Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
George Mitchell’s wife, Lillian, took her last breath in the house she loved, on New Year’s Day 2006. “Right there in that spot,” says George, 77, nodding to the far end of his worn, floral-print couch. “I think the last words she spoke was my name.”
“Yup,” confirms his youngest daughter, Chandra Chavis. “I was trying to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the time.” She points out the living room window to the small, sloping front yard and drive. “There was no address on the house, so I had to stop doing that to get the ambulance to come in.” But Lillian’s heart had seized, and Chandra knows there’s not much she could have done anyway. She figures if even the trauma team at Atlanta’s century-old public hospital couldn’t revive her mom, she must have been long gone. “Nobody can bring you back if the Lord calls you,” concludes an older daughter, Gwen Russell.
It was Lillian’s tenacity that led the Mitchell family to Atlanta’s Westwood neighborhood, in 1968. “She was determined,” Chandra explains, “not to have her children in an apartment–I know the story; I’ve heard it a million times–so she found somebody, a real estate agent, and they came out and they looked in this neighborhood. I don’t know what brought them to this part of town, ’cause at the time they were living in Dixon Hills”–then an up-and-coming black neighborhood–“but she decided she wanted a house, and this is where she found it.”
“All I did was sign the paper,” says George with a shrug.
That made the Mitchells one of the first African-American families to move into Westwood. Atlanta has long been known as the “black Mecca,” a place where African-Americans have been able to claw up the socioeconomic ladder and plunge into America’s consumer culture. Nowhere is that striving more visible than in the massive subdivisions of large, new homes that Atlanta’s black bourgeoisie have erected, reaching far into the suburbs. But the process began generations ago in a cluster of inside-the-beltway neighborhoods wedged into the city’s southwestern corner, including Westwood. Today that area is reeling, having been one of the nation’s communities hardest hit by the one-two punch of subprime lending and home foreclosures. The Mitchells have not been spared. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, they are scrambling to keep the house Lillian found for them.
Nearly 18,000 homes faced foreclosure in the Atlanta area during the first quarter of 2008, an almost 40 percent jump from the first quarter of 2007. In Fulton County, which encompasses most of the city’s core and is heavily African-American, one in 122 homes was in foreclosure in the first week of April. A digest of Atlanta’s March 2008 “foreclosure starts” was as thick as the phone book, and the Mitchells’ 30310 ZIP code topped the list.