When the ribbon fell on the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail a year ago, it’s unlikely that many patrons paid a second thought to a brick ranch neighboring the path on Harwell Street in Washington Park. Swallowed by kudzu and overgrown trees, its horizontal front windows were boarded up, and its garage door had the appearance of being halfway kicked-in.
Nothing about the midcentury residence hinted at the significant role its elderly owner played in Atlanta’s—and indeed, America’s—history.
It’s where Edward Johnson, a World War II flight instructor with the Tuskegee Airmen, first established roots in Atlanta after the war. He built the home on one of the last undeveloped lots neighboring a then-active Westside railway, and with wife Harriet May Robinson, raised three daughters there.
Johnson would become the first black Licensed Master Electrician in Atlanta, and the company he founded with a fellow Tuskegee Airman, Johnson & Wood Electric, was regarded as a sort of incubator of its day.
And it’s that sort of legacy the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to prevent from being lost to time.
Cognizant of development pressures facing ITP neighborhoods in fast-growing Atlanta, and especially those near the Beltline, the Georgia Trust has launched what’s called the “Westside Preservation Initiative” to keep historical landmarks intact via home and neighborhood rehabs.
As a staring point, Georgia Trust officials have recently purchased three properties owned by the Johnson family, including his former residence, which volunteers have helped clean up just south of Washington Park’s eponymous green space. Other purchases include an adjacent lot and a nearby Mozley Park bungalow also owned by the family.
Both houses are contributing properties in their respective National Register historic districts. The original architecture remains, and since both were unoccupied, nobody will be displaced, as Ben Sutton, Georgia Trust’s director of preservation, notes in the latest issue of Georgia DNR’s Reflections publication.
Georgia Trust “will oversee the full rehabilitation of these houses and sell them back to the community at an affordable price,” writes Sutton. “Most importantly, once completed, these houses will be owner-occupied, adding to those people investing not only in property but in the neighborhoods they call home.”
Set among booming, postwar Westside neighborhoods such as West End, which rivaled Auburn Avenue in terms of prosperity, as Sutton writes, the Johnson family’s story exemplifies “the rich fabric of the African-American community during [the] era: a strong middle class community that served as a foundation for the political leadership that arose from these neighborhoods during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Per usual, historic Atlanta structures have been threatened in recent years or lost to development.
But the Westside, Sutton posits, appears to be “in particular peril,” in that older residents are “being squeezed by housing costs and speculative investors that show no understanding of the neighborhoods’ vital history.”
Johnson’s former house closed for $52,000 in March, per city tax records.
According to Atlanta’s Tuskegee Airman chapter, Johnson’s business served as a training ground for young black electricians in the city, and even in retirement, he worked on projects that included the wiring of MARTA train stations and Clark Atlanta University’s power plant.
Back in 2014, several groups banded together to help Johnson, at age 98, realize a lifelong dream of watching the Atlanta Falcons play in person.
The Falcons lost that contest by two points to the Cleveland Browns, but Johnson was honored before an appreciative Georgia Dome crowd.
He’ll turn 103 in February.