These Atlanta neighbors no longer wanted to live on Confederate Avenue. Here's what they did about it
Updated 2:01 PM ET, Sun January 20, 2019
Atlanta (CNN)Tiffany Friesen is still getting used to her new address. Out of habit, she sometimes says she lives on Confederate Avenue, where she and her husband Atiba Mbiwan have been for years.
But she doesn't. Not anymore. After years of discussion and months of neighborly activism, her street has a new name: United Avenue.
In late November, city workers drove up and down Confederate and East Confederate Avenues in Atlanta and replaced old street signs with new ones that renamed the 1.5-mile stretch.
"Wow, this is really real," thought Friesen upon seeing the first United Avenue sign. She immediately went out and took a picture of the sign nearest her.
It's a small change -- one new word on their mail, address labels and documents. And yet it's so much more.
What happened in this neighborhood is not unlike the discussions playing out in cities across the South, where officials are debating what to do with streets and monuments that honor the legacy of the Confederacy. But residents here decided they weren't going to wait for city officials to act.
Instead the Neighbors for a New Name, as they called themselves, took matters into their own hands.
It may not seem like much. After all, Atlanta has nearly three dozen other streets named for the Confederacy or Confederate figures -- not to mention a collection of Confederate monuments and statues protected by state law.
But ahead of United Avenue's formal commemoration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some folks who worked to rename the street told CNN they view their success as a first step.
And their city councilwoman says their grassroots campaign could serve as a blueprint for how other communities in Atlanta -- whose slogan is "The City Too Busy to Hate" -- might rename their own streets that honor the Confederacy.
"This is one small step for humankind," Mbiwan said. "But it's the beginning of a new era."
How the street got its name
United Avenue is a quiet, mostly residential street that runs southeast from historic Grant Park and contains a mix of homes, churches, an apartment complex and several state government offices.
It lies within a mile of historic Oakland Cemetery, where more than 6,000 Confederate soldiers are buried.
But Confederate and East Confederate Avenues were not named directly after the Confederacy per se, according to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. Their namesake was actually an old soldiers' home on the road that housed Georgia's aging Confederate veterans long after the Civil War ended.
The state acquired the soldiers' home in 1900, according to the Atlanta History Center, and it opened in 1901. The last Confederate veteran to live there died in 1941, and the home catered to veterans' widows until it closed in 1963. It was destroyed in 1965.
Fifty years later, Friesen and Mbiwan would get involved in an early effort to change the street's name after nine black churchgoers were massacred at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
"I thought it was time for a change," Friesen remembered. "I felt like it was indicative of a direction that I hope we're going in as a nation and as a community."
The couple, who are black, moved into their home on Confederate Avenue after getting married in 2003, despite the name. At first, Mbiwan didn't feel like anything needed to be done about it.
But he changed his mind after the 2015 Charleston shooting, carried out by a young gunman who posted a racist manifesto online alongside pictures of him posing with the Confederate flag.
What was most disturbing to Mbiwan about the massacre was that it was carried out by a 21-year-old, not an old white man who grew up in the segregated South.
"These ideas are so strong that they can pervert the mind of a young man," he said. "To me that's where that means we need to stop this now."
'Your address is part of your identity'
The conversation about renaming the streets is years old, according to Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents the neighborhood.
"I've had people contact me for the last 10, 15 years, saying, 'You know, we should change the name of Confederate,'" Smith told CNN.
Over the years, Smith said she heard complaints from people who decided not to move into a house they loved simply because it sat on Confederate or East Confederate.
The name didn't stop Jennette Gayer and her family from moving onto Confederate Avenue in May 2017. But still.
"We didn't love the name from day one," she said. "I don't think you realize how important your street name is until you have a street name that is alienating."
Gayer noticed it whenever she went home or gave her street name out to friends, which "hammered home the fact that it's a bigger deal than we probably even thought about when we moved in."
So when it came time to change the street's name, it was important to Smith that the decision rested with people who actually lived there.
"Because your address is part of your identity," she said.
An early effort to rename the street John Lewis Boulevard -- after the Atlanta congressman and civil rights activist -- soon fizzled.
Then came the national reckoning that followed deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when white supremacists converged on the city to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
After Charlottesville, Atlanta's then-mayor Kasim Reed formed an advisory committee to look into removing the city's Confederate monuments and streets. Among the committee's recommendations, issued in November 2017, was to immediately rename Confederate and East Confederate Avenues.
At this point, residents had already revived their work to rename the street. The committee's support further validated their effort.
"It substantiated that we were already working on it," Smith said, adding she'd never forget opening the report and seeing the recommendation to rename the street. "And I was like, it's time."
Neighbors for a New Name
Not long after Charlottesville, Friesen and Mbiwan were approached by a neighbor who asked if they'd want to help find a new name for Confederate Avenue.
The effort was "egalitarian" and "collaborative," Friesen told CNN. A core group of neighbors met in coffee shops or exchanged emails to discuss what work could be involved: going to meetings, looking through maps at City Hall, counting the houses along the street, canvassing the neighborhood, meeting with residents and gathering signatures on a petition.
There weren't any formal positions, Friesen said, but different people fulfilled different roles. Every time something needed to be done, someone volunteered to handle it.
"All those elements came together because it was an inclusive process," Friesen said. "Those pieces really had a lot to do with its success."