Macon Road division becomes target for leaders seeking change

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 17, 2014 

It didn't take long for the Muscogee County School District's new superintendent to recognize a divide in the city of Columbus. During his first days on the job, David Lewis visited schools north and south of Macon Road and found a stark contrast in the quality of education.

Some facilities in south Columbus weren't up to par, said Lewis, who was hired last July. Some lacked adequate resources for reading, and there were fewer opportunities for advanced-level courses compared to schools on the north side.

Six months after taking the helm of the district, Lewis proposed a plan to eliminate the north/south perception within the school system. He proposed, and the school board approved, a plan that would split the district into three regions -- east, central and west. Each will include some portions of north Columbus, Midtown and south Columbus. Lewis is also trying to standardize reading programs and technology throughout the system.

"I could see that -- both in terms of perception and reality -- a divide was certainly there," Lewis said. "So, it had to be addressed.

"I'm committed to equity and access to all students," he added. "If we aspire to having a community with a high standard of living, we can't want for our children what we don't want for all children."

What Lewis discovered is nothing new to many Columbus residents who consider Macon Road the dividing line between desirable and undesirable neighborhoods. Some even call the street the "Macon-Dixon Line," comparing it to the cultural boundary that separates northern and southern states in the U.S.

Richard Thomas rehabilitates homes on both sides of the divide. He said there's a perception that all neighborhoods in south Columbus are bad. But he's seen good and bad on both sides, and he pointed out some affluent areas south of Macon Road such as Overlook, where there are some million dollar homes.

"The overall factor that determines where people want to live is the schools," said Thomas, who is white. "People want their kids to go to Hardaway, or Midland Academy or whatever it is. Everybody wants to be in a good school district, but if you don't have the means to buy a house in a good school district then you have to try to get as close as you could."

Kenneth Crooks Jr., former president of the local Urban League, said Columbus has had a long history of neighborhood division. He remembers looking for a house in the 1990s and Realtors were still steering people to certain neighborhoods based on race.

"I think real estate agents had a lot to do in keeping the Macon-Dixon Line defined," said the 83-year-old black man, who recently moved to Atlanta. "Now that that is significantly diminished, the Macon-Dixon line is not as prominent as it used to be in earlier days."

Mayoral politics

The city's racial divide has also surfaced as a key factor in this year's mayoral race between incumbent Teresa Tomlinson and her opponent Colin Martin. Martin, who grew up in the south Columbus neighborhood of Oakland Park when it was predominantly white, has tried to use his background to connect with black voters, criticizing the mayor for her handling of crime, economic development and other issues plaguing the south side of town.

Tomlinson, meanwhile, continues to tout her efforts to restore blighted neighborhoods, fight crime and create jobs. On Thursday, she announced that Walmart will open a 150,000 square-foot supercenter on the site of the old Baker High school, just off Victory Drive.

She said the Macon Road demarcation is a community perception that has existed for decades -- but it's changing.

"That's a label we've been using to define ourselves for a very long time, probably since the suburbanization of our community in the 1970s," Tomlinson said. "It's one that, frankly, we erase or blur the line a little every day. But because it's so much a part of our history and our description of ourselves, I think we just get used to referring to it."

One organization that has tried to blur the line is Midtown Inc., where Tomlinson served as executive director before becoming mayor. "The whole concept was to take the heart of the residential community -- half north, half south of Macon Road -- and begin building up the whole," Tomlinson said. "The aquatic center was built south of Macon Road. The library has come there. The school administrative building is south of Macon Road. That whole complex there. The renovation and renewal of Cross Country Plaza. In just six years the metamorphosis has just been tremendous. And now you see the work being done on the Kmart shopping center."

Martin, former vice chair of governmental affairs for the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said he has also worked on improving the quality of life for residents of south Columbus, and he thinks much more can be done.

"I think this north-south divide has been festering for a while," he said. "I have to give credit to (former mayor) Bob Poydasheff because he made bridging that divide and making it a priority a major campaign issue when he ran in 2002. And when he won he followed through on it. He created the South Columbus Revitalization Taskforce, which I was fortunate enough to serve on and chaired the tourism subcommittee.

"I think the idea that David Lewis has of dividing the school district, east and west, is a great idea because it's going to tie schools geographically together," he said. "And the more we can find ways to do that, I think the better we're going to be as a community."

Both Martin and city officials point to major attractions in south Columbus such as the A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, the Columbus Civic Center, the South Commons Softball complex, the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus, and the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

"That part of Columbus attracts more visitors than any other part of Columbus and there's some good infrastructure down there," Martin said. "There are some good hotels in that area that have been built in the last five or six years. So we have to build on that tourism industry."

City Planning Director Rick Jones said the city is already making the investment. He said five of eight TSPLOST projects planned for the next 8 to 10 years are in the southern half of the city. They include the Spider Web, Buena Vista/I-185 Interchange, Cusseta Road improvements, U.S. 27/I-185/Custer Road improvements, and a south Columbus multi-use facility.

Ignoring the problem

But breaking down the barriers between north and south Columbus won't be easy, some historians and other observers said. The city's racial divide is rooted in a volatile history marked by slavery, white flight, school desegregation/resegregation, class divisions and abandoned neighborhoods.

"A lot of people don't like to talk about it because they would like to think that it's not there or, if we don't talk about it, it will get better," said Virginia Causey, a local historian who's done extensive research on the city's racial history. "We've always had these divisions in Columbus and they, of course, are never absolute. There's plenty of interplay that goes in each direction, but perception becomes reality, particularly politically."

Nate Sanderson, former president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said eliminating the division would require changing people's minds and hearts. And that's not easy to do.

"I think a lot of people are OK with it," said Sanderson, now running for the at-large school board seat against Owen Ditchfield and Kia Chambers. "This community has grown up as a neighborhood community. So, a lot of people are comfortable in their neighborhoods. But if opportunity transcends community then the north-south divide will eventually erode. 'Cause if you're born in south Columbus and you have an opportunity to do well and get a decent education, you may want to go across the north-south divide or you may want to stay in your community. I think the beauty of our system is that people have the right to live where they choose to live, but they should be well-educated enough to make that choice."

The demographics

According to statistics provided by the Columbus Planning Department, socioeconomic conditions are very different on both sides of the divide. The population south of Macon Road is 74 percent black, 19 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic and less than one percent Asian. North of Macon Road the population is 67 percent white, 22 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian.

The unemployment rate south of Macon Road, 15.6 percent, is nearly twice the rate of that north of the divide, which is 9.6 percent.

The median income on the south side is $29,419, compared to $50.366 up north. The median home value is $117,915 south of Macon Road and $189,578 on the north side.

When it comes to education, the statistics are just as sobering. High school graduation rates for 2012 were 76 percent in high schools north of Macon Road versus 56 percent for those south. In 2013, the average Criterion-Referenced Competency Test score for elementary and middle schools in all subjects was 82 percent for schools in the north and 64 percent for those in the south. The average College and Career Ready Performance Index score for all schools for 2013 was 74 percent north of Macon road and 56 percent to the south.

There's also a perception that most of the crime in Columbus occurs south of Macon Road.

Since Jan. 1, Columbus has recorded eight homicides. Of the total, only two were killed north of Macon Road and six others died from injuries inflicted in south Columbus. The March shooting of a man at Columbus State University's Courtyard 1 North apartment remains under investigation north of Macon Road.

In 2013, the three top residential patrol zones with the most offenses were south of Macon Road. They were Zone 31, bordered by Cusseta, Andrews. Brennan and Buena Vista roads; Zone 18, bordered by Cusseta, Bull Creek, Youmans Street, Benning Drive, Singleton Drive and Fox Avenue; and Zone 58, bordered by Glenwood Drive, Rigdon Road, Morris Road and Eighth Street.

The crime in those areas were mainly armed robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, car break-in and auto thefts. Zone 18 had one homicide, and Zone 58 had one rape.

Those were residential patrol zones with the most crime, but not necessarily the most of any zone in Columbus. Zone 153 had more offenses, but it includes Columbus Park Crossing in north Columbus, where there was more shoplifting than serious crimes. Zone 41 in downtown Columbus is another area that skews the numbers. Because it's the location of the city's Public Safety Center, it's listed on reports for crimes against the state and by victims who use it as a fallback address.

Hubert Key, 63, said he and his wife lived in Oakland Park a few years ago and got tired of the crime, run-down properties and poor quality of life. They moved to a southside neighborhood closer to Macon Road and saw a difference. They hope to eventually cross Macon Road and live in an even nicer area once Key retires from his job in the health care field.

"The closer we got to Macon Road the better the neighborhood," said Key, a black resident who now lives about five blocks from Macon Road. "Basically everybody is working over here, and over there (near Oakland Park) everybody is hanging out."

Freeman Worley, 54, a white resident who lives in the Brookview neighborhood just north of Macon Road, said he found a house in a nice neighborhood and purchased it. "If it was off Cusseta Road I probably wouldn't have," he said. "I used to work on the EMS every night and there's lots of crime down there."

He doesn't think it's a race thing. "A lot of black people live up here," he said of his northside neighborhood. "Matter of fact, I have one of the best neighbors in the world. But it goes back to everything is moving north, like the mall and stuff like that.

"I know they're trying to rebuild down south, Victory Drive and that area," he said. "It could make a difference if they get more jobs going that way and get people working. It's about money. If you don't have money, you revert back to crime."

Police Chief Ricky Boren said there's not necessarily more crime in south Columbus than north Columbus.

"I think that you're dealing with a perception and most of the perceptions are word of mouth," he said. "We don't keep stats north and south. We never have. We police all of Columbus, and when we see a spike in any kind of crime then we address those hot spots. Other than that, we police 36 beats a day, seven days a week all over Columbus."

The history

Billy Winn, a historian and retired Ledger-Enquirer editorial editor, said the separation between black and white residents dates back to the city's early days.

"The high, best land in this area was in the part of the city that is north of what has become Macon Road," he said. "That goes all the way back to when the city was founded (in 1828).

"In these high hills in the northern section - Green Island Hills, Wynnton Heights, Rose Hill, Ingersoll Hill in Phenix City -- they were high and didn't flood. All these lowlands were where blacks and poor whites were ultimately relegated to, flooded annually, and sometimes more than once, and sometimes terrible floods, that completely tore down houses and destroyed farm fields and everything.

"The northern heights were healthier and there were fewer mosquitoes" he said. "There were cool breezes. So, the heights themselves became the objective of people with money."

Causey said Columbus has had several dividing lines over the years and Macon Road is just the latest. She said Columbus' black community actually began to develop on the east side of town where there was industry.

"Before the Civil War, we had no real racially identified neighborhoods because African-Americans were owned by their white masters mainly, so they lived on the property with them," she said. "But once the war was over, the freed slaves didn't get any land, capital or property, so they began to squat on the East Commons. The city approved it because they were laborers and (the city) didn't have any place else to put them. So they built shanties and lived there."

Causey said that area eventually became the Liberty District, which grew into a thriving community with successful black businesses. At that time, Fifth Avenue was the dividing line between black and white neighborhoods, she said. Then by the 1890s, Talbotton Road became a major boundary based on class.

"The neighborhood that's now the Lakebottom Park area was called East Highlands, and it was a middle class neighborhood with some fairly wealthy enclaves within it," she said. "Talbotton Road, which also had a railroad line running right by it, divided those wealthy middle class neighborhoods from the new mill villages, particularly Jordan City mills. That was a social class division rather than a racial division because the mill workers were all white. But there was a perception if you lived across Talbotton Road you weren't as good."

In the late 1940s, Carver Heights became the first middle-class subdivision created for black residents.

Causey said she thinks the Macon Road separation developed because of school integration. In 1971, the court ordered total desegregation and every school was required to have 70 percent white students and teachers and 30 percent black students and teachers. Children were bused all over the community to meet the ratios.

"But for a number of reasons schools very quickly resegregated," Causey said. "One reason was white parents knew the school board intended to protect at least a couple of schools as majority white. So Columbus High and Hardaway and later Shaw High School remained majority white way past school desegregation.

"The schools on the south side all very quickly became majority black by the 1980s," she said. "So Baker, Kendrick and then the elementary and middle schools, although they had been white schools, became black because white families moved out of south Columbus and went north."

Over the years, many black residents also moved out of south Columbus. Ann Simon, 72, grew up as the daughter of a domestic worker. Her family lived on Sixth Avenue near the Swift manufacturing company, then moved to Carver Heights, Dawson estates and other areas.

She said many south Columbus neighborhoods began to deteriorate because as blacks moved in, whites moved out, fearing that blacks would bring down their property values. Some of the homes became rental properties and weren't well-maintained. Simon eventually married a man in the military and they moved to Pine Mountain.

"I didn't move up here because it was predominantly white, I moved up here because it was a better neighborhood," she said. "And I wanted to live in a better area. I wanted acreage too, and I wanted something that was quiet, peaceful and the value was not going to deteriorate."

"I'm always striving for better," she said. "Is that a bad thing?"

Lewis said he hopes the changes he proposes will change the dynamics that keep Columbus divided. And he thinks the city is an urban area in the best position to do it.

"Commitment to servant leadership seems to be prevalent throughout the community," he said. "With a student population of about 33,000, we're large enough that we can garner resources and deploy them as we need to assist our struggling schools. And we're also not so large, like some other urban metropolitan areas where you can't get people on the same page with anything. Here there seems to be a lot of private-public partnership, with people pulling in the same direction."

He said he also gets the feeling that people on both sides of Macon Road are ready to move forward and make Columbus a better place to live -- for everyone.

"Just the affirmation and the support that I've received from my message as I've gone out in the community," he said, "That gives me a sense of hope that we're going to be able to do great things together."

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service