Verbon C. Grimes Jr.
Photographed by: Joe Dreher @joekingatl
I arrived in the Just Us neighborhood to walk the two blocks that make up the extents of the smallest neighborhood in Atlanta and one of the 45 linked to the Beltline. I was there to find a subject for my portrait of a resident of this neighborhood I had never even heard of a few weeks ago. I was chasing after the mailman to ask him if he knew any interesting people who lived in the neighborhood and I almost ran right by him as he stood in his front yard eating a sandwich. By chance, I saw him and knew instantly that I had found my subject and now I just had to hope he was agreeable to talking to me and having his picture taken.
I said, “Hello, my name is Joe and I am doing an art project on the Beltline.” He responded with “I don’t have no beltline, I’m too skinny,” then he introduced himself as Verbon, Verbon C. Grimes Jr. to be exact. I asked Mr. Grimes to tell me about the neighborhood that I could find little more than a paragraph or two about on Wikipedia. I read that it was the first black built and owned subdivision in Atlanta. He explained to me that because it was within walking distance of the black colleges in the area that most of the residents were administrators, educators or worked at the colleges in some capacity. There were presidents of the universities, doctors, professors, ministers and many affluent members of black society. Verbon told me how the only outsider who used to come around was the building inspector. He remembers it was dark on the street at night because there were only four street lights. At Christmas every year the neighbors would string lights from house to house to create an elaborate neighborhood holiday light displays. The posts that held the lights all pointed north to the North Star.
I asked him how old he was and how long he lived in the neighborhood and his answer to both was “I was there in the beginning, well since 1948” – which would make him 66 years old as best I can tell. I asked if he was married and had any children and he said “I left here when my hair was black and ain’t nobody wanted to live with me after I came back from the Nam.”
“I was in the Army,” he said. “Danger ain’t no stranger for an airborne ranger”.
He told me that he had two cats he called Frick and Frack that he used to walk around the neighborhood and he became known as “the man who walked cats”. I asked him what he liked about the neighborhood and he said the library that is located at the end of the street where he goes everyday it is open to read the papers and enjoy the air conditioning. He started pointing to houses on the street and telling me about some of his neighbors past and present. A minister on one corner, and on the other Mr. Herman Nash, who brought all the entertainers to Atlanta to perform at the Auburn Avenue Casino and the Magnolia Ballroom. He told me he saw James Brown for 50 cents but Ray Charles cost a dollar seventy eight. Mr. Nelson was the librarian at Washington High. Mr. Grey worked for the railroad for forty-four years and then retired and became a security guard. And that house down there is for the President of Clark Atlanta University.
I thanked him for being so friendly and willing to let me take his photo while he talked. I offered to bring him to see the installation when it was in place and he told me the bus route he could take to get there so I am assuming he no longer drives. I went home to look at the photos and printed one out which I delivered to him the next day.