Demolition of the structurally unsound Ajax building was carried out last week in return for extra green space, but not without some strong opposition. The property, which was the home of the Pickrick restaurant, has historical roots in the civil rights movement, and some believe that preserving that history is far more important than gaining the space for eco-commons.
Tech has owned the property since 1965, using the space to hold interviews for incoming students until early in the 1990s when it was then used as overflow space for the police department.
Before then, politician and racial segregationist Lester Maddox ran the Pickrick Cafeteria with the help of his family. A popular fried chicken joint right off Tech’s campus, the Pickrick allowed customers to pick what they wanted to eat and then Maddox’s cooks would “rick”, or pile, the food on a plate. The restaurant was known for serving simple, inexpensive food.
Problems arose for Maddox in 1964 when three black students entered the segregated Pickrick. Maddox, brandishing a handgun, drove the students out of the restaurant alongside his son, fearing they would start a protest. This historic event took place in the parking lot in front of the Pickrick Cafeteria.
The confrontation led to the court case Willis vs. Pickrick Restaurant. The just-passed Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made racial segregation illegal, made Maddox’s defense of free enterprise much more difficult to get away with.
He lost the lawsuit but instead of following the court’s order and desegregating Pickrick, Maddox sold the place to two of his employees instead. They went on to sell the property to Tech months later.
During his time as the owner of Pickrick, Maddox ran for several political positions (mayor, lieutenant governor) and failed each time.
But in 1966, even after his name was attached to racism, he won the run-off for state governor, defeating former President Jimmy Carter.
James Cook, professor emeritus of history at Floyd College in Rome and author of The Governors of Georgia, says the state has never seen a more unlikely governor.
“Maddox lacked legal training, a college education, political experience, family prominence, professional distinction, financial backing, military service and guile,” Cook wrote in The Governors of Georgia. Many call it a miracle; Maddox called it a “divine mission”.
This historical background of the Pickrick was the main argument of preserving the building for Ray Luce, director of the Historic Preservation Division for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s a very difficult site because it has a history that many of us would rather forget,” Luce said.
“For many Georgians, it is a site of sorrow and frustration… We really need to be able to remember all parts of our history if we’re going to learn from it,” Luce said.
Similar words came from Congressman John Lewis in a letter to Tech’s interim president Gary Schuster.
“Atlanta needs to preserve sites which illustrate the opposition to leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr,” Lewis said.
“It is a shame to lose such a historic building,” said Jillian Spayde, a third-year IE.
“Although it was the site of tense racial struggles, it is still an important part of Atlanta’s history” Spayde said.
In commemoration of the Pickrick Cafeteria and the events stemming from its existence, Schuster said a plaque would be placed at the site of the building located next to the police department on Hemphill Ave.