The city of Stone Mountain is working to bring new life to its downtown scene. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
By J.D. Capelouto
At the base of Georgia’s most popular tourist attraction sits a small town with the same name. As one boasts a theme park and hiking trails, the other has fallen victim to a troubling reputation, residents and local leaders say.
In the majority-black city of Stone Mountain, many have grown increasingly worried that the mountain’s decades-long connection with racist organizations has tainted the city’s chances for growth. The Ku Klux Klan underwent a “rebirth” with a rally at the park in 1915. More recently, rallies by Confederate flag-waving white supremacists and white nationalists have brought unwanted media coverage of tense gatherings and counter-protests.
But according to the city’s top administrator, that’s emblematic of the “old Stone Mountain.”
“When, historically, people think about Stone Mountain Village, it was this place that wasn’t really open to outside influences,” City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said. “We’re beyond that. We don’t want that to continue to be our narrative.”
People prepare the trek up Stone Mountain. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
As several storefronts in downtown Stone Mountain sit vacant, the city and its residents are working to rebrand and create a new identity — one that can distance the city from what many describe as a “stigma” attached to the Stone Mountain name and history.
To help with the effort, the city invited in the Georgia Tourism Product Development Team, which spent Tuesday and Wednesday visiting the town. City officials hope the tourism office will help the city attract new businesses and visitors, developing its image as an inclusive, diverse community.
Some “don’t actually know that our largest population is African American, because that’s not been the voice,” Miller-Thornton said, noting that the city is about 70 percent black.
Overcoming a bad rep
Janie Rector, 76, remembers when the historically black part of the city was lined with just dirt roads.
“I was here as a little girl. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Klan coming through at the time? That was a time when you had to go in and stay in your house and just waited,” said Rector, who now works for the city’s oldest black church, Bethsaida Baptist Church.
Bethsaida Baptist Church member Janie Rector speaks about the history of the church. (Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Stone Mountain’s Confederate past overshadows its storied black history. In the southeast corner of the city sits Shermantown, which sprang up as a black neighborhood following William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to Savannah during the Civil War. The neighborhood has its own cemetery and a number of historic black churches.
Bethsaida was built in 1868 out of Stone Mountain granite, with stained glass windows circling the sanctuary. Rector said outdoor church services began several years earlier, according to the oral tradition that was passed down to her.
“The old ones, they were the kind that believed in work,” she said. “They worked their jobs during the day, come here and work in the evenings … built the church with rocks and everything.”
The city should not erase the history that’s part of Stone Mountain Village, said Melissa Jest, a member of the tourism development team who specializes in historic preservation.
“Let’s just interpret it,” she said. “This is just an opportunity to zoom the lens out and tell a fuller story, good, bad and ugly.”
(Video: 1. Jefferson Davis’ thumb is the size of a sofa. 2. Stone Mountain Park is home to the world’s largest piece of exposed granite. 3. On a clear winter day you can see 45 miles from the top. 4. Shrimp live in seasonal pools on top of the mountain. 5. It is believed a ghost occupies the Thornton House at the Antebellum Plantation. 6. The Laser Show Spectacular is the longest running laser show in the world. 7. The Scarlett O’Hara Riverboat is an authentic paddlewheel riverboat. 8. The campground is the large)
The park and the city share many Civil War ties. The carving on Stone Mountain, completed over the course of several decades starting in 1923, is considered the largest Confederate monument in the world. The city is home to a cemetery for hundreds of Confederate soldiers, and some of the homes are built in a style that evoke the Antebellum era. The city has a road called Venable Street, which bears the name of James Venable, who was an imperial wizard of the KKK and the mayor of Stone Mountain in the 1940s.
“I’ve had people, my family, (ask) ‘Why do you want to move to Stone Mountain?’” said resident Betty Pompey, 71, who is black. “It’s not like that any more. It’s different, I feel welcome.”
But the unflattering headlines associated with Stone Mountain Park have only stepped up since 2015, though its physical attractions and natural beauty keep attendance high.
“Many people think we own the park. They don’t understand that there’s the park, and there’s the city, and then there’s the greater Stone Mountain area,” said Chakira Johnson, a city councilor and mayor pro tem. “It’s really kind of confusing.”
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