The awe-inspiring Water Oak (Quercus nigra) in East Atlanta is being fallen this week. It is an exceptional specimen with an estimated height of more than 120 ft and diameter near 6 ft. Despite some rot (found during autopsy/murder) in an upper limb, the water oak appeared(s) to be in perfect health. Sprouted circa 1900 the centenarian was one of the original neighborhood tenants to be annexed into the city in 1915. Having survived the Great Depression the tree will now fall in the New Depression (paradoxically at very high cost). The tree saw two world wars and Haley’s Comet twice. It also served a role in WWII as a plaything for the children of GIs in the neighborhood. This oak played a part in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, increasing the property values of the nearby homes in an exemplary neighborhood for new black homeowners (see footnote). The majestic oak even withstood the Tornado that struck the area in 2008, but could not withstand the worries of its current owner. Despite its best efforts not to fall on the home with which it shares the lot, the tree could not dismiss the fears of Miss Merriam of East Atlanta and will be taken down. In its presence we were gifted with shade and only in its absence will we be shown the light of its worth.
In the 1960s, the civil rights struggle was at its peak across the country. Because the Grand Dragon of the KKK lived in an adjacent neighborhood, East Atlanta was targeted by civil rights groups to be an example of racial integration of housing. Under the protection of the Fair Housing Act, middle class black families were assisted in efforts to purchase houses in the area. Some real estate agents seized the opportunity to fan the flames of fear and racial prejudice. At their urging, many white families fled the area selling their homes at a loss (as low as $1,500 for a 3 bedroom). The new Interstate 20 highway that cut through the neighborhood removed some houses and allowed easy access to areas farther out. Slumlord investor bought many of the available houses.
During this time many hardworking black families achieved the dream of homeownership in a nice neighborhood with yards for the children and good schools nearby. Many white families remained refusing to give-in determined to live in harmony with their new neighbors. Twenty years after the first blockbusting integration in East Atlanta, their neighborhood, unlike others that had resegregated entirely, remained integrated with a 60% black and 40% white/other racial mix.