These Atlanta neighbors no longer wanted to live on Confederate Avenue. Here’s what they did about it
(CNN) — Tiffany Friesen is still getting used to her new address. Out of habit, she sometimes says she lives on Confederate Avenue, where she and her husband Atiba Mbiwan have been for years.
But she doesn’t. Not anymore. After years of discussion and months of neighborly activism, her street has a new name: United Avenue.
In late November, city workers drove up and down Confederate and East Confederate Avenues in Atlanta and replaced old street signs with new ones that renamed the 1.5-mile stretch.
“Wow, this is really real,” thought Friesen upon seeing the first United Avenue sign. She immediately went out and took a picture of the sign nearest her.
It’s a small change — one new word on their mail, address labels and documents. And yet it’s so much more.
What happened in this neighborhood is not unlike the discussions playing out in cities across the South, where officials are debating what to do with streets and monuments that honor the legacy of the Confederacy. But residents here decided they weren’t going to wait for city officials to act.
Instead the Neighbors for a New Name, as they called themselves, took matters into their own hands.
It may not seem like much. After all, Atlanta has nearly three dozen other streets named for the Confederacy or Confederate figures — not to mention a collection of Confederate monuments and statues protected by state law.
But ahead of United Avenue’s formal commemoration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some folks who worked to rename the street told CNN they view their success as a first step.
And their city councilwoman says their grassroots campaign could serve as a blueprint for how other communities in Atlanta — whose slogan is “The City Too Busy to Hate” — might rename their own streets that honor the Confederacy.
“This is one small step for humankind,” Mbiwan said. “But it’s the beginning of a new era.”
How the street got its name
United Avenue is a quiet, mostly residential street that runs southeast from historic Grant Park and contains a mix of homes, churches, an apartment complex and several state government offices.
It lies within a mile of historic Oakland Cemetery, where more than 6,000 Confederate soldiers are buried.
But Confederate and East Confederate Avenues were not named directly after the Confederacy per se, according to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. Their namesake was actually an old soldiers’ home on the road that housed Georgia’s aging Confederate veterans long after the Civil War ended.
The state acquired the soldiers’ home in 1900, according to the Atlanta History Center, and it opened in 1901. The last Confederate veteran to live there died in 1941, and the home catered to veterans’ widows until it closed in 1963. It was destroyed in 1965.
Fifty years later, Friesen and Mbiwan would get involved in an early effort to change the street’s name after nine black churchgoers were massacred at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I thought it was time for a change,” Friesen remembered. “I felt like it was indicative of a direction that I hope we’re going in as a nation and as a community.”
The couple, who are black, moved into their home on Confederate Avenue after getting married in 2003, despite the name. At first, Mbiwan didn’t feel like anything needed to be done about it.
But he changed his mind after the 2015 Charleston shooting, carried out by a young gunman who posted a racist manifesto online alongside pictures of him posing with the Confederate flag.
What was most disturbing to Mbiwan about the massacre was that it was carried out by a 21-year-old, not an old white man who grew up in the segregated South.
“These ideas are so strong that they can pervert the mind of a young man,” he said. “To me that’s where that means we need to stop this now.”
‘Your address is part of your identity’
The conversation about renaming the streets is years old, according to Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents the neighborhood.
“I’ve had people contact me for the last 10, 15 years, saying, ‘You know, we should change the name of Confederate,'” Smith told CNN.
Over the years, Smith said she heard complaints from people who decided not to move into a house they loved simply because it sat on Confederate or East Confederate.
The name didn’t stop Jennette Gayer and her family from moving onto Confederate Avenue in May 2017. But still.
“We didn’t love the name from day one,” she said. “I don’t think you realize how important your street name is until you have a street name that is alienating.”
Gayer noticed it whenever she went home or gave her street name out to friends, which “hammered home the fact that it’s a bigger deal than we probably even thought about when we moved in.”
So when it came time to change the street’s name, it was important to Smith that the decision rested with people who actually lived there.
“Because your address is part of your identity,” she said.
An early effort to rename the street John Lewis Boulevard — after the Atlanta congressman and civil rights activist — soon fizzled.
Then came the national reckoning that followed deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when white supremacists converged on the city to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
After Charlottesville, Atlanta’s then-mayor Kasim Reed formed an advisory committee to look into removing the city’s Confederate monuments and streets. Among the committee’s recommendations, issued in November 2017, was to immediately rename Confederate and East Confederate Avenues.
At this point, residents had already revived their work to rename the street. The committee’s support further validated their effort.
“It substantiated that we were already working on it,” Smith said, adding she’d never forget opening the report and seeing the recommendation to rename the street. “And I was like, it’s time.”
Neighbors for a New Name
Not long after Charlottesville, Friesen and Mbiwan were approached by a neighbor who asked if they’d want to help find a new name for Confederate Avenue.
The effort was “egalitarian” and “collaborative,” Friesen told CNN. A core group of neighbors met in coffee shops or exchanged emails to discuss what work could be involved: going to meetings, looking through maps at City Hall, counting the houses along the street, canvassing the neighborhood, meeting with residents and gathering signatures on a petition.
There weren’t any formal positions, Friesen said, but different people fulfilled different roles. Every time something needed to be done, someone volunteered to handle it.
“All those elements came together because it was an inclusive process,” Friesen said. “Those pieces really had a lot to do with its success.”
Eventually, the neighbors needed a petition showing that 50% of residents along Confederate and East Confederate supported the initiative, Smith said. Neighbors for A New Name went to work.
When the residents met to turn in their petitions, Smith said she was incredibly moved by seeing the fruits of her constituents’ labor.
“That was the moment that I knew it was going to happen,” she said.
After another round of door-knocking, street residents were given ballots to vote on the new name. Gayer said that neighbors who weren’t involved in the effort became engaged with the idea when they learned they would have input on what the new name would be.
“What do you want to change it to?” was always the first question, Gayer said. “So it was nice to be able to go, ‘Well, we want your input.'”
Among the other names considered were “Soldiers” — a nod to the historic veterans’ home, Gayer said — “Considerate” and “Coretta Scott King.”
But United was the clear winner. (And no, the street wasn’t renamed for Atlanta’s champion Major League Soccer Team.)
“People liked what it stood for, what it meant,” Friesen told CNN. “We weren’t just changing it from Confederate because it was too long or too cumbersome or old-fashioned. We were changing it because it stood for something that we didn’t care to uplift. And if we’re going to replace it, let’s replace it with something we do want to uplift.”
‘A perversion of history’?
The petitions allowed Smith to put legislation before the City Council. But first, Smith held a “listening session” in the Atlanta City Council chambers.
Not everyone who showed up supported the name change.
Will Dean said he’d lived on East Confederate Avenue since 2004 and loved everything about living there, “including the name of the street.” Dean was concerned with the financial cost of the name change. Residents would have to update documents like drivers’ licenses, passports, property and Social Security records.
But he also felt the name change carried historical implications as well.
“I will say that it is important to maintain our history and that when we go and start changing monuments and street names that were named after famous Atlantans, famous Georgians, famous Southerners and in some circumstances … famous Americans … you are robbing the next generations of what actually transpired,” Dean said. “And it’s very serious. It’s a very serious offense.”
Some people who don’t live on the street, like David Moreland, came to weigh in on the issue as well.
“Do not tear down Confederate Avenue,” said Moreland, who described himself as an eighth-generation American and a sixth-generation Georgian. He’s a resident of Meriwether County, about 60 miles south of Atlanta, where he said he grew up.
Ancestors on both sides of his family “proudly fought and died for the Confederacy,” he said, and to rename the street would be akin to erasing history and his heritage.
“It is so disgusting to me, the perversion of history,” he said. “I am proud to be a Confederate.”
But most attendees that night were in full support. The residents said they hoped Smith’s legislation would pass and that it would serve as an example to other neighborhoods and cities.
One speaker was Arthur Breland, the first African-American pastor in the 90-year history of Woodland Hills Baptist Church on Confederate Avenue. He joined the effort because he felt he had failed to address issues of race with his congregation.
“I just knew that I had not done enough,” he said, “even as a black pastor, to be completely honest, to see social justice … to really challenge the status quo.”
Besides the name change, Breland wanted the neighborhood to continue having conversations about racial issues in their neighborhood.
“We need to actually have honest conversations about race and classism in our community,” he said. “And this has created a wonderful opportunity and platform for our community to have these kind of conversations.”
When Breland stepped to the podium that night in September, he addressed claims that renaming the street would erase history.
“We should never attempt to revise history of our community,” he said. “However, we must intentionally shape the present narrative that is being recorded for our children’s sake. We must not honor symbols of hate or division. We must not celebrate or memorialize our nation’s sinful past.”
A neighborhood United
After review by other Atlanta regulatory bodies, the City Council passed Smith’s legislation unanimously on October 1. Two days later, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed it into law. A third street in the community, Confederate Court, was renamed Trestletree Court.
“That felt wonderful,” Friesen remembered. “It felt like things aligned.”
According to Smith, another group of residents are working to “memorialize” the street name, likely with a piece of granite that will sit on the former site of the Confederate veterans’ home and explain the street’s history.
Smith believes the work of Neighbors for a New Name could be used to guide other Atlanta neighborhoods that want to change street names.
“It’s a template,” Smith said. “It shows that this can be done.”
Smith likes that the residents took charge instead of relying on their city councilmember to do all the work.
“It needs to come organically from the neighborhood,” she said. “Your address and your street, no matter who it’s named after, it’s still your identity. It means something a little bit different to everyone. So let them figure out the name.”
Friesen said she hopes other communities can learn from what hers did and can follow their example to tackle similar issues.
“I hope it’s a first step,” she said, pointing to inclusivity as a crucial factor in their group’s success.
“It wasn’t like we had some big, master blueprint plan,” she said. “Be willing to talk to your neighbors and take small steps that can lead to big change. That’s really what it was.”
“I hope it inspires other communities to do the same thing,” she said. “The thing they’re going to learn is like it was a fun process, so don’t feel like having these conversations with your neighbors is taboo. Just go for it.”
“If you’ve got two neighbors,” she added, “you’ve got a Neighbor for a New Name committee, right?”