I had the opportunity to see Serial Blackface, a world premiere play by Janine Nabers, at Actor’s Express in Atlanta on Wednesday, 6 April. Serial Blackface is about the struggles of a low income mother and daughter dealing with the disappearance of a younger son, set against the backdrop of what has become known as the Atlanta Child Murders, but which residents at the time primarily knew as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children. While I found the story to be compelling in its own right, I was somewhat disappointed by the attempt to connect it to the Child Murders. Granted, any depiction of that period in Atlanta’s history is going to fall far short of portraying the fear and confusion which gripped the city those two years, but the events of Serial Blackface could just as easily be set in any period of Atlanta’s history, up to and including the current day without losing the focus of the story.
In most depictions of Atlanta I see or read, I often find it difficult to recognize my hometown and Serial Blackface is no exception. While there were news reports on the television that was on throughout the play which sounded authentic, I felt no connection to the city portrayed in the fictional reality. For instance, in real life, from the moment the killings became well publicized, most, including the media, referred to the killer as the “child snatcher” and of victims being “snatched” because that’s how family members referred to the killer in interviews. The sex industry in Atlanta, characterized by strip clubs and X-rated movies, is mentioned in the play, but I saw no evidence of the consistent and sometimes comical efforts of Atlanta, and in particular Fulton County, to curtail the activities. I also felt none of the conflict between Atlanta’s city hall downtown and the monied interests in Buckhead, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which was a very large part of the tragedy of the killings at the time. The theme of dealing with the loss of a child and not knowing where or even if to assign blame is universal and only mildly informed by connecting it to the events in Atlanta at that time. While the play revolves around a lower middle class black family, I recognized many of the characters and situations I knew from West End, the lower middle class white neighborhood in which I was raised, before it became a so-called “transitional” neighborhood in the early 70s. The play is less about color and more about class and the desperation inherent in trying to raise a family and deal with a tragedy when resources are taxed beyond their limits.
Nothing in the play is firmly connected to the Child Murders except for one or two explicit mentions, one involving identification of a victim — which was very evocative of the times and used the name of an actual victim — and another featuring a victims’ support group. The authenticity of the story comes from the timeless situation of its characters making horribly bad choices for all the wrong reasons, and failing to take responsibility for their actions which exacerbates their suffering. Remove the specific references to the Child Murders or set the action in a different era, and the play would not lose any of its power. The overall plot does contain considerable irony with regards to predatory behavior found in a given segment of society, but again, this could be divorced from the subject of the Child Murders without significantly altering the action of the play.
As an Atlanta native, certain events are engrained in my memory, and the Atlanta Child Murders looms the largest. I got my drivers license the year the first bodies were found and graduated from high school the year Wayne Williams was arrested. I was not much older than the average age of the victims and younger than the two grown men Williams was convicted of killing. While I was not in the demographic most traumatized by the killings, it was impossible to live in Atlanta at that time and not be affected. The killings literally happened all around us. One body was found within a few hundred yards of the elementary school my brothers were attending at the time along a route I used to travel coming home from school when I was in the eighth grade at South Fulton a few years before. Every few days, the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a list and photos of the victims and I still remember the names of many of them, including Lubie Jeter, Patrick Baltazar, Darren Glass, and Jo Jo Bell.
Children were disappearing and bodies being found at least two or three times a month, and the leadership of Atlanta seemed powerless to address the tragedy. Children were abducted from Memorial Drive to Camp Creek Parkway and dumped in places such as East Point and Cliftondale, along Buford Highway in DeKalb County and in the woods on Redwine Road. Oftentimes all that was found were bones and fragments of clothing making it impossible to determine how they died. Just as everyone was affected, everyone had theories about the killings. Among the more prominent was the rumor of a child sex ring involving high level city officials, and numerous reports of a black man and white woman enticing young kids to get in their car. While the official conclusion was that Wayne Williams was the sole killer, it’s doubtful a single person was responsible for all the deaths. My own belief at the time was that Williams had some involvement but didn’t commit all the killings himself.
In his book The List, Chet Dettlinger, a former investigator on the case, also raises the specter of a child sex ring along with other possibilities, and establishes a geographic pattern for the killings. Suggestions in the press that, in some cases, the families were being investigated were met with a considerable outcry from the community, as well as criticism of how long it took officials to acknowledge the problem. Once the leadership admitted something was wrong, many criticized how quickly the killings became politicized. There was also considerable controversy about who was included on the official list and who wasn’t — many believe the actual number of murders was much higher. The national news media largely got the story wrong, popping in during sweeps periods or whenever some high profile national figure showed up to demand answers or express outrage. Local media stuck with the case full-time, from gut-wrenching interviews with grieving mothers to allegations that money from the victims’ fund was being misappropriated for tummy tuck operations and new cars.
In general, Atlanta doesn’t handle high profile crimes very well, whether it’s the rape and murder of a poor Irish girl in 1913 or the deaths of twenty-nine children and adults between 1979-1981. The city cultivates a reputation for being a great place to live and do business, and events which tarnish that reputation tend to get swept under the carpet quickly. Many breathed a sigh of relief when a splash heard in the waters of the Chattahoochee river beneath the James Jackson Parkway bridge led to the arrest of Wayne Williams, and the FBI’s complicated fiber evidence tied him to many other cases with which he’d not been charged. The fact is, Williams was convicted of killing two adults, Jimmy Ray Payne, age 21, and Nathaniel Cater age 28. It was discovery of Cater’s body in the river a few days after the infamous splash which led authorities to focus on Williams as the prime suspect. Since bodies were discovered in numerous cities and counties, there were jurisdictional issues which complicated the trial and limited the crimes Williams could be tried for in Fulton County. The notion that the killings stopped after Williams was arrested has been disputed by Dettlinger among other critics.
Serial Blackface is a compelling play which presents the audience with a family spiraling out of control and a mother’s misguided attempts to regain stability at any cost. It shows us that all actions have consequences and by failing to consider those consequences, bad situations can quickly become much worse. While I was not always certain of the motives behind each character’s choices, I found the characters believable and relatable. I believe the play suffers by tying itself to the events of the Atlanta Child Murders, because it adds a good deal of weight to the play that the story is unable to support. That being said, I do applaud the playwright for reminding us of this dark time in Atlanta’s history and providing us with a stark lesson that there’s still much work to do if we’re to become a truly egalitarian society. If this work helps to get the conversation started, it has served its subject matter well.
Howard stares out his upstairs window at his neighbor, Zack, washing his car. Zack is at least sixty-five or seventy, Howard guesses, since all he knows about Zack is that he’s retired, and is wearing no shirt as he applies wax to the car’s exterior and buffs it. Howard shakes his head as he dials a number on his phone.
“That is not a good look for you,” he says aloud as he waits for the line to connect.
Judy’s voice comes from the other end of the line, and she sounds like she’s eating. “What’s up, Howie?”
“He’s at it again.”
“Yeah, it’s like the fourth time this week.”
“How clean can a car be?” Judy says through bites of food.
“What are you eating?”
“Leftover lasagna from the other night.”
Howard peers through the blinds again.
“I’ve got a theory about this guy,” he says.
“I think he’s a serial killer.”
“Oh get real. I met the guy. He’s a pleasant older gentleman. A little too talkative but nice.”
“The nice ones are the ones to watch out for. Gacy was in the Jaycees, you know.”
“All right, state your case.”
“Think about it. He’s always asking questions. Always poking around in other people’s business.”
“Byron, that guy on the residents council, says they refer to Zack as da news.”
“Hmm, he did seem a little obsessed with that woman in Unit 42 when I talked to him. But that could mean anything.”
Howard has been living in Dunkirk Estates ever since he and his wife divorced nearly four years ago. The split had been amicable, with no children to fight over, and they agreed to evenly divide the community property, including their home in Roswell. Dunkirk Estates is just along the outer edge of Interstate 285, which most Atlantans refer to as the Perimeter, as it surrounds the city, connecting every major highway through town, and Howard often noticed the complex as he was driving to work and inquired about it when he needed a new home. He purchased his unit from the original owner, one Betty McClosky, who had owned it since the 70s, making Howard only the second person to live there.
“This whole place is crawling with weirdos,” he said. “I told you about the crazy woman who steals people’s lawn ornaments, right?”
“Yeah, you mentioned it. Is she still on the loose?”
“Of course, what can they do? She’s a nuisance but relatively harmless. I kind of feel sorry for her with the way everyone acts toward her.”
“What did they do now?”
“Margo sent out one of her priority alerts, telling everyone to be on the lookout and call the local authorities if anyone sees her acting oddly,” he says. “Like the cops care that some stupid garden gnome went missing.” He moves from the window and sits at his computer desk. “Yesterday, Fred was out screaming at her like some lunatic. If the police had shown up they’d have carted him off for being nuts.”
“What prompted you to move in there anyway?”
“Price, for one,” Howard says. “I got it for a song from Ms. McClosky. Plus I can be on the road in any direction in a couple of minutes.”
“The joys of living at Spaghetti Junction,” Judy says, referring to the interchange from I-285 to I-85 which is less than a mile from Dunkirk.
Dunkirk Estates is a collection of townhouses built in the seventies with the original intent of being apartments. For some reason, the developers decided it was better to sell each unit once rather than have the continuous monthly income that comes with rentals, which is how the complex became condos instead. Each building consists of five units that share water and gas connections, making them shared expenses covered by the monthly residents’ fees.
Howard’s is one of four two-bedroom units in his building, with the fifth being a three bedroom at one end of the building, that has a fireplace and slightly larger patio, and which gives each building an L-shape. Margo, his next door neighbor, owns the three bedroom, although she lives alone, and on the other side is Fred, who also owns the connecting townhouse to his, which he occasionally rents out. Because of this, there are usually only four or five people in the building, without any families. The end unit is owned by an East European couple who pretty much keep to themselves.
When Howard moved in, Fred was president of the residents’ council but at the next quarterly meeting, Margo staged a coup and had Fred booted from the board for alleged financial mismanagement and ever since, there’s been quite a bit of hostility between them. Living in the middle unit, Howard often finds himself caught up in their disputes as one or the other tries to recruit Howard to his or her side. Whenever the annual meeting rolls around, both are sure to knock on his door to solicit his vote. After attending his first and only annual meeting after he moved in, which devolved into a shouting match before the meeting had even been called to order, Howard opted out of going to anymore, and to avoid rankling either of his neighbors, he usually gives his proxy to Zack.
Judy is Howard’s former sister-in-law, who he barely knew while he was married, but ended up as his co-worker about nine months after his divorce was final. This mutual connection allowed them to strike up an acquaintance which blossomed into a cordial friendship and later an on again off again dating relationship. Judy is the polar opposite of Howard’s ex, who has given her blessing for the relationship. Judy is also divorced, and neither she nor Howard is in any hurry to take things to the next level.
Anyone walking up the trail to the top of Stone Mountain is familiar with the various carvings people have made over the years, some more than a century old. I decided to do some research on Ancestry to see what information I could dig up on some of the more interesting ones. All photos were taken by me between 2011 and 2013.
Annie Logan Anderson, Mrs. G.A. Goodyear, Joe A. Carter, 1878
It’s location is to the left of the handrails, about three-quarters of the way up the mountain, as one is ascending.
On the 1880 Census, Annie L. Anderson is listed in John P. Tuggle’s household in Stone Mountain, GA, identified as his niece. Publicly posted genealogies on Ancestry state she married Josiah A. Carter, and this has been confirmed with the census in 1900, and in his obituary from the Atlanta Constitution in 1914. I have not been able to locate a G. A. Goodyear on the 1880 census, or in connection to the Carters or Annie Anderson, though, I’d assume she’s somehow connected to one family or the other, since her name is carved with theirs. I suspect Joe Carter paid someone to do the carving, since the engraving shows a high degree of workmanship, and his line of work, newspaper reporter, didn’t lend itself to carving granite.
By the time this carving was done in 1878, Josiah Carter was already in the news business, working for DeKalb papers, a profession he took up at age eighteen, according to his obituary. His father, also named Josiah, was a physician in Oglethorpe County, GA in 1860, who served as a surgeon in the Civil War. Josiah A. Carter was later the city editor at the Atlanta Constitution under Henry Grady.
In 1887, Josiah Carter is listed as serving as chairman for a meeting of the Young Men’s Anti-prohibition Club, and in 1888, he’s listed as an upcoming speaker at the Atlanta Philosophic Society. He worked on the campaign of Georgia governor Hoke Smith and went with Smith when he was elected Senator from Georgia, serving as a clerk.
There’s an article in the Atlanta Constitution from January of 1889, entitled “Joe Carter Waylaid”, which identifies him as the victim of an assault downtown while he was headed home from work. The article lists, in detail, the route he took when walking from the paper to his home on Baker Street. The assault happened on Luckie Street and the assailants are described in the article as “footpads”. The article says they hit him over the head and made off with his watch and chain.
He was apparently well-respected in his profession. His name shows up numerous times in articles in the Constitution and other papers and in 1894, he’s listed as working in New York City. In 1909, he and another gentleman purchased the Marietta Courier and Marietta Journal and combined them into the Courier Journal, and news of this purchase was reported in The New York Times. He died in Washington, DC in September, 1914 after an operation to correct an unidentified abdominal problem and his obituary is printed in the Atlanta Constitution.
At the time of his death, he still owned the Marietta Courier Journal, where his son, Josiah Carter, Jr. was listed as the editor. In 1915, Josiah Carter, Jr. is identified as one of the witnesses on the scene following the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta. The Atlanta Constitution reports that he received anonymous death threats after writing an editorial on Frank, which could not be located online.
Mrs. Annie L. Carter died 14 November 1931 in DeKalb County, GA according to the Georgia Deaths collection on Ancestry.
Charlie Bradfield, Dec. 27, 1913
This carving is about a third of the way up the walking trail to the right of those ascending the mountain, in a reasonably flat area which contains several other carvings.
There’s a Chas. Bradfield, age 11, listed on the 1900 census in the household of his father James in Stone Mountain, GA. His profession is listed as a “day laborer”. In 1910, closer to the date on this carving, he’s listed in the household of Sarah Bradfield, and his age is reported as 19. In 1910, he’s listed with no specific profession, but the field he’s working in is described as “odd jobs”. He apparently spent a lot of time on the mountain, as there’s another carving further up from this one with his name on it, that’s not as elaborate. There’s a Charles Bradfield listed on the census in 1920 in DeKalb with a wife, and a Charlie Bradfield on the census in 1930, but it’s not clear it’s the same person. A death is recorded in 1944 for a Charles Lee Bradfield, and in 1910, he’s listed as Charles T. Bradfield, so, again, it’s not clear it’s the same person.
The WOW in Charlie Bradfield’s carving apparently stands for Woodmen of the World, an insurance organization, which still exists.
W. G. Boatner, 1924
This is also in the area near the railings, which seems to have been a very popular area for carvings as there are many in the vicinity. This may have been one of the spots where people went for picnics as it affords a very nice view of the surrounding countryside. At the top of the incline where the railings are, scan to the left near the small wooded area where people stop to rest after the steep climb at the railings to find this carving.
William Glenn Boatner, born around 1893, appears on the 1930 and 1940 census, living in Marietta. His occupation in 1930 is stone cutter at a marble mill and in 1940, he’s listed as the superintendent at the marble mill. He may have been working in that capacity at the granite works at Stone Mountain in 1924. The carving suggests a high degree of skill as a stone cutter. In his household in 1930 is his wife, listed as Ilah and son, William G. He appears to have been a life-long resident of Cobb County, as he shows up there on the 1900 census, age 7, in the household of his father, William M. Boatner.
Curiously, in 1930, the family is listed as White but in 1940, they’re listed as Black. It’s not the first time I’ve found families listed as a different race from one census to the next, with no explanation for the discrepancy. Often the census taker interviewed neighbors rather than speaking to the family, or went by proximity to estimate facts about a family, so mistakes were frequent.
William Glenn Boatner, Sr. died in 1948 and is buried in Marietta. His son, William, died in 2000.