The Lost Black History of Midtown Atlanta and a Photoshoot
Updated: Sep 24, 2019
Originally posted June 7/2017 | Rhana Gittens
Are we saving ourselves from a lot of heartache by detaching ourselves from the reality that lives right beneath our feet? Or does our past get erased, the rancid taste of it washed out with some Listerine and replaced with spearmint and bubblegum? Do we even want to know what it was that we ate that left that nasty flavor in our mouth or do we feel better forgetting, moving on and acting as if it never occurred?
Well, I’m one of those people who just has to know. I needed to take new headshots this year and my amazing photographer[i] suggested that I take the pictures at a common photoshoot location in an area popularly known as West Midtown Atlanta, the Goat Farm Arts Center[ii]. But when I started looking at pictures of other people standing for engagement and graduation photos in front of the old mill, I wanted to know the story behind its cracking walls. So being the millennial that I am, I Googled it.
A Google search of the Goat Farm brings back very little information. It is an old mill complex from the late 19th century that sits in the town formally named, Blandtown. No one calls it Blandtown though. For all of us new transports to Atlanta we affectionately call this industrialized area of architecture businesses, apartment complexes, restaurants, and the Compound, West Midtown. Then if you try to figure out why the town is called “Blandtown”, you get even less information. According to numerous Atlanta Constitution newspaper articles and Larry Keating of Georgia Tech, “Before the Civil War and the end of slavery, the land upon which Blandtown is located was owned by a white woman, Mrs. Viney Bland. When slavery was officially ended, Mrs. Bland willed the land to her former slave, Felix Bland, who had taken his former owners surname and attended Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama at her expense. In the 1870s, Mr. Bland had the property taken from him by the local government for nonpayment of taxes.”[iii]
The problem is, the above information is inaccurate and even worse, its literally the only historical information published on Felix Bland, until now. (Not to the fault of Dr. Larry Keating, as the history of Blandtown was not his main mission at the time of his publication)
Maybe I am just doing the most, but the fact that an entire town is named after a black guy, but there is literally only two sentences worth of historical information on him seemed a bit, upsetting. So your girl, went on the hunt to the Georgia Archives and the Fulton County Court. And my discovery left me sad at times because so much of our history is missing, but I was also proud when I found out more of the truth of this historic area and the legacy of the Bland family. So here we go---
The History of Blandtown (or what I have thus far)
A series of Civil War battles were fought, actually right under my feet, in Atlanta and Metro Atlanta. Georgia finally fell to the Union in 1864 in a fight that occurred in the center of Fulton County just south of Marietta St and Howell Mill Road (today’s West Midtown). Prior to the Battle of Atlanta, many of the streets we know today were born. Two important roads to Blandtown’s history are Huff Road and Howell Mill Road. The current designations of Blandtown are between Marietta St and Howell Mill Road, connected by Huff Road.
According to the memoir of Sara Huff, who was 8 years old at the time the Civil War came to her father’s house, two years prior to the battles over Atlanta, an influx of slaves were brought to Huff Road by Dextor Niles. He turned what is now known as Knight Park/Howell Station[iv], into an established trading post for slaves. And just before the Union Army came to Fulton County, Niles sold off all of the slaves further south and the trading post was left desolate. This mass sell of slaves likely occurred because Niles needed to make profit off the property prior to the impending Confederate loss of the war. [v]
Sara Huff remembers her father and the other men who owned plantations in Fulton County joining the Confederate Army. She discusses how she, her mother, and their slave, “Mammie”, had to flee the Huff House during the battles in summer 1864 that lead to the Union’s besiege of Atlanta on September 2, 1864.
After the confederate army lost the war, the Atlanta plantation owners had to free their slaves. But deed records show one freedslave who had the financial power to purchase his own land. His name was Samuel Bland. In 1872, Samuel Bland (colored, born in 1821 in Virginia[vi]) purchased land from Francis A. Kimball (a white reverend) for $200[vii]. The census records show that Bland was a plasterer. However, I have been unable to find out how he came up with the $200 to purchase 4 acres of land from F.A. Kimball. Kimball’s land of about 26 acres fell in the same district and adjoining lot of the Huff’s, making Samuel Bland, Sara Huff’s new neighbor.
While the current published history says that Viney Bland was a white slave owner, census records will confirm that she was the Black wife of Samuel Bland[viii]. And in 1873, Samuel willed the land to his wife for the sum of “the love and affection she had shown him”[ix] (so sweet). My current research shows that Samuel died in 1879. And up until 1892, Viney still owned the full 4 acres. By 1892, with the influx of industrialization coming to the area during reconstruction after the war, Viney may have begun to feel the pressures of Atlanta’s mega industries. “The Exposition Cotton Mills opened in 1882, followed by the Van Winkle Gin and Machinery Co. in 1888, and many others”[x] located within Marietta Street including what is today known as the Goat Farm Art Center (just blocks away from Samuel and Viney Bland’s lot and the location of my photoshoot). In 1891, Viney invested in 12 stocks of the Southern Mutual Building and Loan Association, but she requested an advance on her shares prior to their maturity, thus losing a portion of the land for payment on the stock-backed loan[xi]. In 1892, Viney sold a portion of the land to the Northern Railway Co. for $800[xii] and she lost a portion to the Southern Mutual Building and Loan Association. But I’m just excited that my girl Viney bought stock. Though the census marks her as having no education and an inability to read or write, the deed transactions that occurred in 1892 show that this woman was smart about her money and serious about keeping her land. Prior to the loss of a portion of their land to the Southern Mutual company, Viney’s son Felix bought another 1/8th acre of land from a Black land owner adjoining the lot owned by Samuel Bland[xiii].
In 1901, Felix Bland purchased a portion of the land from his mother for $90[xiv]. And Viney Bland had a deed drawn up willing the land to her children Felix Bland, Richard Bland, Cherry Osborn, and Charlie Bland[xv]. A continued search of deeds and Atlanta Journal Constitution articles, finds that the children eventually deeded the majority of the remaining acres to their brother, Felix[xvi]. And he and his sister Cherry Osborn held on to the land until 1916 and 1918 when they sold it to R.A. Sims[xvii] and the Blandtown Christian Church. By the time of the sell, the street that I track as now being English St, was actually named “Bland St.” Unfortunately, history shows that a fire in March 1938 caused much of Samuel Bland’s town to burn, including a church , 15 homes, and 2 restaurants.
This timeline means that for almost 50 years, the Bland’s were able to keep up a mostly Black community in Atlanta, Ga throughout the likely harsh racial atmosphere they lived in. One of the first, free Black slave towns in Atlanta continued to thrive despite the influx of industrialization until the 1960s (in which the town had 370 residents, mostly Black). However, in order to burden the Black residents into giving up their homes, the area was zoned as Industrial, which kept any of the homes there from having tax funded future development or upkeep. The population shrank, and 25 homes were demolished for the industrial plans of the city. The few homes that remained, including the original location of Samuel Bland’s home, had homeowners that attempted to fight back against the city and get it rezoned as residential. But their efforts failed.[xviii]
Today, artist Gregor Turk, owns a portion of the lot that was originally owned by Samuel Bland and his family. Turk’s art studio, 1334 English St, is zoned Light Industrial to this day[xix] and is surrounded by new home developments. If you drive to the neighborhood you will find that gentrification of Atlanta has made it to Blandtown. Now the area has brand new half-million dollar homes being built by developer Steve Brock of Brock Built, and you won’t believe the new zone name that allowed it - Planned Development. I am not sure of the exact date that the zoning was changed from Industrial to Planned Development, allowing the developers to demolish the few homes that were there and build a new residential area, but I can confirm that Turk’s home is still there surrounded by the abundance of new developments. And in recognition of the lost history of the Bland’s, Turk has posted a sign in front of his art studio- “Welcome to Blandtown”. It doesn’t look like he will be letting the developers onto that chunk of land for a while.
So what’s the purpose? Why do all this research? Well, Finding out the truth of this area did a couple things for me
Pride. I have no affiliation to the Bland family. But when you know how hard your ancestors worked to make a home for themselves in America after the Civil War it instills a large bit of pride. In addition, it helps to dispel myths of how freedslaves got land and how they lost land. Truth be told, Samuel Bland purchased the land with his own money, and it stayed in the family for 50 years. We may never know the level of burdens that caused Felix to sell the land, he was nearly 80 years old by that time.
Recognize Present Struggles. This research helped me see that the struggle for land that is occurring across our country and the regentrification of urban neighbors is not new, but we can overcome. Regentrification is the restoration of deteriorated urban property. But for Blandtown, that urban property was deteriorated because a zoning ordinance of Industrial, made it legal for the city to defund upkeep and development in the neighborhood. Which lead to the homes being abandoned and open for vagrants and drug use. And once the deterioration became bad enough and the suburban crew wanted to move back to the city, the zone was changed for Property Development and now new residences are being put up in historically black neighborhoods.
Freedom. I am living in an era where I can do my own research. If something seems like an alternative fact, I can push my way through the archival material and find the truth. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes detailed focus and a passion to sift through microfilm at the Georgia Archives or binders of deed papers at the County Court, but it is possible. We can restore at least some of our lost history.
Responsibility. We can’t expect someone else to do it. I am not a historian. And I could easily have said “This is not my job.” But when I saw Keating mention in his book that many of the original freedslaves' neighborhoods had not been fully researched, I was like, “Well who is gonna research it?” And all the signs pointed to me. If you find yourself passionate about finding an answer, go after it until it’s found.
The Value of a Story. When you are taking pictures, and the place looks historic, find out the story of that place. The story of the location may be worth more than your photoshoot. And the heartbeat behind your photoshoot or a special event you may hold in a historic location is based in the essence, spirit, and memory of the people who came before. For a moment, let them live through you.
NEXT STEPS: If you know any information about Blandtown or the Bland family please let me know. Share this blog post and leave comments to extend the history and fill in the gaps. I will be forwarding this information to a proper historian so that it can be vetted further and updated throughout Atlanta’s history locations. Full citations are below for anyone who would like to continue the story. If you would like the digital copies of the material below, and the other major documents I have retrieved, drop me a line in the comments and I will send it to you.
Rhana Gittens is a communications PhD Student studying critical rhetoric, identity, and race theory at Georgia State University.
[i] Latoya Osborne http://www.lbornephotography.com/
[ii] Goat Farm Art Center: 1200 Foster St NW, Atlanta
[iii] Keating, Larry. Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. p. 46
[iv] Coggeshall, Kathryn et al. “Howell Station Historic District.” Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (1993) http://www.artery.org/HowellStation.htm
[v] Huff, Sara. My 80 Years in Atlanta, 1937. p. 5 http://www.artery.org/08_history/UpperArtery/CivilWar/SaraHuff/My80YearsInAtlanta_All.pdf
[vi] 1880 United States Federal Census, ancestry.com
[vii] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed book T3: 696; Francis A. Kimball and Samuel Bland, 2 October 1872; Georgia Archives, City of Morrow.
[viii] 1910 United States Federal Census, ancestry.com
[ix] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed book U:184; Samuel Bland and Viney Bland, 4 October 1873; Georgia Archives, City of Morrow.
[x] Coggeshall, Kathryn et al. “Howell Station Historic District.” Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (1993) http://www.artery.org/HowellStation.htm
[xi] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book I4: 709-710; Viney Bland and Southern Mutual Building and Loan Association, 5 July 1892; Georgia Archives, City of Morrow.
[xii] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book H4: 224; Viney Bland and the Northern Railway Co., 5 July 1892; Georgia Archives, City of Morrow.
[xiii] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book I4: 639, 710; Winnie Alexander and Samuel Bland, 24 June 1892; Georgia Archives, City of Morrow.
[xiv] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book 154:9; Viney Bland and Felix Bland, 15 January 1901; Fulton County Clerk of Courts, City of Atlanta
[xv] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book 164:139; Viney Bland and Cherry Osborn, Richard Bland, Felix Bland, and Charlie P. Bland; Fulton County Clerk of Courts, City of Atlanta
[xvi] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book 252: 583; Cherry Osborn to Felix Bland, 1909; Fulton County Clerk of Courts, City of Atlanta
[xvii] Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book 189: 672-674; Cherry Osborn and Felix Bland to R.A. Sims, 1916; Fulton County Clerk of Courts, City of Atlanta
Fulton County, Georgia, Deed Book 503:417; Cherry Osborn and Blandtown Christian Church, 1918; Fulton County Clerk of Courts, City of Atlanta
[xviii] Keating, Larry. Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. p. 47
[xix] Zoning Ordinance of Atlanta, Georgia Official Zoning Map. p. 127. http://gis.atlantaga.gov/apps/zoning_maps/pdf/zoning_sheet_17-150.pdf