Matthew Boedy of Gainesville was browsing the internet when he accidentally came upon an old film about Gainesville.
Titled “Palmour Street: A Study in Family Life,” it was made by the Georgia Department of Public Health and Hall County Health Department in 1949 and premiered at the old Fair Street School. Its purpose was to promote the growth of the Black middle class.
It was filmed at 511 Palmour St. in the middle of the Black community. The unpaved Palmour Street at the time was between Center Street and College Avenue.
J. Wesley and Mildred Merritt, and their four children who lived there, played the roles of the fictitious Vernon Rogers family.
J. Wesley Merritt was listed in the 1953 city directory as a “shoe shiner” at Imperial Barber Shop, 109 North Bradford St. in Gainesville, where Avocados Restaurant is today. He became well known throughout the community as a local radio disc jockey, as well as an activist working for the betterment of the southside of town where he lived. He later was listed in a city directory as a driver for the Community Service Center.
Palmour Street is no more, having been replaced by Urban Renewal and Model Cities programs that changed much of Gainesville’s Black community.
The video prompted Boedy, a five-year White Gainesville resident, author and writing teacher at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, to learn more about his town, specifically the history of the Black community.
“I wanted to find out as much as I could,” Boedy said.
In his essay, which is accompanied by the Palmour Street video, he writes about how “Newtown” redeveloped after the 1936 tornado and how Urban Renewal and Model Cities changed the southside of the city. Those programs came after President Lyndon Johnson visited Gainesville in the 1960s to promote his anti-poverty agenda.
The purpose was to get rid of slums and upgrade deteriorating neighborhoods. Millions of dollars were spent, and a considerable amount was accomplished. But, those projects were troubled and led to numerous and sometimes acrimonious meetings between citizens and city officials.
One reason was while families were being relocated, there was a lack of affordable housing for them to move into. Another sore point was the obliteration of the Black community’s business district on Athens Street.
Years after those anti-poverty projects concluded, the Newtown Florist Club, a civil rights advocacy group for the Black community, pointed out the effect of “toxic” industries proliferating on that side of town. Led by Flo Bush, now by Rose Johnson, the organization suggested a high rate of cancer in that area was caused by environmental problems created by some industries.
The film and Boedy’s research of Gainesville changed his perspective somewhat. The film, he said, was designed to motivate Black people, but it also served as an impetus for him to explore his own views about problems Black people faced. He said he experienced “White guilt” and called himself a “White bystander” who didn’t recognize the challenges of Black people.
“I was not seeing, not wanting to see, not hearing, not wanting to hear,” Boedy wrote.
All of this inspired him to at least watch local protests when George Floyd, a Black man, died at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota
The initiatives in the Black community did achieve some progress, he wrote, notably in health care, community centers, new homes and public housing. But he found those efforts did little to change the neighborhood makeup community-wide, though Black and Hispanic people are scattered in some formerly all-White residential areas.
In all, he concludes, life has improved, but there remains frustration, anger, inequality and inequity.
The Black America Series History of Hall County pictured J. Wesley Merritt as “the first official” disc jockey in Gainesville. His show was called “Athens Street on Revue” and later “The Wes Merritt Show,” which was broadcasted live from a café on Athens Street on station WDUN. He also was an announcer for Fair Street Tigers football games. The City of Gainesville honored him with a Wes Merritt Day in 1992. He died in 1999.
Boedy’s essay was written for “Beyond the Trestle,” a website telling stories about Northeast Georgia.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. His column publishes weekly.