory of their lives. Andrew recalls, ”Honestly, I will never forget this. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon with great music. We looked around and there was this incredible feeling of welcomed diversity, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, and everything in between. It felt like we belonged.”
Not long after, Andrew and Robert drove by a house in Oakhurst that caught Andrew’s attention. Robert was resistant. “I was like, no! The property was overgrown, the windows broken, and the porch was terrible. It was just awful.” Andrew insisted it had good bones and structure. They bought the house, and that is where they have resided for the last 14 years.
Although Robert and Andrew have embraced living in Decatur, they have witnessed a shift in the diversity which leaves them concerned. Robert points out, “The changes since we have moved here have been dramatic. We left Midtown because it was becoming gentrified. It has followed us here to Decatur.” Andrew adds, “We are a victim of our own successes. Decatur was smart enough to invest in all the right things. The schools are a magnet, and that is a great thing. As a result, we are bringing a lot of people in, but the mix is getting off. I have grown to love the inclusiveness, the range of people and the attitudes. It can’t be beat. But, I fear that Decatur may lose a bit of its soul if we’re not careful.”
I am honored to have “Singers at Woodruff Park” selected for the exhibition “Where Are We?”. Please join me and my fellow photographers for the opening reception Thursday, May 11, at the APG Gallery, from 6-9 pm. See below for details.
Matthew Damico started working as a patrol officer in Decatur in 2009. He eventually transitioned to his current position as a School Resource Officer (SRO). His past experience working with troubled youth made him the ideal candidate to work with the students in the City Schools of Decatur. “Each one of those communities has a specific need. With the youngest students, I’m present to be a positive role model, create exposure, and help them form as little citizens. Middle school students rarely engage in criminal conduct, but they often have issues where they need support. In the high school, the overwhelming majority of students are fantastic young people, but everyone makes mistakes. One of our goals is to act as a liaison between the police department, the school and the community, to not treat every criminal act simply as the criminal act but to look at it from a holistic approach.”
Officer Damico‘s success and popularity amongst the students is a result of long-term relationship building that occurs over the years. “One needs to take the opportunity to plant the seeds for a positive relationship. You can’t rush it. I take every child’s safety and wellbeing to heart. I prefer my children to make mistakes when they’re young. Nothing can’t be fixed at this stage. I want them to leave our community at 18, ready to be healthy members of society.”
Officer Damico advises his charges to, “Be mindful. Don’t get hung up on long-term distant points. Just focus on being healthy, happy and successful today. If you take care of today, tomorrow’s going to be all right.”
One of the challenges that Officer Damico faces is that police officers are often pre-judged. “Before I get out of the car, people have already decided what my feelings are regarding race, gender, ethnics, politics, and that’s difficult. I really want people to see me as an individual.”