Curating Black Acworth’s Rich Cultural Past
At the Doyal Hill Park dedication in December, I held my breath as the park’s sculptural centerpiece and outdoor exhibit were unveiled. The panel-based exhibit, titled “Our Side of the Tracks,” lines a path from Cherokee Street to the Rosenwald School Community Center, and explores Acworth’s historic Black community.
My team at Kennesaw State University curated the exhibit and made use of photographs and stories shared by members of the community, many of whom were present at the dedication. Contributing their time and trust in a tumultuous year, community members made “Our Side of the Tracks” a better exhibit, personalizing stories of their ancestors and broadening our knowledge of Acworth.
City Alderman Tim Houston long dreamed of the Hill Park site as a place to commemorate the early history of Black people in Acworth and to serve as an anchor for the community’s landmarks. Growing up on School Street in the 1960s, Houston saw the impact of Acworth’s economic decline on historically Black neighborhoods northeast of the railroad tracks. By the 1990s, downtown revitalization plans included proposals for expanded interstate access that threatened homes in the aging community and later began a wave of redevelopment. Addressing the need for youth programs and promoting a sense of place, Houston led a successful effort to save Roberts School, and later worked with preservationists to restore the Rosenwald School Community Center, now part of the Hill Park site.
Houston’s half-brother, Doyal Hudson Hill, was the first Black elected official in Acworth; he was elected in 1983. His path from a sharecropper’s farm to five terms on the city’s previously all-white Board of Aldermen showed persistence and grace.
“Dad always made it sound like everybody embraced him,” said Hill’s son, Eugene, who lives in Fairburn. “Dad just didn’t notice obstacles. I don’t think I could’ve done it, but he was old school.”
Eugene Hill shared photographs of his father as a younger man whose pursuit of Black representation in local government would come to equal his long-term engagement with the needs of his community.
“You wouldn’t believe how Acworth has changed,” said former resident Helen Hill, a relative of Doyal Hill through marriage, who sold her Taylor Street home to the city in the 2010s, making way for Logan Farm Park.
When she visits Acworth today, Hill barely recognizes the neighborhood she adored as a child growing up in the 1940s. She misses the tight-knit community that developed there in the century after the Civil War, nurturing multiple generations of her family and inspiring the “Our Side of the Tracks” exhibit.
My part in the Hill Park project began last summer, when Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Director James Albright contacted my office in the Museums, Archives and Rare Books Department at Kennesaw State. As part of my work, I develop local exhibits, archival collections and education programs with my colleague, research specialist Kelly Hoomes, a former recreation leader for the city of Acworth. Our team began work on the Hill Park exhibit in June, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged and protests over police shootings of Black men and women challenged the nation’s conscience.
For our research, we drew on materials provided by the city, property records, historic newspapers, local archives and oral history interviews archived at Kennesaw State. Our most valuable source was a sprawling community of current and former Acworth residents, who chatted with us over the phone or hosted us for socially distanced visits on porches, and in carports and driveways. Throughout the course of developing the exhibit, we contacted more than 50 individuals and visited 15 across metro Atlanta.
Beverly Patton’s name came up numerous times as our team began reaching out to members of the community. She coordinated the Black Acworth Community Homecoming celebration for more than a decade, and contributed to Patrice Shelton Lassiter’s book project, “A Place to Remember: A Journey of African Americans in Cobb County, Georgia.” Patton shared more than 150 photographs for use in the Hill Park exhibit, but, more significantly, her outsized contribution created the basis for a permanent digital collection of photographs and other materials documenting the historic Black community in Acworth. Now archived at Kennesaw State University, the Historic Black Acworth Image Collection is an ongoing digitization project that includes more than 465 images accessible to view online at soar.kennesaw.edu.
The Historic Black Acworth Image Collection and the new “Our Side of the Tracks” exhibit at Hill Park illustrate how the exhibit development process can change through the engagement of community members and stakeholders.
While I worried what guests at the park’s dedication in December would think of this or that image, quote or story, I soon realized that the exhibit no longer belonged to me or the curatorial team. After the unveiling, we gave up any remaining control over the project to the individuals and families that made it possible.
– James Newberry, the special projects curator for the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books at Kennesaw State University.