Amid Proposed MARTA Name Changes, A Look At The History And Cultural Importance Of 'Bankhead'
This past summer, MARTA was considering renaming five train stations in Atlanta. It was an effort to keep up with changes in the city and to reflect surrounding neighborhoods.
Today, MARTA says no decision on renaming stations has been made, but that they are currently refining the process of making those decisions in the future.
One station proposed to be re-christened: Bankhead. The area was named after the highway that ran through it, which was in turn named after an Alabama family. But the Bankhead name is perhaps more closely associated with the torrent of rap and hip hop that grew from Atlanta's Westside and nearby neighborhoods. So, what's in the name "Bankhead"?
It's a conversation with Andre Dickens, Atlanta City Council member for Post 3 At-Large and chair of the city's transportation committee, and Dr. Joycelyn Wilson, assistant professor of hip hop media studies at Georgia Tech.
On what we know about Bankhead Highway's namesake
Joycelyn Wilson: We know that it is named after John Hollis Bankhead, who was a congressman in Alabama and he was also part of the Confederacy and allegedly part of the Ku Klux Klan. So, I think that's part of why there's this conversation around the renaming and the naming of it.
But what's so fascinating is no one really knew this at first. So when he passed in, I believe, 1920, his legacy was archived with the establishment of Bankhead Highway, which goes from D.C. to San Diego: U.S. 29. And so his legacy was his participation in the Federal Aid Road Act in 1916. This was the first federal funding to establish highway infrastructures throughout the nation.
In Atlanta, when you come up through Athens U.S. 29 and it picks up right here at Northside and Donald Lee Holloway. Now this was when it began to merge with U.S. 78 in on through Villa Rica and into Alabama. And once it's going through Alabama, U.S. 78 is going parallel with I-20. And so as you're going into Alabama if you've ever driven to Tuscaloosa you go over the Coosa River. And that's the Bankhead Bridge. So, at one time U.S. 29, U.S. 78 is running alongside this this bridge as well. And I believe parts of U.S. 78 is named after his son, William Bankhead. So, they have a legacy of the naming of highways and roads throughout the country.
On the musical legacy that emerged from the Bankhead neighborhood in Atlanta
Wilson: It means a lot because in hip hop culture spatial identity and community is very important.
Whether these spaces are real or imaginary, they give identity to the people of the community. And so Bankhead for many African Americans, particularly those of us of the hip-hop generation, was the opposite of Buckhead. It was a place that we could go to and there was solidarity; there was unity. Of course, it had its issues around crime and violence and poverty. But to hear Bankhead shout it out in this very local, national and international way established a level of pride and solidarity and unity. And that's significant and indigenous to hip-hop regardless of whether it's Bankhead or any other space.
On why GDOT changed the name of Bankhead Highway to Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in 1998
Andre Dickens: I do remember as a citizen at the time being familiar with you know a little bit of angst about going into a different name but when they came up with the name of Hollowell, (who is) someone distinctive … as a great lawyer and civil rights icon. Being affiliated with Martin Luther King Jr. softened the transition.
I think MARTA at this time is trying to comprehensively look at all the MARTA stations that are on roads that have now changed. Bankhead station, if you're looking at it on a map, you don't see a Bankhead here anymore so where does this station actually put you off? Why isn't it Bankhead/Hollowell?
I'm more interested in going through a proper process with the community to take our time, make sure that it's community driven, community involved, before we make any changes to any station names.
MARTA’s statement on proposed name change
MARTA’s station renaming conversation is driven by the need to provide clear geographic orientation for our riders. The significant costs involved in replacing maps across the entire system warrant that name changes happen infrequently and when more than one station needs renaming.
Currently, five MARTA stations are under consideration for renaming because the station names no longer reflect the name of the street or the landmark for which it was named. The first phase of public engagement has started and we will continue public outreach around Dome/Phillips/GWCC, Civic Center, Lakewood/Fort McPherson, Ashby and Bankhead stations.
MARTA’s intent is to ensure that all of our station names make sense in the city’s geography and help create a system that is more user friendly for our everyday riders and visitors from around the world.
On the what happens to the musical reference if Bankhead loses its name
Dickens: I think partially it does (make a difference to the musical legacy). It could invoke some nostalgia like 20 years from now if you don't have a Bankhead MARTA station; if there is no more lyrics saying Bankhead, what happens to my grandkids when they grow up and they don't know the word Bankhead?
Wilson: I think that even though Bankhead has this this other legacy associated with it, it was popularized by the community and I think that has to be preserved as we go through these revitalization and you know economic sustainability efforts that the city is undergoing. So I think that to Andre's point I mean if there is a way to maintain it Bankhead/Hollowell or somehow build it into and keep it as part of the modern station naming, I think that preserves not only just the name with the station but it preserves that name in the community and that's really important when we're talking about just sustainability.
These interview highlights have been edited for length and clarity.
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