ON THE SURFACE it seems like a simple question. But, during my five years as a historic preservation commissioner, I've been unable to get this question answered. It begs other, equally important, questions, which are part and parcel of the entire issue: Do we want to maintain the Historic District designation for the Bethlehem community, or move to have the designation annulled? Are there any homes in the Bethlehem community deemed worthy of being saved and capable of being remodeled for modern use, or do we want to demolish the entire area to make way for new development?
These are questions that Augusta commissioners, city officials, members of the Historic Preservation Commission and residents of the historic Bethlehem neighborhood need to sit down and talk about.
At first glance, it appears there is little worthy of being saved in this historic African-American community that traces its roots back to the early beginnings of our great city. Times change, people move on and what some see as important to preserve as teaching lessons for present and future generations, others see as eyesores and reminders of a dreadful past they would rather forget.
The vast majority of the Bethlehem homes, which some early Augustans built with their own hands and took such great pride in, have been allowed to deteriorate, as former residents moved away. And, the few that are in decent shape are now surrounded by burnt ruins and decaying hulks that serve as drug dens and worse. But, there are a few streets where groups of houses have stood the test of time - credits, I think, to the craftsmanship and devotion of their owner-builders.
IT'S IMPORTANT to understand the history of how Bethlehem evolved and what it should mean to us today. Most of the residents of what was once a thriving community were very poor, hard-working African-Americans who toiled in Augusta's booming railway yards and factories during the 19th century. Following the unfortunate convention of the time, they were forced to carve out their own neighborhood, of which the Laney-Walker Historic District is a part. Though segregation and poverty was forced upon them, they were a proud and humble folk, who did, against overwhelming odds, what we all still do today - they sacrificed, struggled and persevered in order that their children and their children's children, could enjoy a better way of life.
They built modest homes by today's standards; mostly simple, single-story frame houses on narrow lots. But, that's all they could afford to build. They are not the grand homes we see in the Summerville Historic District, or the more modest homes in the Pinch-Gut and Harrisburg districts. But, why they were built, how they were constructed and the memory of the people who built them should be honored and cherished - not destroyed, at least not all of it.
That is why I think it is important that we honor the memory of these early Augustans - just as we do in our other historic districts - and move to preserve a few of their homes. As justification, I offer that, if for no other reason, we should do so in order to show our children - all of our children - what Augusta's early African-American pioneers fought for and accomplished.
Maybe, it will come down to a decision to save just a few streets of homes, or a handful of homes. And, we will opt to do what has been done in many other similar historic districts across the country, which is to configure a few of the homes as small stores, shops, offices and shelters for community venues. But I believe it would a be a travesty to simply turn the bulldozers loose and level the entire Bethlehem Historic District.
AS WE MOVE TO re-build the Bethlehem neighborhood for new generations of Augustans, let's not fail to pay homage to the founders who established it. That's why I am calling for everyone involved to sit down and put our heads together to see if we can come up with a viable plan to save what can and should be saved.
(Editor's note: The writer is vice-chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Preservation Commission.)
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