Funding sought for African American history district and museum

Published 9:11 am Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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On Feb. 12, the LaGrange City Council heard requests to establish an African American historic district and history center within the Hamilton Road corridor.

The requests were from Community Development Director Alton West and local architect Skip Smith on behalf of the Enlightenment Center for African American History (ECAAH).

West asked that the council help establish a historic district in the area to preserve the history, predominantly African American, before it’s lost through progress and growth.

“Hamilton Road has been one of the main arteries into our community. It is the heart of the African American community. But if you’ve traveled down Hamilton Road lately, it looks like a war zone. All of that history is being lost or that history is being destroyed. All of that history is gone,” West said.

A potential historic district was mapped by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and News South Associates back in 2012. West said they would like that district identified by New South to also include other nearby historic sites such as the former East Depot High School and the Mulberry Street Cemetery.

The area is already designated as a federal highway historic district but is not designated locally. The request is to do that locally, West said.

West said the cost to designate the area as an African American Historic District is about $36,500, but the city would have financial incentive to do so.

“Doing this district would open us up for other funding opportunities,” West said. “The National Park Service just awarded $1.25 million to 19 communities that have underrepresented communities as it relates to African American history. So that opens us up to additional funding.  … Georgia was not on the list. We want to get Georgia on this list.”

The designation would also help with tourism for the Mulberry Street Cemetery, Horace King covered bridge and the planned ECAAH center.

Smith spoke on behalf of ECAAH, who presented updated plans for the proposed African American history center and museum.

The group is planning to remodel a home located at 406 East Depot Street that was purchased by the city in August for $40,000 as part of a proposed African American history trail.

The home is located adjacent to Warren Temple United Methodist Church, which Smith said has indicated the possibility of sharing parking space for the center.

Smith acknowledged that the home, which was built around 1921, needs quite a bit of remodeling, including roof repairs.

“We know we’ll probably have to do some structural work inside the building, but we don’t really feel like it’s going to be too much,” Smith said. “A lot of attention will be needed to the exterior envelope of the property.”

“This would be what we hoped would be an educational museum for our entire community. We have an opportunity to create something here that would be very unique and would also be a visitor tourism destination,” Smith said. “This is for a wonderful cause here. We’ve got this opportunity and a property that’s already owned by the city that’s in a wonderful location.”

On behalf of ECAAH, Smith requested $225,000 to fund a portion of the renovations to the residence that will serve as the eventual home of the museum.

Several council members voiced support for the project and suggested discussing the issue at their upcoming retreat.

“I’m supportive of it at this time depending on what our budget looks like when we sit down with [City Manager] Patrick [Bowie] because I’m not going to tell our firemen that I’m not going to give them a raise.”

In the meantime, the council has agreed to allow Smith and the ECAAH team access to the residence to further evaluate the repair needs.