History of neighborhood discussed at program
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Both the history and future of Newnan’s Chalk Level neighborhood were discussed Thursday at the Newnan History Center.
A presentation on Chalk Level, the historic black neighborhood centered around Pinson Street, was the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society’s first educational program of 2014.
Local historian Elizabeth Beers talked about the history of the area and the process of getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Helen Berry of the Chalk Level Neighborhood Association talked about the present and future.
Beers began her presentation by asking if anybody knows how the neighborhood got its name. “There must be chalk somewhere, because it’s not level,” she said.
One man in the audience remembered B.T. Stephens telling him the name came about when the land was surveyed. The two surveyors were trying to get a level line while surveying along the hill. “[The man holding the pole] kept saying, ‘Have you got it? Have you got it?’ They finally said ‘chalk level,’” the man said. “And the name just stuck. That is what he told me and I have never heard a better explanation.”
Beers said there are neighborhoods in other states also called chalk level. She said she heard that one possible explanation for the name was white clay in the creek.
The land that became Chalk Level was owned by Randall and John Robinson and Joseph and William Pinson. Sometime before 1840, the Pinsons and the Robinsons built homes on East Broad Street and Robinson Street. They owned land all the way to Savannah Street and built slave homes in that area, Beers said.
After emancipation, “it was thought that the former slaves of the Pinsons and Robinsons began a community, centered on Hardaway Street around the creek,” then spreading to Savannah, Dewey, and Birch streets.
The effort to get Chalk Level on the National Register began in 2008.
The area has three historic churches with roots dating into the 1880s: Newnan Chapel United Methodist, which has the oldest standing church building in the city; Mt. Vernon First Baptist Church, founded in 1863; and Zion Hill Baptist Church, founded in 1898. Mt. Vernon’s Romanesque building was built in 1899 on Pinson Street. Zion Hill was built in 1898 and torn down in 1976 for a bigger church.
The design of Mt. Vernon is “very fancy” and it was unusual “for a small town to have such an elegant church,” Beers said.
The area’s first school was on Pinson Street. Built in 1906, it taught students in first through ninth grades. The 10th grade was added around 1930, Beers said. The Pinson Street school closed when Howard Warner School on Savannah Street opened, and it was later demolished.
Chalk Level’s most prominent resident was Dr. John Henry Jordan, Newnan’s first black doctor. He built a home on Pinson Street and the first hospital for blacks next door.
Jordan was also part owner of a general store and a saw mill, and rented land to other black residents of the area. Beers said that Jordan had the other businesses to help support his medical practice.
He planned to build a library, but his life was cut short on Sept. 14, 1912. He was filling his gas tank when someone struck a match to light a cigarette, causing a fire. Jordan was severely burned and died a few days later at the age of 42.
Jordan’s house has stood vacant in recent years, but has now been purchased, said Berry. The owner is remodeling it and plans to rent rooms.
Berry said there are a lot of vacant homes in the area. The owners have moved out of town, and they seem to have no interest in either selling the houses or renting them. They just leave them vacant. Berry said she would like for the city of Newnan to offer some help in dealing with the homes, as well as the vacant lots around the area.
“We’ve been having a lot of break-ins in our neighborhood,” she said, and she thinks criminals may be using the vacant lots for cover.
“We were all so pleased with the turnout at our Chalk Level event,” said Jeff Bishop, coordinator for the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society. The historical society “wants to reach new audiences this year, including younger and more diverse audiences,” he said. “Chalk Level is such an important part of our history here in Newnan, and we think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should.
“Folks seemed very engaged last night and we hope to continue that engagement throughout the new year."