Walking Through History: Rose Research in Action

Joel Silverman

Joel Silverman is a photographer, commercial filmmaker, and educator. He is currently an adjunct professor at Emory University, where he teaches photography and filmmaking with a focus on digital futurism, photographic art history, printmaking, and historic darkroom processes. He was a 2023 recipient of the Rose Library’s Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship.

I applied for the Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship after attending the Rose Library’s launch event with Melissa Fay Greene last year. During multiple visits to the archive, I had the opportunity to examine the Atlanta Jewish peddler folk history interviews, examine propaganda, ephemera, and robes from the Calvin Craig and Ku Klux Klan collections, and review dozens of maps in the CAUTION/Roadbusters collection and general Atlanta archives. 

One early highlight of my visits was viewing the famous Coca Cola teshuva written by Rabbi Geffen and sharing a video of it with his successor, Rabbi David Helfand of Congregation Shearith Israel, who had never seen this document. Rabbi Helfand led a group discussion at the Limmud Southeast Jewish learning retreat on Labor Day weekend live-translating the Hebrew. 

From the Louis and Anna Geffen family papers.

But the most impactful success arising from this research was my decision to use these Rose study trips to generate content for a free monthly artist-led walk series that I started leading in July with my 16-year old daughter Mira, also an artist. These walks fuse archival research with urban exploring to encourage an engagement with Atlanta’s layered history. They aim to ignite discussions on critical cartography and mythogeography, exploring how urban legends, misinformation, and backroom historical decisions influence the present urban environment. 

This is based on research that would have been impossible without access to primary Rose Library research and Woodruff Library’s deep collection of critical geography studies books. Participants on our walks are invited to bring their insights, allowing the narrative to organically shift towards ecology, urban development, or social history, depending on the collective knowledge of the group that forms.  

These walks have generated a significant social media following and great community engagement: Over 100 people have come on these walks so far informed by Rose Library research, including Emory faculty, students, and alumni. The first was a tour of historic Oakland Cemetery, using Geffen/Llewyn documents and oral history stories to discuss the Jewish section of the cemetery. Another was a restaging of the 1968 MLK funeral procession through Sweet Auburn across downtown to Atlanta University Center. A third was a walk of the entire Freedom Parkway to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Freedom Park with many of the the original CAUTION/Roadbusters activists who fought the Presidential Parkway, including Sally Dorn, the attorney who successfully stopped the highway. 

Most recently, we led a walk of Atlanta’s historically Jewish and immigrant Summerhill neighborhood, drawing on materials from the Geffen/Llewyn collection. This event was attended by the CEO of The Carter Center, the CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Executive Director of The Breman Museum, and several Emory professors, students, and alumni. One historian on the talk shared their recent discovery of the home site of the 1915 lynching victim Leo Frank. Researchers know the site was 68 Georgia Avenue, but assumed that was the site of the now-beloved Little Tart Bakeshop which is at that address now. Evidence about the home was at the center of Atlanta’s most notorious trial of the 20th century. But this is not Frank’s actual home site, because in 1926 the City of Atlanta renumbered all of the city streets. The original 68 Georgia Avenue lies blocks away underneath the I-85 on ramp. 

Another highlight of the trip was the chance to experiment by creating an augmented reality installation of archival news photographs, viewed at the street corner where they were taken, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1966 march which began with Mayor Ivan Allen on a police car with a bullhorn and ended with Stokely Carmichael in jail and the crowd dispersed by tear gas. 

The community called it The Summerhill Rebellion, but the Atlanta Constitution named it “The Summerhill Riot.” An Emory Anthropology PhD student who participates in the walks brought an additional research bomb to our experience, pointing out that Carmichael was imprisoned for organizing the march at the Atlanta Prison Farm, now the hotly contested site of “Cop City”. 

A final, pleasant dividend from my Geffen and Lewyn research occurred when the history walks received a lengthy write-up in October in the Midtown Southerner newspaper. Student journalist Meredith Bell submitted the article to the Georgia Scholastic Press Association and won the 2023 Best Feature Article award, the highest statewide individual student journalism Prize. 

I am grateful to the Geffen and Lewyn families and to the Rose Library staff for making this wonderful experience possible. I look forward to many more research visits to this incredible resource in the future.