The first time Tammy Garnes visited a school in Cobb County, 10 years ago, she left in a hurry. It was just too white.
“I want to surround my children with black people,” said the film producer, who was sitting at a table in Marietta’s Double Take Cafe with a friend.
But when the Garnes family made a second visit to Marietta two years ago, Tammy found a different world: A diverse school, several fellow black California expatriates, a sophisticated town and a true gumbo of cultures. Since then she’s enjoyed Guatemalan cuisine, made Hindu friends and sent her daughter to a friend’s Brazilian baptism.
“We didn’t think that was what Cobb County looked like,” said Garnes. “It is a true melting pot, and that is a beautiful thing to see, with everything happening in the world.”
Cobb County a melting pot?
» PHOTOS: The changing face of Cobb County
In four years, this former white conservative bastion is expected to become “majority minority”; that is, minority residents will outnumber white residents.
The massive demographic shift is evident everywhere. Cobb schools offer a dual-language immersion program in which students are taught half the day in Spanish and half the day in English — to the dismay of some longtime residents. In Mableton, where African-Americans accounted for 4 percent of the population 40 years ago, a black man is the state senator.
And in 2016, Cobb County, once a symbol of conservatism, voted for Hillary Clinton for president.
With the transformation of Cobb as its backdrop, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today launches a new coverage initiative, RE: Race. The project will chronicle the vast racial and ethnic changes in Georgia and both the tensions and the opportunities they present.
Cobb is the last core metro county in which more than 50 percent of residents are white. The opportunities, and the tensions, abound.
Teaching English to schoolchildren
A county once known for its legendary intolerance seems to be opening the gates to everyone. But Cobb’s melting pot sometimes simmers with tension.
J.D. Van Brink, 59, of Acworth, is a software developer and chair of the Cobb-based Georgia Tea Party. He worries about the influx of Hispanics, who now make up more than 13 percent of county residents.
“Do we spend a disproportionate amount of our resources trying to teach English to students who don’t speak it at home?” Van Brink said.
He says he is frustrated by school board members who say they can’t determine a student’s legal residential status.
“We need to find out how much of a problem it is, so we can set a priority on it, and come up with solution,” he said.
» MORE COVERAGE: Follow the AJC’s RE:Race project
Robert Martin, 68, owned Howard’s Restaurant in South Cobb for 50 years before retiring. He says he hired many Latino workers and believes some of them gamed the system at tax time.
“It seemed like every employee I hired had seven or eight dependents, so he paid no state or federal taxes,” said Martin. “You hear that argument that they’re paying into the system,” but the opposite often seemed to be the case, Martin said.
Living up on the Paulding line, Rebecca David, 44, said things are still tranquil. But she’s worried about crime creeping north from Cobb, especially when she travels down to Marietta.
“I wouldn’t go there at night,” she said. “Yesterday I went to the parking lot at Kroger, and people on the corner were begging for money and diapers and food. They looked to be another culture, and I don’t know if they spoke our language or not, but I didn’t stop.”
Cobb a welcome change from L.A.?
The transition has been smoother for other Cobb residents.
Tammy Garnes, 45, and her husband, Paul, arrived in Atlanta on the cresting wave of Georgia’s film industry. They lived in Grant Park and then southwest Atlanta before moving to Marietta.
During their time here Paul Garnes has produced three feature films, including the Academy Award-winning “Selma,” and more than 200 television episodes. Tammy Garnes produced the introductory movie that plays at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington.
The filmmakers are also part of another wave. In 1990, one in 10 people in Cobb County was black. Now, it’s more than one in four. And in 10 years, it will be close to one in three, according to projections from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Garnes’ friend at the Double Take Cafe, Alice Darby, is another California transplant in Marietta. When she moved here nine years ago, she says, her new white neighbor confessed she was skittish about having a black family next door; the two are now good friends. “I was proud of her for opening up to me,” said Darby.
A registered nurse, Darby also discovered that some co-workers assumed she was a med-tech rather than a nurse.
But did these incidents mean Cobb was still living in its white-flight past?
No, said Darby. She found Cobb a welcome change from Los Angeles.
“It was a lot more diverse than we were used to in the San Fernando Valley,” she said. “The changes are happening. We’re almost there.”
White, Christian and conservative
In the second half of the 20th century Cobb’s population swelled with white families escaping the city. The county seemed to actively seal itself off from Atlanta, saying no to MARTA. One county commissioner suggested stocking the Chattahoochee River with piranha, to keep mass transit out.
In 1993, in a pointed dig against its gay-friendly neighbor to the south, Cobb County adopted an ordinance condemning the “gay lifestyle.” It then found itself ostracized from some Olympic celebrations.
That was then.
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“Cobb and Gwinnett and Henry and Douglas and Rockdale and Newton are not white bastions anymore,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who served eight terms as a state senator representing Mableton, beginning in 1974, and then was in the state House. “They are diverse, and they are becoming more diverse as the state becomes more diverse.”
Barnes’ former district is now represented by Sen. Michael Rhett, the first African-American state senator elected in Cobb County.
Rhett points out that Cobb’s new residents are not only more diverse, they are younger. (Half the residents are younger than 35.)
They come from a demographic he calls “the Uber and Lyft generation. They have a different perspective on things than people who have been here most of their lives.”
With 287(g), many Latinos uneasy in Cobb
On a recent Thursday night, a group of men and women, some with young children in their arms, met at La Hacienda San Francisco, a former pawn shop that is now a banquet and events hall on South Cobb Drive.
Located in one of the less-populated quadrants of the county, near thrift stores and a Supermercado, it’s the kind of place where Spanish-speaking families might hold quinceañeras or wedding receptions. But on this evening a group of 80 or so came to tell Cobb Police Capt. Scott Hamilton about being frightened all the time.
“Our people are terrified,” said Carlos Garcia, executive director of La Alianza Pro Inmigrante del Condado de Cobb, a pro-immigrant group that organized the meeting.
“Why are you conducting road blocks?” asked one man, addressing the Cobb police officers in Spanish. “What can you tell us to show that you are not working with immigration?” asked another.
» ACROSS THE DIVIDE: First person stories about race
» RELATED: Is Atlanta a segregated community?
The questions were translated by Officers Nancy Reyes and Jair Del Rio. Hamilton told his audience that his police force is not an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We have no desire to enforce immigration laws,” he said. “Our only purpose is to be at your service. When you call 911 we are not coming to harm you. We are coming to help you.”
Cobb’s immigrants have reason to worry. County Sheriff Neil Warren was an early advocate of a program called 287(g) that trains local law enforcement to identify illegal immigrants in jail and hand them over to federal authorities. So far, Warren’s office has sent 10,500 immigrants to ICE.
Garcia, 37, a construction worker who became a citizen in 2016, said his fellow immigrants have less political power because many Latinos come from places where corruption and crime made the democratic process seem irrelevant. “We feel our voice doesn’t make any difference, whether we’re registered to vote, or if we even vote.”
Tensions between black and white
At North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, which changed in the last 20 years from 83 percent white to 39 percent white, a student’s vulgar threat last month to exterminate black people made its way onto social media. The AJC reported that absences at the school were triple the normal rate the day after parents learned of the threat. (North Cobb principal Joseph “Bucky” Horton acknowledges the incident but said it didn’t reflect the school he knows. “If society was working with each other and sharing a building as our kids are doing here, the world would be different,” he said. “This generation is phenomenal.”)
Even those in positions of influence are vulnerable. One late evening in 2015 Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who is African-American, became alarmed when a man, his car missing a headlight, followed her through her neighborhood.
“I thought I was going to be the victim of a crime,” she said recently.
Cupid called 911 that night. Upon learning that the man was an undercover Cobb police officer, Cupid wrote an angry memo to her fellow commissioners. But the board declared that the officer acted appropriately.
Jared Walker says he was was 13 the first time police stopped him.
The Marietta High School junior was in middle school at the time. He says he was riding his bike home from track practice. When he cut through an apartment complex, two police officers asked if they could search his bag. “I said yes, so they dumped all of my stuff on the ground,” Walker said.
They asked whether he smoked.
“Smoked? I’m a 13-year-old middle schooler coming from track practice,” Walker said. “They said my bag smelled like marijuana.”
Satisfied, they told him to go home. “They handed me my bag, but my stuff was still on the ground,” Walker remembers. “It was really offensive, because they were profiling me.”
Rep. Michael Smith, 33, who represents Marietta and Smyrna in the State House, said, “Cobb has handled a lot of the situations a lot better than the rest of the nation has.” The African-American real estate agent said, “When things were going on in Ferguson and Baltimore, Cobb County reached out to the minority community and helped ease fears going on. I appreciate the work they do, especially the Cobb Police Department.”
Old Marietta meets New Marietta
One can glimpse Cobb’s perfected combination of Old South charm and New South smarts during a visit to the Marietta square, which has gone from a hollowed-out collection of dusty antique stores to a vibrant city center with ethnic restaurants, shops and art galleries.
From where Tammy Garnes and Alice Darby sat at the Double Take Cafe, they could point to several black-owned businesses, including restaurants and a tailor’s shop. As they finished their lunch several hundred Latino men, women and children marched past the restaurant for a Good Friday prayer assembly that was also a demonstration for immigrant rights.
Previous to that day, on a drizzly, cool March Saturday, one could encounter Lakiva Watkins, an African-American resident of Marietta, helping her daughter Kayla and Kayla’s fellow troop members complete a project to earn their Silver Awards.
Dressed in scout uniforms augmented by purple and green tutus, the girls set up a table on the square to hand out literature raising awareness about lupus. “I love the way they’ve preserved this square,” said Watkins, who works in finance.
Nearby, vendors at Marietta’s weekly farmers market begin setting up tables to sell baked goods, Manuka honey, hand-painted chocolates, hot-house lettuce and other delights.
Not only is the square jumping with activity, it has drawn a colorful array of characters. While men check out the salsa offered by Marco Martinez of Zocalo, women in lululemon activewear buy vegan pizza from Canadian transplant Claudine Molson-Sellers.
‘The new future of the South’
One symbol of the changes in Cobb opened its doors to tens of thousands of fans this month when Henry Aaron tossed out the first pitch at SunTrust Park.
The team’s move north of the Chattahoochee River mirrors a moment 51 years earlier when the Braves first appeared in Atlanta.
In 1966 the arrival of big-time sports in the South, with the construction of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, seemed to welcome the upstart city into a special brotherhood.
Behind-the-scenes deals made by Mayor Ivan Allen — we built, he said, “on land we didn’t own, with money we didn’t have, and for teams we had not signed” — also were echoed by the secret negotiations that took the Braves to the suburbs.
Author and former Atlantan Steve Oney wrote the definitive book, “And the Dead Shall Rise,” about one of Cobb’s darkest chapters. The lynching of Leo Frank took place in 1915, near where the Big Chicken now stands.
Oney grew up in Atlanta and attended the University of Georgia, visiting Cobb in 1974 to interview white supremacist J.B. Stoner, who practiced law out of a Marietta office.
“They were literally and figuratively flying the Confederate battle flag,” said Oney of Stoner and Marietta. (In 1980 Stoner would be convicted of bombing a black church in Birmingham.)
“The new stadium, it’s an entirely new order,” said Oney. “That (Cobb) has now embraced the future I think is startling. This is the new future of the South.”
10,500 immigrants turned over to feds
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Department joined the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287(g) program in the summer of 2007. But the number of people the department has turned over to ICE has decreased sharply over time.
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Why this story, and why now?
Our racial and ethnic fissures and fault lines seem most obvious in politics. But our daily interactions with one another are perhaps more important – and more telling – than how we vote every four years. Today’s article kicks off the AJC’s Re: Race coverage with an examination of the rapidly changing demographics of metropolitan Atlanta. Cobb County, you may be surprised to learn, is the last of Georgia’s most populous counties that is still majority white, and even that will end soon. These profound changes create tension and also opportunity. So today we’re exploring what it means for a county to “tip” to majority minority – particularly a place with such a remarkable heritage of intolerance.