Shelbe Johnson, a third-year undergraduate student in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, spoke on behalf of the Georgia Tech African-American Student Union at the recent opening of a civil rights memorial in Georgia Tech’s EcoCommons.
Johnson (pictured above left) was joined by ChBE alumnus Andre Dickens, a City of Atlanta Council member, in speaking at the opening of the plaza, built on the west end of the newly opened EcoCommons on the site of a former symbol of racial oppression in Atlanta.
“A once-segregated restaurant whose owner refused, at gunpoint, to serve Black customers is now a welcoming site on our campus that invites us to reflect and inspires us to work together toward a better future,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera in an announcement about the opening.
In 1964, three students from the Black Interdenominational Theological Center entered the restaurant near Georgia Tech’s campus just after the Civil Rights Act had passed – and not long before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – when they were threatened by the restaurant’s owner (future Georgia Governor Lester Maddox).
The former restaurant site, referred to as the Pickrick near the intersection of Hemphill Avenue and Ferst Drive, is now home to Unity Plaza, a part Georgia Tech’s EcoCommons project. In honor of the seminary students (Albert Dunn, Woodrow Lewis, and George S. Wills Jr.), the historical marker in the plaza includes three stone columns and three long, wooden benches.
“I can picture the tables in that restaurant, the ones that were denied to people of certain skin color, where now we can all sit and reflect,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera at the opening.
In her remarks, Johnson noted that Georgia Tech's African American Student Union was founded after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “Today, we carry on the legacy of legends such as Dr. King and the seminary students honored here this afternoon. We encourage you to join us in taking up the mantle, helping to ensure that their legacies live on," she said.
City Council member Dickens, who also serves on the Georgia Tech Alumni Association board of trustees, spoke about the historical significance of the events that took place at the site. “It’s important to be able to put a marker down to say that something happened here that led to allowing people to gather together, integrated. I think this is the right thing to do, and this institution continues to get it right,” he said. "Atlanta has always been at the height of the civil rights movement, and this place will be added to the legacy of Atlanta. We will make sure that people come see this place and know the story of what happened.”
Georgia Tech has transformed nearly eight acres of buildings and parking lots into the EcoCommons, a campus green location that provides students with a space to engage, learn, and reflect.
The overarching EcoCommons Project envisions 80 acres of green space across campus that follow what were the original naturally occurring stream paths of this region before being urbanized. These green spaces are being designed and engineered as part of the 2004 landscape master plan to reduce storm water runoff by 50%.