MLK House Part of Atlanta Historic District

November 2, 2009 Updated: October 24, 2015

King family matriarch Christine King Farris chose to forgo inheriting her family home so that it could be preserved as the birthplace of her brother, Martin Luther King.
King family matriarch Christine King Farris chose to forgo inheriting her family home so that it could be preserved as the birthplace of her brother, Martin Luther King.
ATLANTA—Will Rogers traveled from San Francisco to Atlanta just to celebrate a historic moment. He is president of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the California-based national conservation group that turned over a house to the National Park Service on Oct. 28.

The house, at 523 Auburn Ave. in Atlanta, was the last property to complete the block which holds Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home. TPL has bought and transferred 13 King Historic District properties to the Park Service over 30 years.

TPL buys beautiful or meaningful places with private funds and holds them until governments can turn them into parks. The group has protected islands, farms, forests, and riverbanks. The group made the King Historic District possible by buying and preserving parcels in an area of Atlanta dubbed “Sweet Auburn” starting in the 1980s, when the area was in decline and threatened by a planned highway.

Rogers said the wisdom to go beyond sustainability was the advice of a Hawaiian elder, Auntie Kua. When Rogers asked her what beyond sustainability means, she told him, “Relationship with the land, with nature, and with each other.”

Relationships are what brought TPL to Atlanta. The group wants to make sure no child in America is more than a 10-minute walk from a park, a garden, or a safe place to play. The King Historic District, which includes parks and gardens, is part of that vision. During the celebration for TPL’s most recent land transfer on Auburn Avenue, students played double-dutch jump rope on the sidewalk and girls from the Coretta Scott King Young Leadership Academy struck poses for cameras in the driveway of one of the houses.

Auburn Avenue was a safe place to play when Martin Luther King Jr. was growing up. According to William Holmes Borders, a descendant of an Atlanta leader, it was the richest black street in America.

“Welcome to my street!” said Mr. Borders during the dedication last week. Speaking as his father, he said “I am the person who first called this area Sweet Auburn.” Mr. Borders’ father of the same name desegregated Atlanta’s buses and persuaded the city to hire black police officers, among many other achievements. He led Wheat Street Baptist Church in the historic district.

Also on hand was Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister, and the last member of his nuclear family. She gave up their birth home so it could be preserved as a museum.

“I am truly thankful,” said Ms. Farris. “This is living history. I saw some children, even some grandchildren of original residents here today.”

One such grandchild was Gail Barnes Goodwin. Her grandmother, Annie Johnson, owned the 523 Auburn Ave. house. The substantial Victorian holds “lots of wonderful memories” for Ms. Goodwin. She remembers seeing her neighbor, Dr. King, going down Sweet Auburn to the stores and playing with friends.

The area is famous for conflict resolution, yet the house came to her family with a conflict. A real estate agent sold it twice. “We slept inside that first night and the other family slept in the yard,” said Ms. Goodwin. The Johnson family signed their papers 10 minutes before the other, and according to Ms. Goodwin, “That 10 minutes saved us.”

City Councilman Kwanza Hall, the son of King staff member Leon Hall, also attended the festivities. He said his father had a quote from Dr. King posted on a wall in their house: “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” When he and his brothers fought, Hall said his dad made them look at the sign.

Scores of people came together to celebrate the milestone. Preserving the area is not about looking back, said Georgia TPL Director Helen Tapp.

“[It’s about] inter-generational responsibility,” said Ms. Tapp. “Responsibility for those who come after us and to those who nurtured us.”