When fans file into Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3 for football’s biggest game, few of them will know how much of Atlanta’s history was sacrificed in the name of the city’s Super Bowl dreams. Thirty years ago, an entire neighborhood called Lightning was demolished to make way for the Georgia Dome, which itself was demolished in 2017 to make way for the Benz. Today, the history of Lightning exists mostly in the memories of those who called it home. Max Blau and Dustin Chambers have gathered their stories.
On February 3, an army of 75,000 football fans will flock to Atlanta’s west side.
They’ll tailgate in parking lots. They’ll trash-talk their rivals. Before night falls, they’ll file into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5-billion arena grand enough to be labeled an “American cathedral.” From the comfort of homes and bars, millions more will watch the 53rd annual battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. As they stare into the glow of their TVs, chugging beers and chomping chips, they’ll also get their fill of God, country, and corporate advertising.
By the time Super Bowl Sunday ends, hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on ticket sales, hotels, and merchandise. If the New England Patriots win, the residents of Boston will party in the streets to celebrate their sixth Super Bowl victory. If the Los Angeles Rams pull off an upset, Southern Californians will march in the streets to lionize the Rams for their first NFL championship ever (if you discount the 2001 Super Bowl victory when the team was in St. Louis).
Those fans won’t know the true cost of admission to the Super Bowl. Some may recall that building Mercedes-Benz Stadium required the displacement of two of Atlanta’s oldest black churches, Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist, for a total of $34 million.
Fewer might realize that decades earlier nearly a dozen other churches had accepted five- and six-figure offers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to move out of the path of the Georgia Dome (demolished in 2017 to make way for the Benz) and the Georgia World Congress Center, which continually hosts conventions in the city.
Virtually none will remember the black community originally displaced in pursuit of Atlanta’s Super Bowl dreams. Except the people who lived there, in the long-gone neighborhood called Lightning.
Pictured above: all of these people lived in — or stood up for — the community of Lightning. You will meet them all in this story.
Many years ago, Ronald Monroe had an easy answer to the question: Where is your family from? He could pull out a map of Atlanta, place his finger on downtown Atlanta, and move it west toward Northside Drive. On the left side of the street, he’d see Vine City, the neighborhood where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised his children. On the right, Monroe would find the black working-class community of Lightning. His grandparents lived there. On Sundays, he and his cousins would travel to their corner store to raid the shelves for candy. They would then find cardboard boxes, climb up a nearby hill, and slide back down until their butts hit the street.
“It was simple fun,” Monroe, now 60, says. “I can’t think of nobody not wanting to go.”
One of Atlanta’s earliest communities, Lightning hosted church revivals in the ’30s and moonshine alleys in the ’40s; an industrial boom in the ’50s and the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. Although it was surrounded by prestigious institutions, from Georgia Tech to the historically black colleges of the Atlanta University Center, outsiders frequently associated Lightning with the least of Atlanta, in part because it was among the city’s last communities to get paved roads and electric power. Following a slow decline in the 1980s, fueled by the disinvestment and destruction wrought by urban-renewal efforts, the state targeted the land on which Lightning stood to build the Georgia Dome.
But the people of Lightning — the residents and reverends, community activists and corner store owners, the mothers who ran households and fathers who punched the clock at factory jobs — have been largely erased from the story of Atlanta’s west side. When asked today where his family is from, Monroe must think carefully, for the answer is far more complicated than it used to be.
To Atlantans, Monroe holds the title that always designates a native: He’s a “Grady baby,” born in Grady Memorial Hospital, the public institution that has cared for Atlantans of all classes since 1892. He is also a son of the west side. To west-siders, he’s a native of historic neighborhoods like Vine City or even Bankhead.
All are stand-ins, though, for where he’s really from — which is nowhere, looking at the current map of his hometown.
Ronald Monroe, 60, laments that Lightning’s history has been poorly documented. “Nobody has pictures of that area,” he said. “If someone’s got one from back then, it’s so distorted you can’t make it out.”
I first heard of Lightning six years ago, as Atlanta city officials considered funding Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The neighborhood was being invoked as a reminder of the consequences of forced displacement. Despite those warnings, officials signed off on giving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the new stadium project, even though the Georgia Dome had opened only two decades ago, in 1992. In the months that followed, officials stopped referencing Lightning. In the years that followed, officials would pay for murals and statues to honor the west side’s civil rights legacy, even erecting a historical marker for the Georgia Dome, which had been imploded at the ripe old age of 25.
But Lightning’s memory vanished like a flash in a stormy night sky.
“It’s a tragedy that Lightning went away the way that it did,” says Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond, who was raised a short walk from Lightning and, later, canvassed the neighborhood with his father, civil rights icon Julian Bond. “There’s probably so much history that’s been covered over, dredged, dug up, taken away from areas. And we’ll never know.”
Traces of Lightning can be found in articles, letters, and documents stored deep inside a handful of historical archives. Given the overall lack of record, I turned to Skip Mason’s Vanishing Black Atlanta History, a Facebook group started by Morehouse College’s former archivist, to find people who still remembered Lightning. Here, residents have posted their former addresses, reminisced about their favorite memories, and talked of future reunions. Once in a while, they theorized about the origins of Lightning’s name, from an old nickname for moonshine, to the speed at which residents could draw a knife in a fight. I spoke with nearly two dozen people who either lived or spent time in Lightning, and their stories — in the own words — are here.
One of those people, Tillman Ward, told me his memories of Lightning at a coffee shop a block away from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A westside activist who once owned a house on Rock Street, he lugged to our meeting a framed panoramic image of Atlanta’s skyline. He wanted to show me an older view of what was lost to the legacy of stadiums. In doing so, he hoped the collective voice of Lightning might not just be remembered — but also remind future generations of the price of progress.
Tillman Ward, a longtime West Atlanta activist, stands on the new $23 million pedestrian bridge that connects the Vine City MARTA Station to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
On the afternoon of June 19, 1921, Reverend T.H. King stood near the altar of Amanda Flipper Memorial Temple, trying not to sweat too much. Not only had the heat neared triple digits, at a time when air conditioning wasn’t widely available, but the occasion required King to wear his Sunday best. Having spent $4,000 to build the church ($56,000 in today’s dollars), the leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal congregation hoped Amanda Flipper’s inaugural service would be the first of many to serve Lightning. And, for decades, it did. Reverends traveled from Florida to Chicago to spread the Lord’s word during the 1920s. At the height of the Great Depression, large crowds turned out for revivals that lasted as long as two weeks. Reverends preached fiery sermons about sin and redemption. Like a choir-backed Samuel L. Jackson, the pastors implored worshippers to rise up, to fill those halls with joyful noise.
Amanda Flipper Memorial Temple: In the late 1980s, the state offered $175,000 to Amanda Flipper AME church for its longtime property in Lighting. Following a series of protests, the congregation sold its property for $256,880 and moved to this location in Decatur, Georgia.
Harold Smith, a retired UPS worker who lived in Lightning during the ’50s: Lightning was a lot smaller than Vine City. The majority of people [in Lightning] had relatives. I came from a Smith family. You had the Harpers, the Halls, the Waltons. Very few didn’t have aunts, uncles, cousins there. It was close-knit.
Tillman Ward: [Lightning’s streets were] connected to downtown. Many persons who worked downtown — the people who got there early to start the steam for the buildings and prepare the food — lived there.
Michael Julian Bond: The neighborhood was on a higher elevation than Vine City. You felt like you were in Downtown. You felt that.
Rosalyn Dupree-Tullis, daughter of Eliza Dupree, whose family had a home in Lightning for at least six decades: There was two railroads in Lightning. One up Haynes Street. And the one that’s there now, near Marietta Street, was the bigger railroad.
Chris Dupree, a South Fulton resident who lived in Lightning for the first 11 years of his life, starting in 1961, and is a relative of Dupree-Tullis: People got around by following the railroad tracks. The streets, pretty much every street that ran east and west would take you to the tracks. The tracks were the demarcation between white and black.
Eliza Dupree, the third of five sisters in the Dupree family: My granddaddy bought that first house on Thurmond Street. I was born there in 1938. Most of the streets, including Thurmond, were made of dirt. That house was brick. It had a porch. There was nine [kids], my momma, and my daddy. Everybody was over there. Everyone slept wherever they could.
The Dupree Sisters (left to right, youngest to oldest: Sylvia Dupree-Dillard, Rosa Kate Dupree-Rush, Eliza Dupree, Delores Dupree-Whitfield, and Maryann Dupree) stand near Northside Drive in front of the Georgia World Congress Center – whose expansion, along with the Georgia Dome’s construction – erased their childhood neighborhood.
Chris Dupree: Lightning was a collection of straight shotgun houses.
Tillman Ward: Smaller houses. Being the part-time optimist I am, they were Victorian cottages in waiting. Some, well, waited longer than others. If there were another low-income industrial community that would mirror Lightning, it would be Cabbagetown.
Gayla Shack, a Forest Park, Georgia, quality assurance supervisor who lived in Lightning from 1964 to 1971: We had space heaters in each room. If the winter was brutal, we suffered.
Velma Coachman, a Haynes Street resident from the late ’50s to the ’80s: Our house was off the ground on bricks.
Willie D. Monroe, a 94-year-old retiree who lived in Lightning from 1938 to 1960, whose family moved to Lightning when she was 14: We lived in the row houses on Magnolia Street. Everybody had to use the same bathrooms. You had to go to the end of the street.
Harold Smith: When our roof would leak . . . I’d ask my mom, why isn’t nobody trying to fix the roof? She’d say, who’s going to go up to there fix it? And, we ain’t got the money to fix it. You’d hear the water drip down to the tin pan. You learned to sleep with it.
Willie D. Monroe, a 94-year-old retiree who lived in Lightning from 1938 to 1960, whose family moved to Lightning when she was 14.
Gayla Shack: We didn’t have a lot of money. Meat every day wasn’t happening. On Sundays, we had meat. During the week, maybe neck bones or oxtails. My grandmother cooked breakfast — fried fatback, grits, and biscuits. The house always smelled of her cooking.
Harold Smith: There were cobblestone streets in the 1950s. You had horse buggies. We didn’t have access to no grocery stores. You had the vegetable truck.
Gayla Shack: The vegetable man would come to your porch.
Delores Dupree-Whitfield, one of Eliza Dupree’s older sisters: [His name was] Mr. Cullen. C-U-L-L-E-N.
Harold Smith: He had collard greens, turnip greens, tomatoes — every now and then, sweet potatoes. Beans, all kinds, mostly string beans. During the summer, watermelons and sugar cane — they’d sell the stalk.
Gayla Shack: We’d sit on the porch and gnaw on the sugar cane.
Sylvia Dupree-Dillard, the youngest of the five Dupree sisters: I still remember Christmas in the ’50s. The sisters would come back to their house. It was a family reunion. It was heaven, seeing everyone there. Christmas morning, the adults would be drunk. There was coconut cakes, chocolate cakes, turkey and dressing, with cranberry sauce, mmmmhmmm. We had our own little candy sack with an apple, orange, nuts, big raisins still on the vine, chocolate candy, peppermint candy. You’re talking about good times. We’d get up, get on our skates [that we’d gotten from Santa], and head out and get gone. Our street wasn’t paved. We could go anywhere and didn’t have to tell mom where we were. We were just out skating somewhere.
Gayla Shack: We was always playing in the street. There was a hill that came down Haynes Street. Kids would bike down that hill.
Rev. Jerome Banks, a former Mangum Street resident who lived in Lightning from 1953 to 1967, and has written an unpublished book about the neighborhood: We had to be creative. We climbed up the fence of the Atlanta Casket Company to play in empty coffins.
Rosa Kate Dupree-Rush, the second youngest of the five Dupree sisters: We’d jump across from one pile to the next. There were huge piles — a story or two high.
Willie D. Monroe: My granddaddy had a store on Mangum and Magnolia [streets]. They’d sell candy — it was like a nickel for a big bar of candy, the rest were penny Kisses. Soda was five cents: Coca-Cola, grape, and orange.
Rev. Jerome Banks: My mama brought me up as a church guy at Mount Gilead Baptist. We was the heart of Lightning. There was no bigger church in the area. Packed all the time. We had songs, choirs, and a preacher who preached well. Someone taught me voice. The instructors there kept you on the right road.
Mount Gilead Baptist Church: Following its displacement from Lightning, the church relocated to this location three miles west off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. Mount Gilead is still open today.
A 1936 Atlanta Daily World article, one of the first to mention Lightning by its name, described it as a place “where the boys and girls used to fuss and fight till midnight, frolic and dance till daylight” — so long as, of course, they made it to church on Sundays. There, in the morning light, preachers would warn of “dens of vice in Atlanta.” (One historian who later documented Lightning’s culture wrote about its reputation for “crime, drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, and other vices.” Those sorts of descriptions would plague Lightning for decades to come, much to the dismay of some longtime residents.)
Tillman Ward: Lightning was said to have the knowledge of developing beverages that one might like. There was Lightning — and there was white lightnin’. It was clear. You could really see what you got.
Robert Cantrell, a Powder Springs, Georgia native, whose family moved to Vine City in the late ’60s. As a young boy, he ran errands for adults in Lightning: There was a lot of drinking.
Harold Smith: You had juke joints.
Delores Dupree-Whitfield: We had numbers. You had your numbers written out — my house number was 367 — and the Numbers man would [get your numbers and] go to the next house. It was illegal. They had different people to keep the police from getting them. You could play a penny, and get two or three dollars off of it. Or you could put more. But that’s about it. When you hit, you got good money off of it. A lot of black people got rich off it.
Robert Cantrell: I remember one guy who sold moonshine. Everyone went to his house during the week to get alcohol. People would have a running tab.
Chris Dupree: There was a bunch of bootleg spots. There was corn liquor — whiskey that people made, bootleggers. I don’t know where they made it.
Velma Coachman: Coming up, it was kind of hard. A lot of kids came from broken homes, and either their mom or dad were alcoholics.
Robert Cantrell: I used to run to the corner store for people. They’d give me 50 cents to run out for cigarettes, meats, and snacks. I was a hustler.
Ronald Monroe: We was warned, Don’t go ’round the corner, don’t go ’round the alley.
Harold Smith, a retired UPS worker who lived in Lightning during the ’50s: “I could be old fashioned, set in my ways, and I know nothing ain’t ever going to stay the same. But to destroy [Lightning] like they did, I never liked it.”
In between the virtue and vice, hardworking families spent their days enjoying what they had despite the lack of available opportunities.
Tillman Ward: Within Lightning, there was the residential Lightning and the industrial Lightning.
Rev. Jerome Banks: It wasn’t always people from Lightning who worked [in Lightning]. White people caught the buses there.
Harold Smith: Many [Lightning residents] worked on the railroads or at Atlantic Steel.
Velma Coachman: My dad was in the military ... he worked at Atlantic Steel. [Some of the people] that worked at Atlantic Steel, they died of cancer, including my dad.
Harold Smith: They worked downtown as doormen or shoe shiners. Very menial jobs.
Robert Cantrell: My father got laid off at the Lockheed plant. So he got a custodian job. It was either as a chauffeur or a butler for a rich family.
Tillman Ward: My father worked for the railroad for 20-something years. Just the job alone, you could live and work that all your life, and still be in the same situation. I can’t remember a time when my father didn’t have at least three jobs. To be efficient, he’d have me there to assist him. I had to come to where he worked, so I walked through Lightning to get to the Southern Railway.
Rosalyn Dupree-Tullis: You had some who didn’t have as much, but it wasn’t like anyone stood out so bad that we picked at each other. The way it was to me, it was just a big family. Everyone was just family.
Georgia International Plaza, the site of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s groundbreaking ceremony, now occupies what was once the southeast corner of Lightning. Just below the plaza, a service road snakes past underground parking decks for both the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena.
Beyond the nearby factories, Lightning residents endured the pollution from the industry along the railroad line that rain to the Gulch. They also lived near the Charles W. Mayson Plant, the city’s trash incinerator, and urged officials to stop burning waste “because of the foul and noxious smoke,” according to a journal published by the Atlanta Historical Society. The incinerator shut down in the early ’70s.
Rev. Jerome Banks: The garbage trucks came down Mangum Street. It’d pass our front door. Every day, twice a day, they’d burn up the trash they collected. It’d just go up in the air. No one seemed to care.
Hector Black, a Vine City resident in the late ’60s who helped organize protests in the Lightning area: Friends of ours took us over [to Lightning]. We sang Christmas carols over there. You could see the flames coming up from the incinerator — and the soot coming down below.
Rev. Jerome Banks: It’d settle over the neighborhood. There was a huge empty field that separated [the residential parts of] Lightning from the incinerator. We used to play football on it. It’d just stink. Nothing to protect no one’s breathing. I knew something was wrong with that as a kid.
Neill Herring, longtime environmental lobbyist for the Georgia Sierra Club: The former power plant [was] across Northside [from] Lightning. I used to picket and leaflet there in the ’70s. That [plant] was an antique by that time; it still had multiple coal-fired boilers with no emissions controls, and took coal from the Atlantic Coast Line in cars that were hauled on a spur that crossed Northside. Until the mid-’60s the spur was still operated with an electric locomotive powered by a trolley wire, owned and operated by Georgia Power.
Jane Haywood Johnson, a University of Georgia graduate student who studied Lightning in the late ’60s, wrote in her thesis: “There [was] little escape from the problem of air pollution.”
Rev. Jerome Banks: I noticed several people had miscarriages, several people born with medical conditions, several people born blind, deformed arms. I thought it had something to do with this. I saw a lot of sickness.
While many leading civil rights figures lived in Vine City, Lightning also had its share of foot soldiers in the fight for racial equality and justice — including John Calhoun, a future president of the NAACP’s Atlanta chapter. In the ’50s, black activists fought Mayor William Hartsfield’s efforts to clear Lightning as part of urban renewal. In the ’60s, residents engaged in rent strikes to demand better housing conditions. And Lightning residents bore witness to the Civil Rights Movement.
Ronald Monroe: I heard my grandparents and parents and aunts talk about the Civil Rights Movement. They’d reference MLK, [saying things like] I just saw Dr. King and Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young on Marietta Street. I saw them at Paschal’s. They’d talk about MLK and his foot soldiers.
Eliza Dupree: White people treated us bad in those days before Dr. Martin Luther King. If we had a nickel, we could ride the bus downtown. They wouldn’t sit up front. They’d come all the way back to the last seat. And the bus be empty. They’d go up and tell the bus driver you’re sitting in front of them. He’d get up, come back, and tell you: You’ve got to stand up.
Delores Dupree-Whitfield: It made me dislike white people, period. They were just evil people, back then, toward black people.
Ronald Monroe: We could walk toward Sunset Avenue where [Dr. King] lived. Some of my cousins would walk there to peep his house out.
Velma Coachman: I was living in Lightning. Getting bused to school was scary. I made the choice to attend North Fulton High School with people from all walks of life. The first day . . . imagine us pulling up to a predominantly white school, and you’ve got busloads of African American children. It took getting used to.
Michael Julian Bond: Lightning was in my father’s district. When he campaigned every two years, [he’d] go door to door in Lightning. He loved to walk. He had a lot of supporters there. They were proud of their neighborhood. They were proud of Lightning.
Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond: “In so many areas of Atlanta, like Lightning, people walk around and have no idea where they’re standing.” Bond’s father, civil rights icon Julian Bond, represented Lightning when he was in the Georgia Legislature.
Jane Haywood Johnson: The Atlanta Car Wash [was] located on what [was] probably the busiest corner in Lightning. It was formerly owned by a “segregationist” who would not hire Negro employees. Since Atlanta Car Wash [was] . . . part of the neighborhood unit of Lightning, this policy particularly aggravated Lightning’s residents. They boycotted the establishment in December of 1967. After the “segregationist” went bankrupt, he sold it to another man who adopted the practice of hiring Negroes. This satisfied the residents of Lightning.
Hector Black: A lady from Lightning, “Miss Pat,” took me to the Markham Hotel. There was a local fellow who may well have started a rent strike. He was a member of the Vine City Council and camped out in front of the Markham Hotel. I was arrested there. Martin Luther King and his wife picketed housing conditions in Atlanta together with members of the Vine City Council who were protesting my arrest. Dr. King and his wife were going to start a major housing effort in Atlanta — but I don’t think they ever went to Lightning.
Robert Cantrell: I remember the riots [after Dr. King was assassinated]. I heard about it on TV as a kid. My dad was sad. But as a kid, I didn’t really have it hit me until years later. I didn’t comprehend then.
Ronald Monroe: [By 1968], we had moved from Lightning to Grove Park, [a neighborhood] in the Bankhead area. My grandparents were still in Lightning. They talked about buildings being set on fire, police coming over there to protect the downtown area. There was stuff in Lightning getting set on fire, getting destroyed. They’d talk about checking it out — the things destroyed, the things torn up — and come back from there, sit on their porch, and talk about it.
Few physical traces of Lightning still exist. Environmental activist Neill Herring remembers handing out leaflets to Georgia Power workers outside a power plant across the street from Lightning. In the top photo, Georgia Power operated a newer power station on that site. Below, an abandoned stretch of a rail line that once transported coal through Lightning.
Around the time of Dr. King’s assassination, Haywood Johnson was conducting research in Lightning. For her master’s thesis, she interviewed residents about daily life in the neighborhood, documented its intense poverty, and wrote thoroughly about institutions like the Lightning Community Center, a bright blue house where children and teenagers could play games, make crafts, and get free milk and sandwiches at no charge. The walls were plastered with bumper stickers that read “We Shall Overcome,” and “I Have a Dream” posters of the slain civil rights icon.
For a while, Lightning residents could dream of a better future, spared of the initial wave of urban-renewal projects that would harm communities on the city’s east and south sides. But officials were aware of the Lightning area’s potential for future development. A decade earlier, a report had been commissioned on the best place to build a new stadium for the Braves, which had planned to relocate from Milwaukee. The top location that emerged was in Washington-Rawson, a southeast Atlanta neighborhood near the Georgia State Capitol. The runner-up was Lightning.
Michael Julian Bond: [My father] was fearful that eventually, downtown interests would try to push their way through Vine City. At one point, under [former Mayor] Ivan Allen, there was a plan drafted like that.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford, pastor of Amanda Flipper African Methodist Episcopal Church from 1988 to 1992: I got a copy of a feasibility report [years later]. ... We concluded that once Lightning was in view of developers, there appeared to be a real disinvestment in the community, to the point where it became blighted and an eyesore for downtown. It made it easier to come back and displace the community.
Eliza Dupree: My daddy died in 1972. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were planning that the government was going to buy our homes. We didn’t want to sell.
Harold Smith: My aunt lived in the same house for 50 years — and never owned it. The majority of the people didn’t own.
Willie D. Monroe: When my husband got disabled from work, we went up to Perry Homes. Did I miss [Lightning]? No. Perry Homes, we was living high; it was better than Lightning. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t think about it.
Harold Smith: Some elders were locked in. They had nowhere else to go.
In 1973, state lawmakers decided to build the Georgia World Congress Center. To build the mammoth convention hall, intended to fuel the state’s booming tourism industry, developers acquired four blocks of Lightning. Some residents saw the project as a threat to their very existence. Many were unaware the neighborhood was now zoned “industrial” — dissuading city officials from caring for Lightning as they did with other neighborhoods. As older residents passed away, children inherited their homes without intention of resettling in the neighborhood. Blocks grew vacant. Real estate speculators knocked on doors to buy out residents. By the 1980s, city planners — who had deemed the vast majority of Lightning’s rental housing “uninhabitable” thanks to absentee landlords — called for the relocation of the remaining families. Then came the Georgia Dome, touted as one of the nation’s largest arenas of its day.
On a windy Thursday night in October 1987, residents gathered inside Mount Vernon Baptist Church to hear from Lowell Evjen, president of the Georgia Stadium Corp., who sought to ease the worries of Lightning and Vine City residents about the impact of the Georgia Dome. For two years, stadium backers had privately drafted plans to build a new facility on Lightning. Many residents had only recently learned about the Georgia Dome by reading the newspaper. They collected hundreds of signatures demanding public hearings about the Dome, which was expected to cost more than $150 million.
That night, Evjen pledged to include the community moving forward. But roughly 100 West Side residents, including Ward, expressed their concerns. And Rev. Sherman A. Baker, the pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, had recorded his worries onto a cassette tape from a hospital bed and asked for the tape to be be played at the meeting. He criticized Mayor Andrew Young for letting Dr. King’s “good dream” fade from the communities in the path of the stadium. And Rev. Timothy McDonald, then affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, warned officials: “You ain’t fought until you fought the black church. There is no power like the power of God’s people. It will not happen here.
The Georgia World Congress Center: This massive convention center now covers much of where Lightning once stood.
Ivory Young, the late Atlanta City Councilmember, said in a filmed interview with the Historic Westside Cultural Arts from 2015 that “the Georgia Dome, and the phase four expansion of the Georgia World Congress Center, took place on an approximately 90-acre tract. ... In the shadow of all that downtown infrastructure, [Lightning] was a neighborhood with a lot of value.”
Michael Julian Bond: The first [business] to go away was the old lumber yard [run by the Frank G. Lake Lumber Co.]. It seemed permanent.
Rev. Jerome Banks: They got rid of all the companies. The Atlanta Casket Company. Bailey Coffee Company. They closed down [the factories]. Those buildings stood empty for months.
Michael Julian Bond: There were churches who had a dwindling population. By this time, in the mid-’80s, most of the residents of Lightning were gone. There were houses still.
Rev. Jerome Banks: Most of the residents [left] were renters. So [state officials] were talking to landlords. Residents got notices that you got to move. We moved because of that. I don’t think nobody would’ve left if we weren’t forced out.
Velma Coachman: My parents held out. Everyone in Atlanta knew they were buying us out. They didn’t want to give people in Lightning a fair price. They wanted the land. They were trying to run us out. Sell the home — or else.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who pushed for the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium; the late Atlanta City Councilmember Ivory Young, who described Lightning’s demise as a “taking” of land from residents; former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was criticized for prioritizing the building of stadiums over the well-being of Lightning residents.
The late Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, who served from 1974 to 1982, was gearing up for another campaign when said in a January 1988 interview: “I favor a domed stadium somewhere, but I do not favor ramming it down the throats of any Atlanta citizens without having their participation and without having worked out a reasonable arrangement with the neighborhoods — which I believe, regrettably, has not been the case so far on the domed stadium.”
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: On June 12, 1988, my bishop assigned me to Amanda Flipper. Red brick church. Pew without cushions. Brown-pattern walls. I knew very little about Lightning. But he told me the church would need to be relocated. By the time I got there, there were only three or four churches still operating in the Lightning community. Soon, I received a letter from the Georgia Dome authority.
That same week, state officials started buying homes from Lightning residents. One by one they purchased tiny lots, as small as 1/20th of an acre, forcing the remaining residents to consider their fate. A small group of homeowners convened a set of emergency meetings to see if they could block the Georgia Dome. They contacted lawyers in hopes of mounting a legal fight. They recommended land appraisers to those interested in selling, so no one would end up with “wooden nickels.” And they handed out thousands of pamphlets outside the Omni, the host facility for the 1988 Democratic National Convention. From her porch, resident Catherine Douglas set up a 40-foot sign within eyesight of satellite TV news trucks. It had a simple message: “Lightning Strikes Back.”
Dennis Goldstein, a former housing attorney for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society who worked with Lightning tenants: They were sophisticated enough to reach out to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the ACLU, and Concerned Black Clergy. For a poor neighborhood, they were sophisticated politically. I may have been on the ACLU board for a couple of years, and I would've been the front person. The focus then would’ve been on assistance to renters. They would've been left out in the cold.
Tillman Ward: The renters would find out through their landlords that their property had been taken or sold, and they’d need to find another place.
Chris Dupree: A lot of people left sooner. A lot of people resisted. Toward the end, it became more deserted.
A sculpture of entwined vines sits near the foot of the pedestrian bridge connecting Vine City to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Byron Amos, a lifelong Vine City resident and current Atlanta Public Schools board member: I used to walk through the neighborhood to the Omni, which had the Gold Mine arcade room. When you crossed over Northside Drive, it was a different place. A lot of the streets had probably one resident on it — the rest was vacant houses. There were kudzu[-covered lots]. There was a lot of fires.
Velma Coachman: People were setting abandoned houses on fire.
Michael Julian Bond: It almost always seemed to happen in the afternoon. Those structures were wood; almost every square inch would be burning.
Velma Coachman: You’d look out, and there’d be a house fully engulfed.
Byron Amos: A lot of people thought it was to move people out of the area. A lot of people thought it was insurance-type stuff.
Michael Julian Bond: People were making jokes about the fires. I was a bit cynical. I felt it was a way to accumulate more property by some unseen hand. This was the Malcolm X ’80s, and I was full of conspiracies...
Ivory Young: The state of Georgia, for the most part, came and did what I would call a taking, through the use of eminent domain. There were things done that were atrocious — there was very little, if any, negotiation that was going on at all. People were only offered what the state was willing to pay. Again, no negotiation.
Chris Dupree: My grandmother was one of the few people still living on Rock Street. She was renting. She stayed until the apartment building sold. I also had relatives who lived on Mays Street. They sold their house. The state bought property. People were getting ridiculously low sums of money without having a choice.
Rosalyn Dupree-Tullis: They didn’t just take the house. They took the memory.
Sister Hanifya Ali, a community organizer, pushed for better outcomes and offers for Lightning residents. But the offers weren’t always enough for residents to buy new homes elsewhere. The legal costs, she realized, were simply too high for a proper defense. Once residents saw the writing on the wall, they demanded that a “marker, monument, or other suitable commemoration of the Lightning neighborhood at the neighborhood site shall be made so as to mark the cultural and historical contributions of Lightning, which shall cease its existence once the buyout is completed.” For her part, Ali urged preservationists to save a single house from Lightning, and filled out a historical landmark application for one such structure at the corner of Tyler and Haynes streets, believed to be the oldest house in Lightning.
Ultimately, Vine City was spared. But state officials, focused on advancing the Dome project, largely ignored Lightning’s efforts at historic preservation. The broader organizing effort did, however, catch the attention of Fulton County officials. Fulton commissioners approved a resolution that would provide Lightning’s last tenants with two months’ rent plus utilities, along with a caseworker to guide them through the relocation process. Following the completion of deals with Lightning’s landowners, the state’s attention turned to three final churches, including Amanda Flipper, which had yet to sell their property. Together, the state initially offered those three churches a total of $297,000. But their pastors believed they couldn’t relocate with that low of an offer. So they demanded more money.
Dennis Goldstein: I had some ties to the Concerned Black Clergy.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: The Concerned Black Clergy had about 100 churches, mosques, and synagogues involved. We met every Monday morning at Paschal’s.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church since 1984, and later the president of Concerned Black Clergy: Rev. Ronnie Brailsford had gotten an offer. [Amanda Flipper] couldn’t relocate for what they were being offered. We had to go in on behalf of the three churches. Our role was to [get] publicity through prayer vigils, rallies, and demonstrations.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: We made the Atlanta Journal-Constitution aware of what was going on, how the communities and the churches hadn’t been treated fairly. On the day of the groundbreaking [in 1989], we took a group of protesters to [the Georgia Dome site].
Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church since 1984, and later the president of Concerned Black Clergy: “Black displacement is a part of American culture. They don’t care about who or what they have to do to get what they desire. This wasn’t the first time this happened in Atlanta. And it won’t be the last time.”
As a hard November rain fell, Georgia’s top officials were forced inside a large tent for the groundbreaking ceremony. In the heart of Lightning, Gov. Joe Frank Harris, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, Mayor Andy Young, and Mayor-Elect Maynard Jackson had their choice of catered shrimp scampi, beef tenderloin, and French pastries. As the event started, Rev. McKinley Young, then president of the Concerned Black Clergy, led more than 100 protesters inside to the tune of the old spiritual, “Come by Here.” As the protesters chanted, “broken promises,” they held up signs with messages such as “We Shall Not Be Moved Until the State Does Right.”
Rev. Timothy McDonald III: We had to confront Andy. We took over the P.A. system. We did our chanting and our praying. We didn’t allow them to speak.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: We held up the groundbreaking for 45 minutes. Laypeople, ministers, children. We were willing to go to jail.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III: We shut it down.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: We were nonviolent in our protest until we reached an agreement. Andy Young said we’d get this worked out.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III: It led to a fairly agreeable settlement with the churches . . . They ended up halfway doing the right thing.
A recently erected historic marker for the Georgia Dome fails to mention Lightning or the people who were displaced.
Under pressure from Concerned Black Clergy, Mayor Andy Young ended up securing a total of nearly $445,000 for those three churches. It marked the beginning of the end for Lightning.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: We had a final service, a closing prayer at the altar. It was the last Sunday we were there.
Ivory Young: The entire community was decimated. The idea of replacement housing for folks who were displaced, I’m not aware of a comprehensive replacement housing program. I’m not aware of any effort to attempt to help and support the businesses and churches in their relocation efforts. It was simply a buyout.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: The churches lingered for another two years after people had been displaced. The state never paid us more for our property — the city council had to deed the streets, and the state had to pay us for that additional land. [Amanda Flipper] bought a new church. But it was not a seamless transition. We put our things in storage. For a six-month period, we had services in the Interdenominational Theological Center chapel.
Velma Coachman: When we moved out, we left something behind. We went back. People were taking our stuff. But the house was also completely roped off. We had been living with asbestos all our life. We saw paint over the years kept chipping. It was in the walls. A lot of it was lead-based paint. We had kept sweeping them up. I wonder if that was why I was sick so much.
Eliza Dupree: Somebody broke into our house. They took what they wanted — all our pictures and everything, had them all strewn up and down the street. We never did get them back.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: Once I left, I left. I didn’t watch the church’s demolition.
Tillman Ward: That would’ve been painful.
The month before the Georgia Dome opened on Labor Day weekend of 1992, Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Douglas Blackmon (who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II”) described Lightning as “virtually obliterated.” The structures were demolished. The city planners removed it from Atlanta’s official neighborhood map. The remnants of the neighborhood, meanwhile, were scattered across the metro region. Rev. Banks’ childhood church, Mount Gilead Baptist, relocated three miles west off of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. (An arsonist set fire to the original brick church.) To the east, Brailsford bought land for Amanda Flipper’s new church in Decatur. To the north, a box of analog tapes sat inside the Atlanta History Center archives, thanks to ninth-grade students at Booker T. Washington High School who — before the Georgia Dome opened — collected an oral history capturing the voices of longtime Vine City and Lightning residents. In one of those interviews, Byron Amos, then in high school himself, asked Howard Creecy Jr., a pastor who would later become president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, if he thought the Georgia Dome represented progress for residents.
“I think it's progress for Atlanta if everyone is treated fairly,” Creecy told Amos. “If the persons who live in Lightning and Vine are not given the right kinds of consideration, then it is not progress. Progress is never made on the backs of poor people. That's the kind of vengeful thing that usually comes back and haunts you.”
Once the southern border of Lightning, Magnolia Street connected west side residents to downtown Atlanta. today, it dead-ends into the Home Depot Backyard, a green space where fans can tailgate before football games.
Byron Amos: We were trained to go out with pen and paper — with the recorder as the backup. The old-fashioned, hit-two-buttons-to-record recorder. Students did interviews. We had transcribers in class. It wasn’t until I did these interviews that I learned it had been a vibrant community. I think in one of the interviews, one of the interview subjects talked about how the Klan used to march through the streets to scare residents. I had no idea, growing up in Vine City — with vibrant houses and families — that was happening across [Northside Drive]. But I learned how residents lived there, and children played there.
Kimberly Holmes-Evans, the daughter of the pastor at Calvary Hill Baptist Church, which had been attended by some Lightning residents: They were proud. They went on to be educated and employed with MARTA, Delta, UGA, all over. They got educated. They raised families. They stood for something. They were proud. Lightning made them who they were.
Gayla Shack: Everyone moved to different areas [of Atlanta]. We stayed in touch a little while. But we lost touch.
Velma Coachman: My dad never said how much they got. He didn’t feel like the price they got was adequate. I know they were able to put down $20,000-something on their house in Decatur.
Harold Smith: Look at the city and how it’s changed. They just demolish, tear, and take them away. I know nothing ain’t ever going to stay the same. But to destroy it like they did, I never liked it.
Robert Cantrell: I’ve driven through to see how the neighborhood was changing. Lightning is wiped out.
Velma Coachman: I see the parking lots today. The area is so different. It makes me feel a little sad.
Harold Smith: Now, if you mention Lighting, most people don’t know.
Ronald Monroe: It’s rare to run into someone who knows Lightning. They usually just associate it with the weather.
Kimberly Holmes-Evans, the daughter of the pastor at Calvary Hill Baptist Church, which some Lightning residents attended.
Over a quarter century, 37 million people flocked to the Georgia Dome for Falcons games, two Super Bowls, and the Atlanta Summer Olympics. The stadium elevated Atlanta’s image in the eyes of the world. But the city’s profile ascended at the cost of families who not only lost their fight against displacement but also their right to be remembered. Twenty-five years after Lightning was destroyed, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank convinced the city to help fund a new stadium. In 2013, as officials debated the merits of a community-benefits deal, a formal agreement that outlines the city’s responsibility to nearby neighborhoods, they often invoked the names of Vine City and English Avenue. Councilmember Ivory Young, who represented the city’s west side, reminded his colleagues how former Lightning residents had experienced PTSD from their displacement. He vowed to minimize the disruption for Vine City and English Avenue residents who feared the harm of a new stadium. As soon as officials approved the new stadium, Lightning once again disappeared.
Harold Smith: At one time, Lightning residents tried to get a reunion together. But it’s gotten harder. Most of us are not even around anymore. Very seldom do you run across Lightning residents.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: We can’t do anything about [the loss of Lightning]. If we talk about the past, we can help people see how the seeds of the past — even though things might on the surface come forward as being racist — can lie dormant. Those seeds allow communities like Lightning to be obliterated with very little consideration for the people who were there. Those kinds of injustices are still going on today.
Tillman Ward: There are other cities — two, three, or four times as old — that have preserved their architecture. The ones that didn’t, we work hard, save money, only to see the ruins of a stadium. Too many buildings are torn down to their bricks. We need to save buildings [like historic westside structures Gaines Hall and Alonzo Herndon Stadium] for the purpose of perpetuating the good history. If we don’t take into account what’s around the stadium, we’ll miss tomorrow.
Michael Julian Bond: We have the ability to put up a historic marker there.
Byron Amos: Now that we can, people need to understand the past. We need to understand the past so you never repeat it.
Rev. Timothy McDonald III: We should learn from Lightning. The lesson, for me, is how to give voice, which will lead to power, to neighborhoods.
Rev. Ronnie Brailsford: Maybe we can make people more sensitive to the present, having learned from the past, and work together for a civil society where social justice exists for all people regardless of the color of their skin.
Tillman Ward: Lightning can still be a bright spot. Erasing the artifacts was a mistake, but we don’t have to erase the memories.