This is a guest essay from Matt Boedy, a professor of English at the University of North Georgia who teaches in its First Year Composition program, as well as upper-level courses in writing and publication. He is the author of Murder Creek, chronicling the story of the last man to die in Georgia’s electric chair, and Speaking of Evil, an examination of the question of why God would allow for the existence of evil through a rhetorical prism.
The old black and white film, scratchy now with age, begins with a little boy – a Black boy, maybe six or seven – running down a dirt road.
What sounds like a soft flute creates a happy soundtrack as the boy scrambles onto a front porch to meet his mother. Then the camera pans to the porch swing, where his father sits next to another child. Our running boy bounces into his father’s arms.
The voiceover narrates: “Can parents help their children grow up? Let’s see how one couple is trying.”
The viewer is introduced to a family living at 511 Palmour Street in Gainesville, Georgia, circa 1949. The three numbers are posted just above the mail box next to the front screen door as seen in the introduction or “trailer” to the film.
This family – given a fictional surname – are real people acting out a beneficial public mental health message.
The 20-minute film “Palmour Street: A Study in Family Life” is set in a rural area, according to the Library of Congress. We can see that from the dirt road, the clapboard house, overgrown yards, and empty lots.
But this is not a film about a general rural area, but rather it focuses specifically on Black rural life in this era, in this state.
The plot of the film reaches its nadir when the father is involved in an accident at work (he recovers). But the main educational value of the video is how the working parents deal with issues like an overbearing aunt who cares for the children, a “tempting” man who asks to speak to the family’s little girl, and more broadly “life beyond Palmour Street,” as the narrator calls it.
I did not go searching for this video.
Several months ago, it found me by happenstance as I was crawling the internet for something else. Now I can’t recall what that thing was. It fled from my mind as quickly as the opening images of the video lit across my screen. Then I became quickly obsessed, finding out as much as I could about it.
The video and its history were part of the history of a town I did not know, even though I have lived in Gainesville for a few years. I moved here in 2015 to teach writing at the University of North Georgia.
I grew up in Georgia — Augusta to be exact. Almost in the white flight suburbs, educated at an almost-a-suburb high school. Heard about Georgia Tech and UGA and my hometown college. But, to be honest, I didn’t know the university I now work at existed until I applied for the job. Before that, I had driven through the town a few times on my way to my parents who have retired in the mountains near Jasper.
I never saw much.
In my early days living here I would cruise around, orientating myself to the place. We have a lovely town square with shops and restaurants. Brenau, formerly a women’s college, has its campus here. We have a love for all things chicken, as we are home to many poultry processing plants and at least one hatchery.
And like all small Southern towns we have both a Confederate soldier monument standing aloof over that square and nearby, an African-American or Black part of town. This is where the video was shot.
The neighborhood is not on the other side of the tracks, as they say; in fact, this large section of town on the “southside” abuts up against the railroad tracks.
I drove through this area during another obsession with my city — after I discovered the peculiar intersection of MLK Avenue and Dixie Street. I drove the length of the street named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to see what I could see.
King’s road meanders through a part of town that has been both a focus of development as well as a forgotten industrial dumping ground at different times in the city’s history.
According to a 2017 city report, the area is home to “Craftsman bungalows, small vernacular cottages and ranch houses from the 1920s through the 1960” with “a rich African-American heritage and strong sense of community.”
Then I sat in my luxury apartment off the lake we have and wrote about my white guilt – my stance as a “guilty bystander” to quote the monk Thomas Merton, whom I drew from – musing on that interesting intersection in my town.
Now seeing that neighborhood in motion, seeing its people walk along its dirt streets and laugh on the porch of one of its clapboard houses, I was drawn back to that guilt, a feeling that we all of the privileged class, we all who grew up in Georgia as a preferred race, should share.
What I was guilty of? Perhaps not wanting to know or only being burdened once serendipity brought me to a crossroads. Perhaps also I was guilty of not seeing, not wanting to see; not hearing, not wanting to hear.
So I began to listen. To the film, to the history.
Perhaps all that is what drove me to the edges of the three nights’ worth of protests in my small, overwhelming white town after the death of George Floyd.
I did not join the hundred or so Black youth who commandeered a major intersection, shouting, chanting as they faced off with police in riot gear. I stood back, up the road, tweeting. Safe.
There in the middle, between the aggressive defiance by youth and the aggressive defiance of youth, was a woman named Rose Johnson, whom I have never met. She is the head of the Newtown Florist Club, which is not a flower store in my town, but a civil rights organization that began in 1950 providing flowers for the spike in funerals of Black people.
The dead had congregated in the Black part of town which lay “atop an old landfill east of Athens Street in the years immediately after” a 1936 tornado destroyed their original living quarters, according to the local paper’s retrospective. Hence the “new town.” Those homes eventually became neighbors to industries such as Purina and Cargill in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was then that more flowers became needed.
According to one description the houses in Newtown were at point surrounded by “thirteen toxic industries, two identified potentially hazardous sites, numerous hazardous waste generators, and a rat-infested junkyard.” Throughout the years after people would describe a dust that settled in the neighborhood.
After so many deaths, the florist club asked the state environmental department to investigate. The group didn’t win much in terms of ending pollution but it stood its ground, on its ground, for its ground.
Across MLK, to the north is the Fair Street area, a companion to Newtown.
Fair Street Elementary, the Black primary school that fed into the Black high school, was actually the site of the Gainesville premiere of “Palmour Street.”
Red carpets, nice cars, the newspaper reported.
The film was a product of the “father of public access television,” George Stoney, whose films aimed at social change.
According to Stephen Charbonneau’s “Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights, and Documentary Film,” Stoney’s “commitment to documentary filmmaking was rooted in his experience during the Depression when he worked for the Farm Security Administration.” On that job he tried “to convince middle-class people to support programs that benefited sharecroppers and tenant farmers, people who didn’t or couldn’t vote because of poll taxes or race.”
The success of the Palmour Street film launched Stoney into one of his best known works two years later, a film about a Black midwife in Albany.
He followed a similar pattern in making both films: he made inroads with Black community leaders to give him acceptance into their community. For example, he enlisted the Rev. William Holmes Borders, a well-known Black minister in nearby Atlanta, to be the narrator. He also had a Black Gainesville doctor choose the actors.
According to Charbonneau, a history of the film written for its production company, the Southern Educational Film Production Service, noted the “racial dynamics” of the film was “clearly laid out.”
The film took “an approach entirely different from the usual one taken either by Hollywood or the New York documentary boys to Negro life in the south.” The different approach came from a different audience: “We were making this film primarily to motivate southern Negroes… so they had to like the main characters, they had to feel it a good thing to identify with” them.
Because the goal was to awaken that group, the film included a discussion lesson ready for audiences. “When shown to southern Negro audiences” who would gather for these discussions in “their copies of white PTAs, white lodges, white community organizations,” the filmmaker hoped the film “might jolt them out of” complacency and into a “genuine time of thinking aloud about things they dare now think of only in silence,” the history notes.
It was never a film intended for me.
Yet here I was, being turned from my white complacency, my bystanding, by a film designed to do that in the other race decades before, in an era when being jolted from complacency could be life threatening. The film was aiming for that “good trouble” Rep. John Lewis would be beaten for years later in Selma.
Maybe now, decades later, was finally a moment for people like me to begin seeing what the film wanted its audiences to see in its characters: “likeable, admirable…. fellow human beings.”
Who were those people?
James Wesley Merritt, his wife Mildred, and their four children. The film was shot in their house.
Merritt, the husband, was in real life a shoeshine in a white barbershop and the filming schedule worked around his work, according to Charbonneau.
Known as Wes, Merritt was the first Black DJ in Gainesville, according to the local radio station, WDUN. The station wrote in 2019 for a Black History Month retrospective: “While ‘Athens Street on Review,’ later called ‘The Wes Merritt Show,’ was broadcast from that little cafe on Athens Street, the volume knobs on radios all over Gainesville were turned up to hear music, including that of local churches, and the happenings in town during the hour-long program each weekday during the mid- and late-1950s.”
Merritt was such a pillar of the community for so long the city honored him with a day dedicated to him in 1992. He died seven years later.
In an academic article about another of Stoney’s films, the author mentions both Mr. and Mrs. Merritt were “clandestinely” involved with the local NAACP chapter. Stoney recounted a story told to him by Mrs. Merritt: “In the past, she had had to hold her husband down in bed when he had become so angry by the way white people had treated him, making fun of him and so forth.”
She said the only outlet for that anger was the NAACP involvement.
When I was researching this film, my wife and I had begun the adoption process. We were willing to accept any race. And knowing the stats on adoption and our region, we knew there would be a good chance to adopt a Black child. We were concerned about what it would take to raise a Black child in a city long divided by race. Now in a nation divided deeply, again, over it.
Would we become activists just by having a Black child?
Would my child become an activist?
If so, would my stance as a guilty bystander change?
And now, seeing our adopted white daughter, do these thoughts change?
In recent months President Trump has appealed to a fear of low-income housing being brought to “your neighborhood,” here the personal pronoun implying whites.
And yet here was a film about a house that frames that very subject – the remediation of segregation-based effects through housing, and so then too the location of such in a community.
The story of this house is the story of how well-meaning whites who ran the government at all levels at in the 1960s sought to improve 511 Palmour Street and other homes and more broadly life beyond Palmour Street in the Black part of Gainesville and cities across the United States.
While life has improved, there is still frustration and anger and inequality and inequity.
Some progress was made. Health care improved and community centers were built. Some new homes were built. And many public housing units were as well.
But the millions — perhaps billions — spent didn’t engender much trust in the population this massive social engineering project was supposed to help. And done just before the 1968 Fair Housing Act went into effect, it did little to change the neighborhood make-up of my small town in the Appalachian foothills.
While today Blacks are spread across the town more, this part of town has become the second largest minority district. There is a ballooning Hispanic corridor on the southwest side of town. Hispanics now make up about 38% of the city, with Blacks at 11%. Whites remain the biggest group, though their percentage is not more than 50%, but 46%. That is down 30% in 30 years. The Black population has remained steady in the low teens.
While life has improved, there is still frustration and anger and inequality and inequity.
And so I thought if I can understand the anger of Wes Merritt, I can understand the anger of protesters in Minneapolis and in my own city. If I can understand how much effort it took for his wife to keep him out of trouble, I can understand those today who do not have a full-grown woman hoping and praying over them.
If I can understand Gainesville then, maybe I can understand it now.
What was Gainesville like back then?
Athens Street was the hub of the Black part of Gainesville from the 1920s to early 70s.
The Roxy, the first theatre for Blacks only, opened in 1948 on Athens Street. There were blocks and blocks of Black-owned businesses throughout that era. [Note: Historic Gainesville & Hall County, An Illustrated History] [Also see: The Negro Women of Gainesville, Georgia, by Ruth Reed, 1921]
A history of Hall County, in which Gainesville sits as the county seat, called the Athens Street area a “virtual ‘Mecca’” where “one could have most of one’s needs met in one’s neighborhood without having to chance an unpleasant or undignified encounter while venturing downtown,” a few blocks to the north. Drug store, funeral parlor, restaurants, dry cleaners, pool halls, and of course a barber shop.
Then in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Gainesville.
He had come to continue his “war on poverty.” He visited a Black-owned business.
That war included an urban renewal project that radically changed the face of the “southside” of Gainesville and Athens Street. And of course, the house where the Merritts lived.
By the 1960s that area of the city had “deteriorated steadily” into a “squalid slum of tumbled down wooden shacks, unpaved streets, open sewers, and rat-infested garbage dumps.” Crime was high compared to the white part of town, “yet police were a rare sight,” according to a history of the federally funded project that would change 150 cities across the US.
The all-white Gainesville city commission was late to the federal funding trough but by the early 1960s, an economic boom had begun white suburban flight. The “central business district” was in decline. And “worried downtown merchants and property owners” pressured the city commission to do something.
The plan was ambitious: $5 million over three phases through 10 years to raze “more than 400 acres of deteriorated” housing in the Black area of town, demolishing nearly a quarter of housing within the city limits. In the place of those homes would be public-housing apartments and new single family houses.
It did not go well.
City leaders “failed to notice” there was no vacant housing to relocate families as they were displaced. And climbing interest rates and land values now made the ‘cleared’ land unaffordable to the people who used to live on it (usually as renters). “In most instances, displaced families moved to houses which were no better, or even worse, than those they had left.”
By 1966, only about a quarter of the planned parcels had been purchased for demolition and organized “street-by-street” razing instead became a “haphazard” effort that snarled traffic about that prized central business district.
The program was “almost universally considered a disaster,” embittering displaced residents, the report concluded.
“Much embarrassment” to the city.
Then Gainesville gets a new mayor, a chicken-processing magnate, who was determined to see the city’s renewal through. This time though it would not be outsiders who could come in but experts from Atlanta and those who knew how to organize the community to get behind the new effort.
One was a director of Atlanta’s largest public housing project, the other a former Baptist minister who had become director of the city’s economic opportunity arm named Carlyle Cox.
There was much skepticism on the southside. Cox said his team had their ideas, but “it all went out the window” due to the community mistrust. “The main thing we had to do as ‘de-escalate’ – to show the people we were there to answer their needs,” the history noted. They surveyed the community and formed a citizens’ review committee who would approve any plans.
City officials and leaders beyond the mayor slowed down the process with disagreements and obstacles. The county health department refused to work with the new group initially but came on board as the official in charge noted the group’s “sophisticated planning” of the health issues in the city.
Despite that shot in the arm, funding and bureaucratic delays from the federal to the local level started to make this new program mirror its predecessor. “Cox found himself frequently giving interviews to the press, usually involving apologies and explanations for the ‘external’ causes of the delays,” the history noted.
By the fall of 1970, Cox and his team had secured funding for land purchases to begin renewal of more of the housing in the city center, among other projects.
As more success came, so did money as a recognition of the success. By the end of its third year, this new “model cities” program in Gainesville was attracting $4 million a year to the city.
This meant an 88% reduction of residents “living in substandard housing” with 400 families relocated into better housing. Not to mention the development of public housing units. Nearly three quarters of unpaved roads got covered and all outdoor plumbing was eliminated. Crime sunk, and the Black community continued to buy into the project.
Federal enthusiasm had been on the wane since Nixon took office in 1969. Negotiations to changes in the program dragged on until after Nixon resigned in 1974. President Ford’s first signed piece of legislation was the outcome of those debates. Bigger, urban cities would get more funding and small towns like Gainesville would see their funding dwindle over the coming years.
Not only that, but changes in how the funding was overseen meant city officials had more control. That meant those city center business owners in Gainesville could steer the money for the Fair Street area housing renewals to other projects.
And that was what happened.
By the end of 1970s, Southside residents continued to complain about inadequate housing and criticize the construction of tourist attractions in the downtown area.
One official who worked for Cox put this way at the end: “We’re really not much better off now than we were during Model Cities; we can fix up some of the worst housing, but then other parts of the neighborhoods start deteriorating and make up for it. It’s very frustrating.”
I went in search of the house on Palmour Street.
The 1940 census has Palmour Street running west-east with Race and Prior as cross streets, between Center and College streets.
The house on Palmour was still there in 1967 when the Merritts’ son used as his address 511 Palmour Street in the student directory of Gainesville Junior College yearbook.
The 500 block of Palmour was just to the east of South Prior.
Hall County property records tells another part of the story.
The 500 block of Prior is a key clue to where the Merritts house was. That block has houses built in 1970s. Then you notice that the house at 705 College Ave – at the corner of College and Prior – was built in 1943.
The house behind it – 731 College Avenue – was built in 1935. The house next to that – 795 College Avenue – was built in 1977. And the houses that abut 705 College to the northeast which sit around Chamblee Court were built in the 1970s.
Something happened in that neighborhood between 1967 and 1970.
During those three years, Palmour Street and the house at 511 disappears, razed as part of the renewal program.
A survey from August 31, 1970 shows a plat of square parcels lettered A through H with four facing Prior Street.
Mr. J. Wesley Merritt would pay $1100 for one of those parcels, 54-C.
That land became 515 Prior Street, two houses north from 705 College Avenue.
If I have found where the house at 511 Palmour was, what have I discovered then? What has been revealed to me about this family, this part of town, or the city at large? And what has been revealed about me?
First, there is the legacy of the Merritts.
According to his obituary, J. Wesley Merritt died in 1999 with 11 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.
One of his sons, Gresham Vernon Merritt, the same who studied at Gainesville Junior College, lives in California, according to his Facebook profile. Another son, Randall, became a minister. He died in 2003 at age 57.
It seems that the project intended to improve the lives of the Merritts in Gainesville seemingly was part of a reason many of the four children in that film made their lives somewhere else. The Merritts finally sold the house a year after Wes died.
Today citywide, there remains “impediments” to the Fair Housing Act, as a 2019 of Gainesville report notes. Landlords not accepting “vouchers,” lack of affordable housing, and lack of commercial development to support more housing. Limited supply both of rentals and non-rentals “disproportionately” affects minorities, the report notes.
That is about as far as public records will take me.
How much further do I need to go to tell the story of the house on Palmour Street?
Perhaps to the suburbs.
In March, my wife and I bought a house in the city. It was built in 1952 on a street where the plots were divided into rectangles by the developers. It is one of the about 20% of houses in the city built before 1960, though it was renovated and doubled in size by the previous owner in 2015.
There are a few Hispanic families on my street. I have not seen any Black families.
My street dead-ends into the lake and so we see boats a lot. And there are million dollar homes on the lakefront.
Back then, it surely was the suburbs of Gainesville. While we still see deer almost daily in our half-acre lot, our house is a three-minute drive to the city’s historic area and, another minute through the congested main intersection to the Fair Street area.
And a turn or two into where 511 Palmour was.
How much further do I need to go?
Do I need to knock on the door of that house on Prior? Find there a little old lady and sit with her on the porch?
Do I need to walk down King’s road? Or stop at the Newtown office?
To paraphrase the film, can people have an impact on their neighbors?
The views and opinions expressed in submitted articles, essays and features are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editorial staff at BTT.