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DeKalb History Center

Uncovering and shining a light on the History of Decatur.

Article by Sable Massingill Martinez

Photography by Jonathan Wade

Originally published in Decatur City Lifestyle

It’s easy to drive through Decatur and notice the beauty around us while thinking of what existed before. Perhaps you’ve even considered this regarding the historic courthouse adjacent to Decatur Square; tucked away in that space isn’t just a beautiful old courthouse, but the DeKalb History Center. 

“We call ourselves the keepers of the history. We started in 1947 as the Dekalb Historical Society and their mission was to collect, preserve, and share the history of DeKalb County, which is what we still do today,” says Rebecca Selem, the Exhibits & Communications Coordinator at the DeKalb History Center.

As a membership-based nonprofit organization, to share these stories, the center hosts a variety of exhibits, programs, and tours to help visitors best explore and learn more about DeKalb County and its diverse history.

While most of the unique programming is offered free or at a low cost to the community, membership is vital to the center. It is available at different levels and has different benefits, including early access to tickets and more. Currently, the center has around 300-400 members and encourages interested potential members to check out the center’s website for more information.

Selem curates the center’s rotating exhibits, which have space for four, typically producing one new exhibit annually. This year, the 200 Years of DeKalb County celebrates the 200th anniversary of DeKalb County and honors the wide-ranging achievements our area has seen and artifacts that are well worth visiting the space.

Featured in the 200-year exhibit is the jail docket from when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in DeKalb County, as well as Olympics memorabilia and more.  Another current exhibit, Home: The United Methodist Children’s Home, was documented through interviews and photographs by Decatur resident Beate Sass over four years, with interview assistance from Moira Bucciarelli.

It's important to Selem to show all parts of the area’s history, even the not-so-pleasant parts. 

A third exhibit, The Haven of Health and Happiness, dives into the hidden history of Avondale Estates since its founding in the 1920s. “It’s known for being this ‘haven of health and happiness,’ and we originally planned to do an exhibit on the architecture of Avondale,” says Selem.  

But for her, it was the lesser-known history of the area that she knew needed to be told. She was inspired to do this exhibit and uncovered more than just the architecture of the region, through a blog she found written by Kathryn Wilson on the area’s hidden history.

Selem is working on a new exhibit centered on Women’s History which is coming soon. The exhibits are free and open to the public Monday-Friday from 10AM-4PM and on Saturdays from 10AM-2PM.

In addition to the on-site exhibits, another popular offering of the center is the walking tours, which Selem encourages everyone to check out.

The 2024 Decatur Architecture Tour explores the architecture and history of East Ponce de Leon Ave.  Over an hour and a half and a mile-long walk, participants are introduced to a variety of building types and styles, and whether you’re a lifelong Decatur resident or a visitor to the area, there is something new to learn and uncover.

Additional specialty programs like workshops are also offered throughout the year and include big annual events, like the center’s Black History Month celebration and its yearly Silent Auction which serves as a fundraiser. 

On weekdays, the center hosts a variety of Lunch and Learns, which are held at noon so that nearby residents can take their lunch break while diving into various workshops and programs that highlight interesting local history.

The center also offers evening programming with its Hops at the History Center events. On August 20, from 6:30PM-7:30PM, the center is hosting a Hops event on architect William A. Edwards, with a free and public lecture on his work led by architectural historian Robert M. Craig, Professor Emeritus for the College of Design at Georgia Tech.

Another incredible resource that the History Center offers residents is its archives, a free resource that people can utilize to uncover and research any of the wide-ranging biographical files, maps, cemetery files, photographs, and oral histories that the History Center houses.

All if not most of the center’s programs are available on YouTube to help give even more access to the varied history of DeKalb County. The beautiful historic DeKalb Courthouse is also available to rent for private events and can accommodate events ranging from weddings to parties and corporate events.

An amazing resource for all residents, the DeKalb County History Center is located among the bustling and ever-growing downtown Decatur area, while providing a home to all of the history that got our city to where it is today. 

“We call ourselves the keepers of the history”