The Tie That Binds: White Church Response to Neighborhood Racial Change in Atlanta, 1960–1985

By 

Preston Hogue

Published: March 6, 2018

On May 11, 1966, Kirkwood Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, voted to sell its property and relocate. Over the previous few years, the neighborhood of Kirkwood had been undergoing a racial transition as African Americans moved into what had been an all-white area. Members of Kirkwood Baptist joined with other white churchgoers in the area to prevent African Americans from purchasing homes in the working- and middle-class neighborhood. They negotiated with real estate agents and petitioned city officials, but ultimately they could not prevent their neighbors from selling to black homebuyers. In the seven months leading up to May 1966, Kirkwood Baptist lost 119 members. The remaining members voted on whether to relocate or stay in the neighborhood. The vote to relocate carried with an overwhelming majority – 296 to 38.1

At the conclusion of the meeting, the congregation sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” a late eighteenth century English hymn that was a favorite of Protestant congregations the world over.2

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Like many congregations before them, the members of Kirkwood Baptist affirmed the strong bonds within their fellowship, likening their closeness of community to that in heaven. They were parting with a neighborhood they had called home for over sixty years and a church building that had been the scenery of their collective memory since 1953 – a property valued at close to one million dollars.3 The hymn expressed both their pain in leaving behind something so important to their lives but also their hope for their congregation in a new neighborhood. But while they celebrated their “perfect love and friendship” that will “reign through all eternity,” in retrospect it is clear that the tie that bound Kirkwood Baptist’s congregants had as much to do with white racial identity as Christian love.4

“Blest Be the Tie,” words by John Fawcett, 1782, music by Johann G. Nägeli, arranged by Lowell Mason. From Kingdom Songs (Nashville, TN: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist), no. 192. Courtesy of the Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

More precisely, the church was rooted in the shared white identity of the neighborhood. Churches like Kirkwood Baptist that were situated in residential neighborhoods generally ministered to that neighborhood. Indeed, the names of these churches reflect their neighborhood (e.g. Kirkwood Baptist Church was in the Kirkwood neighborhood). When the racial makeup of a neighborhood changed, it had a direct impact on neighborhood institutions. Rev. Clarence Drummond, a doctoral student at the Southern Theological Seminary in the 1970s, conducted an in-depth study of his church as African Americans moved into their neighborhood, noting that churches were “among the most conspicuously affected institutions” in neighborhood racial transition.5 When the neighborhood’s racial composition shifted, neighborhood churches were necessarily affected. 

The impact of neighborhood racial change on churches in Atlanta is a significant yet neglected aspect of the nationwide phenomenon of white flight, which has otherwise been well-documented with increasing nuance by such authors as Kevin Kruse, Amanda Seligman, and Rachael Woldoff.6 Though some scholars have written about the impact of white flight on religious congregations in northern cities,7 the particular importance of religion among whites in the South warrants greater attention, especially its relationship with white flight in southern metropolitan areas. Nearly every area of public and private life was being desegregated in the South in the 1960s, and often church was one of the few spaces where whites maintained racial homogeneity. But shifting neighborhood demographics rocked even that most stable institution. Although some recent research has explored the roles southern white evangelicals played in resisting the civil rights movement, there has been little research into the responses of white southern churches to neighborhood racial change.8 This essay begins to close that gap by studying white churches in Atlanta that were caught between the ideal of fraternal bonds described in “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” and the reality of eroding membership and financial resources precipitated by fear of the racial other.

Initially, this study sought only to understand white churches that closed due to neighborhood racial transition. Churches were thus selected for study if their records ended roughly between the period of 1960–85, the height of neighborhood racial transition in Atlanta. However, I quickly learned that churches’ responses to changing demographics had greater variance than just closure and included relocation or, albeit rarely, a sustained presence in the transitioned neighborhood. Even those churches that closed took widely varying paths before disbanding. This research primarily draws from the records of sixteen Atlanta-area Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.9 I chose these three denominations for their combined majority share of white southern churches and their shared cultural and theological distinctiveness, namely the central importance of evangelism, or a concern for the conversion of individuals to Christianity through exhortation to repentance from all wrongdoing and reception of God’s forgiveness.10 Ironically, as I will discuss, even the practice of evangelism was stunted in many white churches by a racist social imagination that limited cross-racial interaction – including communication of their beloved gospel or “good news.” The churches highlighted in this piece were also chosen because they represent trends within their respective categories (or, in the case of disbanding churches, they demonstrate contrasting experiences) while providing richness of detail in the archival records.

While the experience of each church was unique in its particulars, the various responses of white churches to neighborhood racial transition can be divided into three broad categories: churches that fled, churches that disbanded, and churches that stayed. Of the sixteen churches I examined, five fled, eight disbanded, and three stayed. Churches that fled relocated away from the neighborhood impacted by racial transition. However, some fleeing churches organized to resist black homeownership before leaving. Churches that fled also had the highest occurrence of joining a protective neighborhood organization and merging with another congregation. On the other hand, churches that stayed persisted through neighborhood racial transition because of concerted efforts to welcome black neighbors into the congregation. Common features among the churches that stayed include affirmations of open-door policies, studying cross-racial ministry, hiring black staff, hosting weekday ministries, and reaching out to African Americans. Not all churches that stayed in transitioning neighborhoods remained integrated, though. One of the three fully transitioned from white to black. The qualifying characteristic for this category, then, is enduring beyond the racial transition of the neighborhood.

Finally, churches that disbanded were those that did not survive the effects of neighborhood racial transition, some closing after a couple of years of drastic membership decline, others after decades of lingering as a white “fortress” church in a black neighborhood. While churches that fled and churches that stayed exhibited many common features within their groups, churches that disbanded took widely varying courses to their eventual closure. Among the ten events that occurred in disbanding churches because of neighborhood racial change, six were unique to individual churches, and no event occurred in more than two of the eight churches. That is, the responses to neighborhood racial transition by churches that disbanded had little in common other than their shared fate.

The scope of my research did not include African American experiences with churches during neighborhood racial transition in part because the archival evidence of black experiences is virtually non-existent in the records that were maintained by white-controlled churches and denominations. Even the records of those churches that stayed, where African Americans eventually held leadership positions, were disproportionately maintained by white church historians and secretaries, and their representation of African American experiences is likewise sparse and, where present, often told as part of a larger, white-centered narrative. However, other archival holdings may yet offer insight into the experiences of black homebuyers in transitional neighborhoods and their treatment by white churchgoers. Further research of such resources could shed light on how African Americans viewed their decisions to join or not join white churches when they moved into racially-changing neighborhoods. Although the archives of churches I consulted lack representation of black perspectives, as I hope this essay demonstrates, they nonetheless present the opportunity to better understand the decision-making of white churches and their leaders as they experienced neighborhood racial transition in Atlanta. As a crisis moment, neighborhood change forced difficult decisions for these churches and exposed core convictions that might otherwise have remained undisclosed, and which help inform our understanding of the role of religious institutions in responses to neighborhood racial transition.

Churches That Fled

Racial zoning laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1914, but as a workaround the city of Atlanta used other means, such as buffer zones of industrial or commercial space, to segregate residential areas by race. By the mid-twentieth century, however, these buffer zones became contested ground.11 In a post-World War II population boom, the city needed more housing for African Americans, so it designated some white neighborhoods to serve as expansion zones where they could move, mostly on the West Side.12 To navigate this potentially explosive transition, Mayor William B. Hartsfield, a politician skilled at working across race lines, established a bi-racial council to negotiate the transition of white neighborhoods to black ones.13 Groups replicated this model in areas across the city that faced neighborhood racial transition, whether initiated by the city as on the West Side, or by market forces, as in Atlanta’s East Side neighborhoods, where residents created Eastern Atlanta, Inc. The East Side council served as a “protective” homeowners’ association which sold stock to white residents of East Side neighborhoods, including Kirkwood, in order to raise funds to buy back homes from African Americans who had breached the race boundaries whites had hoped to maintain.14

When it was apparent that African Americans wanted to move into Kirkwood, a nearly all-white, working-class community, the church leaders there mobilized in a similar way.15 On February 21, 1961, six churches held a joint meeting to agree on a coordinated plan of action. Working together was nothing new for these churches who had annually coordinated a shared community church service. The strong bonds of the church leaders allowed them to quickly mobilize a common response to their shared perceived threat: African American neighbors.16 Fashioning themselves as the Kirkwood Community Committee, they established which streets would serve as boundaries between black and white residents, agreed to assist Eastern Atlanta, Inc. in selling stock subscriptions, and launched a public campaign to “Keep Kirkwood White.”17 They also partnered with Alderman Robert E. Lee Field to pressure “realtists”18 to stop the sale of homes to African Americans in Kirkwood. In a meeting with the alderman, the church leaders emphasized the damage done in a neighboring white community where “7 churches, Whitefoord School, and over 600 houses” had been “conceded” to African Americans. Because so many churches were sold at once in that neighborhood, they sometimes received less than half the market value for the sale. Kirkwood leaders feared a similar loss of investment for their churches.19

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Prepared by Shiva Kooragayala.

The financial situation of whites in transitioning neighborhoods was indeed dire. Federal lending practices tied property value to (among other things) the race of the property owner. If African Americans moved into a neighborhood, the homes in the neighborhood immediately lost value. Ironically, the racist policies intended to protect whites instead had the effect of ruining the lifetime investments of working-class white families.20 Those policies equally applied to church properties which represented a financial investment of faithful congregants contributing weekly tithes. White churches that found it untenable to remain in a racially-mixed or black neighborhood paid dearly in financial losses. They suddenly faced a rapidly-eroding membership base, subsequently diminished financial resources, and a sharply devalued property. Clearly, when African Americans moved into a neighborhood, the churches and community felt threatened not just by a racial “other,” but by the massive financial losses looming in their future.

While prospective financial losses may have provided some rationale for whites to attempt to block black homeownership in their neighborhoods, their responses were also motivated by unambiguous racism, as demonstrated by the rapid mass withdrawal of white students and teachers from Kirkwood Elementary School when it was desegregated in 1965. When the Atlanta Board of Education announced that black students would be transferred to all-white Kirkwood Elementary to relieve the severely overcrowded neighboring black schools, they allowed white students previously enrolled at Kirkwood Elementary to transfer to other schools. All but seven of Kirkwood’s 470 white students and all eighteen of its white teachers transferred. Only the white principal and the seven white students remained when nearly 500 black students came to school on Monday, January 25.21 Property values were not at stake in allowing black and white children to share classrooms, only white homogeneity, which Kirkwood whites had clearly fought to protect.

Kirkwood Baptist Church

Ultimately the efforts of the Kirkwood Community Committee could not stand up to the demand for black housing, which overwhelmed their efforts to buy back homes or establish race boundaries. It remained for individual Kirkwood churches to respond on their own; and nearly all of them took immediate action to relocate. The story of Kirkwood Baptist Church, the largest in Kirkwood in the early 1960s, with a Sunday School enrollment of 1,769 in 1963, is representative of many churches that fled neighborhoods throughout Atlanta in response to racial transition.22

Before African Americans even began to move into the neighborhood, Kirkwood Baptist affirmed its commitment to remain an all-white church. In the summer of 1960, groups of black students attempted to attend services at several prominent white churches in Atlanta.23 In response, the congregation resolved to “request our Negro friends to attend services at their own churches.”24 Kirkwood Baptist adopted its closed-door policy to establish the procedures for handling protesters attempting to integrate their worship services.

But voting to keep their “Negro friends” out of church services did not keep African Americans from moving into Kirkwood. As the church historian later reflected regarding the “rapid change of the Kirkwood community,” after “a few homes were sold to Blacks, panic swept the entire community and within a few months few of our members retained residence in Kirkwood.”25 In the midst of that panic, Kirkwood Baptist searched for ways to escape and preserve its homogeneous whiteness. Fortunately for them, they already had somewhere to go. In 1964 they had acquired five acres of property about seven miles southeast of Kirkwood in unincorporated DeKalb County, an area that had not yet seen racial transition, with the goal of planting a separate church there. In May 1966, however, they decided to sell the Kirkwood properties, scrap their plans to start a new church, and instead themselves relocate to their second property. This site would remain accessible to members in their new (non-Kirkwood) homes but still be close enough to Kirkwood so that it was not entirely unfamiliar territory.26 Less than a year later, they sold all their property and buildings in Kirkwood, originally valued at $947,000, for a mere $360,000 to the Atlanta Board of Education.27

Fleeing churches like Kirkwood Baptist never considered remaining a neighborhood church by welcoming their black neighbors to worship with them. Their tendency to abandon a black neighborhood was based partly in their theological understanding of their purpose and partly in racism. Southern Protestant churches valued personal evangelism – that is, exhorting non-Christians to forsake sinful ways and embrace God’s forgiveness – above all else and had an underdeveloped social ethic.28 Since congregants embraced racist social customs that discouraged interaction with African Americans, these white southern evangelicals thought it appropriate only to evangelize whites.29 That sentiment was captured by the historian of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, which had fled alongside its Baptist counterpart and merged with another Presbyterian church five miles south. In 1963 she included this “Final Note from the Historian”:

Atlanta Daily World, August 9, 1960, 1.
Kirkwood Baptist Church, Atlanta, 1954. N04-112_01, Tracy O’Neal Photographic Collection, 1923-1975, Photographic Collection. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.
So, we the former members of the Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, remember Christ’s last words were, “GO, YE – PREACH THE GOSPEL”. Moses command to the children of Israel was “GO FORWARD”. Cecil Thompson in his address at the ground-breaking for Wee Kirk’s new sanctuary said, “A church building is not a place to come to, but a place to GO FROM” with the gospel. Therefore, let it be recorded that the former members of the Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, GO about the Father’s business to work from other bases.30

She quoted Matthew 16:18 to characterize their flight from Kirkwood as prevailing over “the gates of hell” and used rough quotes from Moses and Jesus that encourage movement forward to characterize their fleeing as “going.” In doing so, congregants assessed the surge of new, black Kirkwood neighbors as unworthy of their evangelistic mission and fled to another “base” that had not yet seen racial transition. But relocation ultimately proved to be futile in maintaining white homogeneity for both these Kirkwood churches because the south DeKalb neighborhoods to which the churches moved eventually experienced racial transition just as Kirkwood had. As I will discuss later, however, as African Americans moved into the areas around the relocated churches, they were given a second opportunity to respond, and while the Presbyterian church chose to flee again, Kirkwood Baptist became a church that stayed.

Churches That Disbanded

Relocation for fleeing churches like Kirkwood Baptist was a pre-emptive measure to protect against the dramatic decline in white membership that they expected to follow neighborhood racial transition. Other churches in such neighborhoods did not respond so expeditiously, often because the changes occurred so quickly that they could hardly assess what was happening before many of their members had already left the neighborhood. Some churches in those situations also withdrew from their mission of evangelism and church growth, instead stagnating and entering a prolonged period of decline. Such was the case of Capitol View Presbyterian Church. Others, however, wrestled with the proper response to their new black neighbors, often under the leadership of pastors who saw the change as an opportunity to minister to new neighbors. Pastor Bill Geren at Dogwood Hills Baptist Church undertook such an endeavor. These churches and others (eight of the sixteen reviewed) fall into the second category I identified among white churches in neighborhoods in racial transition, characterized by lingering in the transitioning (or transitioned) neighborhood for a period of time – sometimes a couple of years, sometimes decades – before eventually disbanding.

Capitol View Presbyterian Church

One example of a church that disbanded was Capitol View Presbyterian Church, founded in 1917 in the predominately white south Atlanta neighborhood of Capitol View, which was named for its view of Georgia’s state capitol building. The church had a membership of 366 in 1962, the year they launched a campaign to finance an additional building, a strong sign of church growth.31 Within a decade, though, they began to lose members who had moved away as African Americans moved into the neighborhood. In 1971 the church reorganized its Sunday School to reflect the decreased enrollment, and by 1973 they reported a “crisis of [a] financial nature” due to the loss of members.32 At first, Capitol View made efforts to understand and include its new neighbors. A group from Capitol View attended the opening service of Westhills Presbyterian Church, a new black church that filled a property left vacated by a relocating white church. Another group went to a Race Relations Convocation in 1973. (The records do not show who hosted the convocation, but it was likely a denominational event.) They also invited “the community” – a term often used in church documents to refer to the African Americans in the neighborhood – to several church activities as early as 1971.33 But after these initial efforts, there is no indication that the church continued to reach out to African Americans or to learn about cross-racial ministry.

Capitol View Presbyterian’s congregants instead began to focus their activities on the past. In September of 1975 they hosted an event intended for “reminiscing of earlier days.” The church historian prepared pictures from the church’s past and various members shared stories as event attendees browsed the photographs. The trend continued when Capitol View combined two annual dinners. Until 1985 the church hosted two suppers, one to honor a specific mission project and the other for a reading of the church’s history for that year. Beginning in 1985 they combined the suppers.34 Although this consolidation might have been undertaken as a matter of efficiency, it was also telling of the church’s priorities. The celebration of the church’s current activity in missions had to share time with an account of the church’s social activities for that year, including items such as birthday parties or the deaths of former members, long-since moved away.

The church’s annual history accounts often included reflections on the status of the church. In 1983 the tone was uncertain, considering the continued decline in membership over the previous decade, but noted, “we remember this church started with only 17 members in 1917. And if God is willing we intend to carry on.”35 Capitol View had reached a point where its identity was in the past and its mission was to preserve the institution it had once been. All the while, African Americans continued to move into the neighborhood. Robert Wilson and James Davis conducted a study of over sixty churches in twenty-two cities and found a similar pattern. Having been a part of a church with such a rich history, Wilson and Davis found that it became increasingly difficult for members to accept that their church was in decline. Instead, all of the churches they studied still thought of themselves as the great church they once were.36 However, all of those churches eventually disbanded following their neighborhood’s racial transition, and Capitol View shared that fate,37 closing in 1995 once most of its members had either passed away or moved to assisted living facilities.38

The facilities of the former Capitol View Presbyterian Church are now the home of Rice Memorial Presbyterian Church, circa 2013. Photo by Author. 

Dogwood Hills Baptist Church

Other churches that eventually disbanded made more sustained attempts at engaging black neighbors than Capitol View Presbyterian. Some of these churches had pastors that pushed congregations to embrace a more progressive stance on race, often leading to clashes with their members. In 1957 the Atlanta Journal had published the “Ministers’ Manifesto,” a document signed by eighty white Atlanta ministers who broke rank with white supremacy and cautiously argued for equal rights for whites and blacks in the United States. These pastors made clear, though, that they represented only themselves in their statements and not their churches.39

Some churches were uncomfortable with their outspoken pastors, like those who had signed the “Ministers’ Manifesto.” This was the case with Rev. Dr. William Geren of Dogwood Hills Baptist Church in East Point, Georgia. Dogwood Hills’ membership of 1,202 in 1969 was mostly middle- to upper-class whites, many of whom worked as pilots or in other airline jobs because of the proximity of the airport to East Point.40 Geren had a more liberal education than many other Southern Baptists, having received a PhD from the University of Chicago. He also trained under Rev. Norman Shands, who was pastor at West End Baptist Church when it navigated neighborhood racial transition and had been a signatory of the Ministers’ Manifesto.41

Geren was active in efforts both within and outside his church to support integration. For example, he helped the mayor of East Point establish a bi-racial council. He generally enjoyed the support of his congregation in his efforts, but some Dogwood Hills members found his activity unacceptable.42 In 1969, a group within the church submitted to the deacons, the ruling council in a Baptist church, a list of grievances criticizing the “pastor’s outside activities” as a distraction from his duties at church and claimed he had “too liberal views on race.”43 However, the deacons defended the pastor and reminded the church of their open door policy for African Americans, meaning they were eligible for membership – a policy not practiced by all churches at the time.44 The agitators from the church also harassed Bill Geren in more personal ways. They would write on church blackboards “Dr. Geren is a nigger lover,” leave garbage in his driveway, and call his house at all hours of the night. They even interrupted his oldest daughter’s wedding in 1969 by reporting there was a bomb in the church during the ceremony.45

The tipping point for many Dogwood Hills members came when Geren hosted an event at his home for Andrew Young, who in 1970 was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a candidate for United States Congress. One woman in the church wrote to the local paper to complain about the event.46 Others called for Geren’s resignation. The deacons again stood by Geren, but most of the dissenters demonstrated “no willingness to be reconciled to the Pastor under any condition.”47 At issue now was not simply his views on race, but his willingness to associate with a progressive, black politician. In August of 1971, the church voted on whether or not to ask Geren to leave, and although the vote failed, Rev. Geren now knew for sure that some 154 of his church members, or 26 percent of his congregation, wished he was not there.48

Notably, throughout this period of conflict, race issues had remained abstract for members of Dogwood Hills Baptist. That changed in 1972, however, when African Americans started moving into East Point in sizable numbers, especially into the area around the church. Geren initially addressed the matter explicitly at a deacons meeting, signaling that they would face the challenge together.49 But by month’s end, he and the rest of the church staff, five in all, had resigned.50 It seemed the dissatisfied faction of Dogwood Hills members finally had their way.

There was little explanation given for the sudden resignation. Geren had stayed at Dogwoods Hills for sixteen years, long after it became uncomfortable. He had hoped he could change the racist views of the agitators, but after so much time, he lost hope. Additionally, with less supportive laymen rotating onto the deacon board the year of his resignation, he could no longer envision a successful effort to include African Americans in the life of the church.51

But Rev. Geren’s aspirations for progress at Dogwood Hills were not completely unfulfilled. When African Americans moved into the neighborhood, several deacons who had opposed Geren moved away and the new Chairman of the Deacon Board, Elmo Harrell, who had once opposed Geren’s political actions concerning race, adopted a more welcoming stance when race was no longer merely a political issue but embodied in his new neighbors. He instructed the church to reach out to African Americans, and in 1975 the deacons re-affirmed the church’s open door policy.52

Ultimately, an open-door policy was not enough on its own to attract African Americans since it was an unpublicized, internal decision and it is unlikely that the church’s black neighbors even knew they were welcome at Dogwood Hills. Church membership continued to decline as East Point gained more black residents, and in 1991 Dogwood Hills sold its property to the Word of Faith Family Worship Cathedral, a black church. Nonetheless, they continued to rent the chapel of their former property for their own services while the new owners of the church used the main worship hall. This relationship continued until 1994 when Dogwood Hills dissolved.53 They had become what Wilson and Davis call a white “fortress church,” which exists in a black neighborhood with little effort to include African Americans in their ministry.54 Even after they could no longer support their own property and had begun to share their building – their fortress – with African Americans, they still did not attempt in a meaningful way to integrate their church. Similar to Capitol View Presbyterian, after lingering for a couple of decades, the ministry collapsed due to its diminishing numbers.

Other churches made much more significant reforms before black families visited or joined the church. Usually it took hiring black clergy before African Americans felt safe and welcome, as occurred at Ben Hill Presbyterian Church. But many white church members would not tolerate a black pastor: Ben Hill lost 112 members the year its black pastor, Rev. Cleopatrick Lacey, was installed – nearly half its total membership.55 The congregation did gain a few black families, but enough financially supporting whites left the church that it was no longer a viable congregation, and it closed the year after hiring Rev. Lacey.56 As the next section highlights, however, other churches who made such drastic reforms would survive the racial transition of their neighborhoods and manage to build sustainable ministries that included African American neighbors.

Churches That Stayed

When Kirkwood Baptist Church voted to sell their property in 1966 and move into a newly constructed building on Columbia Drive in south DeKalb County they also took a new name, Rainbow Park Baptist Church, named for the nearby park on Rainbow Drive.57 Church members soon discovered, however, that the same forces that transformed Kirkwood were also affecting south DeKalb. The area was increasingly populated by African Americans, many of them middle class or wealthy, who had moved out of the city.58 But instead of relocating a second time, Rainbow Park chose to stay in this transitional community, now committing to minister there, no matter the race of their neighbors. While Rainbow Park and other churches that stayed in racially-changing neighborhoods lost many members to white flight, those that remained and the black families that joined them became living examples of a new social reality.

Oakhurst Baptist Church

When Kirkwood Baptist Church relocated in response to changing racial demographics in Kirkwood, it garnered the attention – and public criticism – of the pastor of another nearby Baptist church. John Nichol, pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church, wrote a letter to the editor of the Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist Convention’s weekly newspaper, repudiating the move.59 In contrast with Kirkwood Baptist, Nichol and his congregation had resolved to stay in their neighborhood – directly west of Kirkwood – regardless of the changes taking place around them.60 Their exceptional journey navigating neighborhood racial transition began when they commissioned a study of the neighborhood and surrounding area to monitor growing poverty and changing racial demographics. In response, they developed a robust weekday program to minister to developing neighborhood needs.61

It was that orientation toward caring for the community that precipitated their first racially-integrated event, a Christmas party for the local elementary school, which had six black students.62 Offering neighborhood programs for African Americans was a big step, but it wouldn’t be until much later, again under the leadership of John Nichol, that the church would see black families become members. As white families moved away, Nichol challenged the congregation to stay in the city and face “a world where injustice, indifference, immorality, poverty and depersonalization are harsh realities.”63 He taught that only in the city could the gospel be truly embodied, because people’s needs are so great there, and he praised the urban Christian, who he suggested “cares more than his counterpart in the suburbs.”64 A core group of lay leaders heeded his call and stayed in Oakhurst with Nichol at what was one of the few white churches to become an enduring integrated church in a neighborhood that became racially mixed.65

It was from this perspective that John Nichol wrote a letter to the editor of the Christian Index criticizing the Index’s own assessment of Kirkwood Baptist and its relocation. The Index had spoken in glowing terms of the church’s move, praising Kirkwood as “a church of integrity, faith, courage, vision.”66 Nichol challenged the Index’s use of the word “integrity,” a value he often invoked at Oakhurst. He called into question the financial integrity of a church that would sell a property valued at one million dollars for only $360,000. But more importantly to Nichol, Kirkwood Baptist had compromised its integrity of mission by moving out of the neighborhood as African Americans moved in.67

Atlanta Constitution, Jul 5, 1967, 9.
Rev. Bill Jackson, Community Minister of Oakhurst Baptist Church, leading a group of African American children, 1968. Photograph by Jim Wright. Courtesy of Oakhurst Baptist Church. 

Rainbow Park Baptist Church

Perhaps following their public repudiation by Nichol, in 1972 Rainbow Park Baptist Church adopted a resolution “that all people without regard to race, creed, color or national origin be welcomed by our church.”68 When they started afresh in a new location, the church seemingly turned a new page in its racial policies. And as part of their centennial celebration in 1973, their pastor wrote that the church had finally lived up to the sign that hung outside: “A Friendly Welcome to ALL.”69 But it would take much more to integrate the church. Even a church open to all people required serious reform to be truly inclusive.70 In 1974, Rainbow Park chose a new pastor, Dr. Eugene Tyre, who quickly realized his “initial challenge was to prepare the church for ministry in a racially and economically changing community.” The white pastor hosted discussion groups to refocus their mission on the neighborhood, brought in “people of other races for a time of dialogue,” and invited them to lead worship. He also mentored deacons and other leaders in the church to influence their views on race, hoping they would help to do the same with others.71

In 1977, after about three years of such teaching and preparation, Dr. Tyre had the church reaffirm their 1972 open door policy, formally adding “that it is the policy and intention of this church to reach persons and minister in the name of Jesus Christ throughout the church community.” The revised resolution carried with only four dissenting votes out of 196.72 Even with a landslide vote, some members still chose to move away rather than face true integration of the church. The committed core that remained began an “aggressive ministry of outreach” in south DeKalb County. They launched ministries for apartment dwellers who lived close to the church and for children in the neighborhood, started a benevolence ministry that included a clothes bank, and began a ministry for the mentally handicapped that received state and national attention. The results were immediate; the first black family joined soon after the 1977 vote to reaffirm the open door policy.73

Despite this success, the white membership of Rainbow Park continued to erode as African Americans moved to south DeKalb.74 Eventually even committed lay leaders, such as Bob Spooner, moved away because, as he put it, “all the whites were moving out.”75 Wilson and Davis, in a study of other churches that stayed in racially transitional areas, found that none “were recruiting white members to replace those who die[d] or move[d] away.”76 The church grew only as African Americans joined. So while Rainbow Park enjoyed a period of racial integration, like the neighborhood, it eventually experienced a nearly complete transition from white to black. Only in exceptional cases, including that of Oakhurst Baptist, did congregations remain integrated beyond neighborhood transition.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Prepared by Shiva Kooragayala.

Churches that successfully stayed in neighborhoods through a racial transition, whether as integrated or re-segregated congregations, only did so after much reform. “The preparation and prayer that took place during the pretransitional period,” Dr. Tyre of Rainbow Park Baptist wrote, “enabled the church to move into the transitional period determined to be the people of God on mission to South DeKalb.”77 Progressive, white leaders such as Tyre and Nichol witnessed many white churches around them flee or disband and chose a different path. They engendered in their congregations a sense of commitment to the neighborhood and, alongside the courageous African Americans who risked much to participate, built rare local institutions that truly reflected their neighborhoods.

Conclusion

To use the language of the old hymn, many ties bound white Atlanta congregations that found themselves in the midst of neighborhood racial transition – Christian love, yes, but also white racial identity. Neighborhood racial transition presented congregations with an opportunity to examine and reconsider those ties. Some churches truly examined their ties and worked tirelessly to unbind their own commitment to whiteness. But churches that fled worked just as tirelessly to preserve the ties of shared white racial identity, often driven by fear, self-preservation, and racism rather than a commitment to Christian mission. Indeed, any coordinated response to neighborhood racial change – whether resistance in Kirkwood or embrace in Oakhurst – required immense energy that most congregations simply could not muster. In many cases the churches that disbanded did not pause long enough to consider which ties held primacy in their communities and merely fell victim to the flight of their fellow congregants. And as I’ve recounted, even those churches that did attempt reform could not always sustain their mission and eventually disbanded as well. In all these cases, neighborhood racial transition exposed the core commitments of white Atlanta churches – whether to whiteness, to financial sustainability, or, in rare cases, to serve their neighborhood and all its residents.

About the Author: 

Preston Hogue is currently completing his Masters of Divinity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He graduated from Emory University with his BA in 2013. This article stems from his senior honors thesis in history written under the direction of Joseph Crespino.

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  • POWER AND PLACE-NAMING: THE STRUGGLE FOR A NEW URBAN ORDER IN MIDTOWN, 1870–1970

Notes   [ + ]

1. Minutes of Kirkwood Baptist Church in conference, 11 May 1966, Kirkwood Baptist Church Papers, Georgia Baptist Church Records, Special Collections, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia (hereafter cited as Kirkwood Baptist Papers). On Kirkwood’s racial transition, see: Kevin Kruse. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005): 91-2.
2. Lindsay Terry, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” Today’s Christian 46, no. 2 (March/April 2008): 11, http://web.archive.org/web/20090213115457/http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/2008/002/12.11.html. John Fawcett, Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship and Private Devotion (Leeds, Wright & Son, 1782). Fawcett’s hymn, set to a tune known as “Dennis” by Johann G. Nägeli and arranged by Lowell Mason appears in both hymnals in regular use by Baptist congregations in 1960s Atlanta: B. B. McKinney, ed., The Broadman Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1940); Walter Hines Sims, ed., The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1956).
3. Minutes, 1963, Atlanta Baptist Association, (privately printed, 1963, held at Georgia Baptist Convention Archives, Duluth, GA), 248.
4. John Fawcett, Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship and Private Devotion (Leeds, Wright & Son, 1782). Fawcett’s hymn, set to a tune known as “Dennis” by Johann G. Nägeli and arranged by Lowell Mason appears in both hymnals in regular use by Baptist congregations in 1960s Atlanta: B. B. McKinney, ed., The Broadman Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1940); Walter Hines Sims, ed., The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1956).
5. Clarence Drummond, Developing a Model of Church Ministry in a Racially Transitional Community (ThD Diss., The Southern Theological Seminary, 1974), 21, 23.
6. Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Amanda I. Seligman, Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Rachael A. Woldoff, White Flight/Black Flight: The Dynamics of Racial Change in an American Neighborhood (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).
7. See John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) and Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). For a recent study on evangelical churches see Mark Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
8. Carter Dalton Lyon, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017). See also Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
9. This number is complicated by church mergers and name changes. For example, Gordon Street Presbyterian and Cascade Road Presbyterian merged to form Bethany Presbyterian, and Kirkwood Baptist renamed itself Rainbow Park Baptist. In such cases, each named congregation is counted as a separate church.
10. See Samuel S. Hill Jr., Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), especially 76-84.
11. Kruse, 169.
12. Ronald H. Bayor, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 59.
13. T. M. Alexander, Beyond the Timberline: The Trials and Triumphs of a Black Entrepreneur (Edgewood, MD: M. E. Duncan, 1992), 164–69.
14. “Land Buying Urged to Stop Undesirables,” Atlanta Constitution, February 24, 1961. For more on Mayor Hartsfield, West Side neighborhood transitions, and protective covenants, see Kruse, 25–41, 78–81.
15. Kruse, 87.
16. “Kirkwood Presbyterian Church History, 1957, 1958,” Kirkwood Presbyterian Church History Collection. C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives, John Bulow Campbell Library, Columbia Theological Seminary (hereafter cited as Kirkwood Presbyterian History Collection).
17. Kirkwood Community Committee meeting notes, February 21, 1961, Box 5, Planning Bureau Archives. Draft letter from Kirkwood Community Committee, April 1961, Box 5, Planning Bureau Archives.
18. A realtist was a black real-estate agent. The term “realtor” was copyrighted by the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, which excluded blacks from membership. See Kruse, 63.
19.  “Land Buying Urged”; “Notes for Aldermen for Meet with Empire,” March 10, 1961, Box 5, Planning Bureau Archives.
20. See Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 147.
21. Hal Gulliver, “Only 7 White Pupils Still at Kirkwood,” Atlanta Constitution, January 26, 1965.
22. Minutes, 1963, Atlanta Baptist Association, (privately printed, 1963, held at Georgia Baptist Convention Archives, Duluth, GA), 248.
23. “‘Kneel-In’ Extended: Negroes Turned Away at 4 of 10 Atlanta Churches,” New York Times, August 15, 1960.
24. Minutes of Kirkwood Baptist Church in conference, August 14, 1960, Papers of Kirkwood Baptist Church, Special Collections, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia (hereafter cited as Kirkwood Baptist Papers).
25. Minutes, 1963, Atlanta Baptist Association, 248; Mary Freeman, A Century for Christ 1873–1973: A Baptist Church History (Beech Springs, Kirkwood, Rainbow Park) (privately printed, 1973; held at Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University), 9.
26. Minutes of Kirkwood Baptist Church in conference, May 11, 1966, Kirkwood Baptist Papers.
27. Minutes of Kirkwood Baptist Church in conference, April 2, 1967, Kirkwood Baptist Papers.
28. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis, 81-2.
29. For more on race and conservative evangelical theology, see: Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
30. “History of the Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, 1963,” Kirkwood Presbyterian History Collection.
31. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1981,” Capitol View Presbyterian Church History Collection, C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives, John Bulow Campbell Library. Columbia Theological Seminary. (hereafter referred to as Capitol View Presbyterian Records).
32. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1971, 1973,” Capitol View Presbyterian Records.
33. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1971,” Capitol View Presbyterian Records.
34. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1985,” Capitol View Presbyterian Records.
35. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1983,” Capitol View Presbyterian Records.
36. Robert L. Wilson and James H. Davis, The Church in the Racially Changing Community, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1966), 77.
37. Ibid, 82–83.
38. “Capitol View Presbyterian Church History, 1982, 1988, 1990,” Capitol View Presbyterian Records; Minutes, 207th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 1995), VI–3.
39. “Ministers’ Manifesto: 80 Pastors sign Manifesto on Racial Beliefs,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 3, 1957.
40. Scarlet Faith Jernigan, A Study of Six Atlanta-Area Baptist Churches and Their Response to Changes in the Racial Status Quo, MA Thesis, Texas Christian University, unpublished, 131; Peggy Geren, interview by author, Atlanta, GA, February 23, 2013.
41. Jernigan, 16; For more on Shands, see Bob Shands, In my Father’s House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil Rights Pioneer (Olathe, KS: Bushel Basket Publishing, 2006).
42. Jernigan, 135, 131–32.
43. Minutes of Dogwood Hills Baptist Church deacons, April 30, 1969, Dogwood Hills Baptist Church Papers, Georgia Baptist Church Records, Special Collections, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia (hereafter cited as Minutes, deacons, Dogwood Hills Baptist).
44. Minutes of Dogwood Hills Baptist Church, August 6, 1969, Dogwood Hills Baptist Church Papers, Georgia Baptist Church Records, Special Collections, Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia (hereafter cited as Minutes, Dogwood Hills Baptist); Peggy Geren, interview by author, Atlanta, GA, February 23, 2013.
45. Peggy Geren, interview by author, Atlanta, GA, February 23, 2013.
46. Ibid.
47. “Deacons’ Report to Church Concerning Resolution Passed in December,” January 20, 1971, Dogwood Hills Baptist Church Records.
48. Jernigan, 143.
49. Minutes, April 5, 1972, Dogwood Hills deacons.
50. Duward and Ellie Whelchel to Dogwood Hills Baptist, April 5, 1972, Papers of Dogwood Hills Baptist. Jernigan 145.
51. Peggy Geren, interview by author, Atlanta, GA, February 23, 2013.
52. Jernigan, 146-7, 150.
53. Ibid, 150.
54. Wilson and Davis, 68ff.
55. Minutes of the One-Hundred-Fifteenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, (privately printed, held at John Bulow Campbell Library, Columbia Theological Seminary), Appendix 90.
56. Minutes of the One-Hundred-Sixth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, (privately printed, held at John Bulow Campbell Library, Columbia Theological Seminary) Appendix 30.
57. Freeman, A Century for Christ, 9.
58. Kruse, 244.
59. John Nichol, letter to the editor, Christian Index, June 15, 1967.
60. Diana Stepp, “Oakhurst Baptist Plans to Integrate,” Atlanta Constitution, July 5, 1967, 9.
61. “Report of the Missions Committee on Church Community Survey,” July 28, 1965, Oakhurst Baptist Papers.
62. Walker L. Knight, Struggle for Integrity (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1969), 59.
63. Ibid, 54.
64. Ibid.
65. For more on Oakhurst Baptist Church, see Alverta Sedgwick Wright, Not Here by Chance: The Story of Oakhurst Baptist Church Decatur, Georgia 1913–1988 (Decatur, GA: Oakhurst Baptist Church, 1988).
66. Knight, 76–77.
67. Nichol, letter to the editor.
68. Freeman, A Century for Christ, 9.
69. Mary Freeman, The Second Century: A History of Rainbow Park Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia, 1973–1983 (privately printed, 1983; held at Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University), 63, 70.
70. Wilson and Davis, 87.
71. Freeman, The Second Century, 9; Jernigan, 76.
72. Ibid.
73. Freeman, The Second Century, 10–12.
74. Ibid, 11.
75. Jernigan, 80.
76. Wilson and Davis, 103.
77. Freeman, The Second Century, 11.