Grace McGee loves children. She raised three, and is now living with her daughter, two granddaughters, and two great grandchildren. Grace and her husband moved to Decatur in 1968. During the years she was raising her family, her home was called Miss Grace’s House, by the neighborhood children. Every year she held a back-to-school picnic across the street at Oakhurst Elementary School, for the youngsters living on Olympic, Felds, and Mead Roads. “We had a wiener roast, hamburgers, apple bites, drinks, cookies, and played music. We had a dance contest and gave out a prize. Some of the children still come by to see me, and they all remember it. They call me Mama Grace.”
Grace recalls that there was a time when all the neighbors knew each other and were like family. Over the years many of her neighbors have died, yet the character of her street has remained friendly. “Some people probably don’t know me, but the people I meet smile, and we speak. The street still has loving and caring people. I don’t get out much anymore but if they need anything, I’m here. And I don’t mind it.”
Grace hopes that her great grandchildren will remember the things she has taught them. She reminds them, “You can be anything you want to be. Keep dreaming. If you stop dreaming, life stops.”
The Tour deCatur 5K was held last weekend to raise money for the Decatur Education Foundation. A Tot Trot took place as part of the festivities. This little guy lined up to run, yet when the other toddlers took off across the field, he stood his ground. In the end, his dad picked him up and flew him to the finish line.
If you pass the intersection of West College Avenue and Adams on a school day, as children are walking to and from Renfroe Middle School, you have witnessed a tour de force. She stands five feet tall and wears fluorescent colored gloves and vest. She blows her whistle as if her life depends on it, and she expertly orchestrates traffic with grand gestures. Her name is Eula Malone. For the past eight years she has safely guided youngsters across this intersection with a smile and a shout out to have a nice day. “My passion for my job is to be the best I can be. I know I am responsible for a lot of parent’s kids. I treat the kids the same way I treat mine, with respect. I take my job very seriously to make sure they get across the street safely.” Eula’s dedication to her job has not gone unnoticed. In 2014 she was awarded the Thomas O. Davis award by the city for serving as a role model for others in public service and for being an inspiration to the community. “That was quite a surprise. I always say do the best and be the best you can be. If you flip burgers be the best burger flipper that you can be. I was proud to get that award. I was just doing my daily routine.”
Perhaps nothing has meant as much to Eula as a letter that a student handed her one morning. “She gave me that letter but I didn’t have time to read it until I got home. It was so heart touching. I cried because the words she said meant so much to me. I will always cherish that letter. It will hold a special place in my heart.” Below, Eula shares the letter from the student:
Ninetta Violante joined the Decatur Fire Department as a 28-year old firefighter in 2001. Today she is the Support Services Captain. She arrived at this post by quite a circuitous route. Because of a strong desire to help others she had sought to work on the AIDS campaign in California, but couldn’t land a job, so traveled to Africa and worked as a volunteer. From there she came to Atlanta to enroll in the Master’s Program in Public Health at Emory. To shore up her finances she enrolled with a temp agency that referred her to a job in the Decatur City Hall. While there the staff questioned Ninetta about her aspirations. Then they asked, “Would you like to become a firefighter?”
“I had gone through boot camp, I had been a personal trainer, and I am an athlete. I have always wanted to save people. And here they were, ‘you should be a firefighter!’ Wow! I had never considered that. Then I got really excited. I was so scared because I thought it was a really good fit and thought, what if I don’t get it? But here I am.”
“When I started it was difficult because I was 5’2”, 125 pounds, and female. I was also unsure about letting them know about my sexual preference. I’ve always been okay in male-dominated scenarios, whether it was the military or just growing up participating in athletics. Often I was the only female on a team. But at the Fire Department, I had to prove myself. It was probably the first time where I wasn’t accepted by some because of my gender. It was hard. It took about three years before I gained the trust and respect of all the firefighters. Today, our department is very open and accepting. I think we’re ahead of the game compared to what’s occurring nationally and internationally. If I didn’t work for the City of Decatur, I don’t know if I would work for a different department.”
Although Ninetta has always been excited about pushing the limits of her physical capabilities, she is also creative. She is an artist and poet. Once, Ninetta donated one of her paintings for a silent auction to benefit a charitable organization. The painting included some prose about finding someone with whom to connect. While the painting sold, Ninetta was disappointed that she had not met the buyer. Years later she connected with a woman named Leigh. On one occasion, Ninetta offered her a book to read that she considered worthwhile. In response Leigh said, “I’d like to show you one of my favorite and most touching art pieces.” As it turned out, Leigh, had been the one who had purchased Ninetta’s painting years earlier. She had not been able to decipher the signature so had always wondered who had created the painting. Today the painting hangs in the home Ninetta shares with her wife, Leigh, and their son, Gavin.
I have embarked on a new project in partnership with the Decatur Education Foundation and the Decatur Arts Alliance entitled I am Decatur. The mission of this project is to showcase the rich diversity of our community by telling the stories of the people who make up our vibrant city. I will be interviewing each participant to record their story and collaborating with each individual to create an environmental portrait. An environmental portrait is a photograph of an individual or group in the context of their lives. It is a powerful way to capture the essence of the subject.
Stay tuned. I am Decatur coming soon.
In today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, journalist Jeremy Redmon wrote an article which commented on a photograph he had snapped with his iPhone of Congressman John Lewis at the Atlanta airport on Saturday. Congressman Lewis was at the airport with hundreds of citizens, advocates and attorneys who were concerned about the refugees detained at the airport as a result of President Trump’s executive order banning refugees from entering the country. The photograph of Congressman Lewis was not particularly compelling, yet the story was. The image showed the 76-year-old civil rights icon sitting on a metal bench, hands clasped, looking patiently to his right. He had asked the federal immigration official how many refugees were being detained. When the official refused to provide information, Congressman Lewis told the crowd, “Why don’t we just sit down and stay a while.” Eventually, Congressman Lewis was briefed about the situation. The image above is a tribute to Congressman Lewis and all our citizens who had the courage to stand up and protest perceived injustice.
It is impossible to predict how the next four years will shape our country but I am certain about one thing. America will witness a “HUGE” surge in activism. The historic Woman’s March in DC last weekend was an indication that people are moved to unite to defend the civil rights of their family members, neighbors, and all those who call this great country home. I met Gus at the MLK March in Atlanta. He is a psychotherapist as well as an activist. He has been marching since 1968. He was one of many people who I met that were passionate about preserving social justice.