Lithonia's new interpretive garden is a historic gateway

Lithonia's first African-American female mayor Marcia Glenn Hunter, DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, and Mayor Deborah Jackson cut the ribbon on July 26 at the Ruth Carroll Dally Johnson Interpretive Garden at 2564 Wiggins St. in Lithonia. Mera Cardenas, Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area executive director, (right) looks on. 

Lithonia's new interpretive garden_1

Event attendees enjoy the newly opened Ruth Carroll Dally Johnson Interpretive Garden, gateway to the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area.

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Deborah Jackson

The city of Lithonia’s newest attraction – the Ruth Carroll Dally Johnson Interpretive Garden –  is a hit with residents and visitors alike.

Mayor Deborah Jackson said the interpretive garden, which opened to the public on July 26 as a historic gateway to the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area (AMNHA), has ignited a lot of interest in the city.

"We are seeing more foot traffic in the city overall," she said. "The increased traffic is good for business."

The newly designed garden, located at 2564 Wiggins St. on the grounds of the Lithonia Woman’s Club, celebrates Lithonia’s rich history. It includes signage highlighting major figures in the city’s history, the importance of the Lithonia Woman’s Club, and the connection to the National Heritage Area.

A bevy of DeKalb County and Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance officials - including DeKalb County commissioners Mereda Davis Johnson and Lorraine Cochran-Johnson and Heritage Area executive director Mera Cardenas - joined city officials and residents for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Mereda Davis Johnson

Mereda Davis Johnson

Davis Johnson, whose Commission District 5 includes the city of Lithonia, said the garden should serve as an example for other communities wishing to store their history so that generations after them will know the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.

“It’s an awesome time to just know that this history of all of the foot soldiers in the city of Lithonia is being preserved,” she said.

The property for the garden was donated to the Arabia Alliance by the estate of Martha Josephine Johnson after her death in 2012 with the condition that it be developed into a garden or a park. 

Johnson, a longtime resident of the city, was a botanist who studied endangered species native to Arabia Mountain for her Phd from the University of Georgia.   

Jackson said said the the garden was created with funding from DeKalb County government.

The Ruth Carroll Dally Johnson Interpretive Garden – which is an easy walk from Lithonia’s Main Street – is open to the public, free of charge.

Lithonia's interpretive garden

As a gateway to the National Heritage Area, the garden introduces visitors to the people and industry that shaped the area. The city, which began in 1805 as a small crossroads settlement of farmers at the intersection of two roads connecting McDonough and Lawrenceville and Augusta and Decatur, grew with the coming of the Atlanta Augusta Railroad in 1845 which allowed the area’s granite quarrying industry to flourish.

During its quarrying heyday, Lithonia shipped granite across the country for construction and agriculture. Many buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C., are built with Lithonia granite.

As the town prospered, it also became part of broader social-political movements sweeping the country, and the Lithonia Woman’s Club, founded in 1924, gave women the ability to impact their community at a time when they were excluded from elected government and business. The club also housed DeKalb County’s first public library.

But while the Woman’s Club created a space of empowerment for some women, others, including African Americans, were noticeably excluded as racial segregation permeated Southern life through the 1960s.

Lithonia's civil and human rights fighters like Lucious Sanders, David Albert, and Maggie Woods, working in tandem with, and as part of the national Civil Rights movement, helped to break open doors to opportunity for African-Americans. Their legacy continues to shape Lithonia today.

Patrilla Arrington, Lucious Sanders’ niece, who attended the ribbon-cutting, said her uncle was all about integration.

“He was all about bringing the black and white communities together,” she said. “He was a pillar of the community.”

Woods, who died at age 94 on May 10, 2009, was the first African American woman elected to public office in  city of Lithonia. She served on the city council for six years starting in 1972, and lived to see three of her children become public servants in Lithonia’s government. Daughters Marcia Glenn Hunter and Barbara Lester were elected officials. Glenn Hunter became the city’s first black female mayor in 1995.  Lester was a city council member in the early 2000s, and   Woods' son, Jerome Woods, served as the city’s first black police chief for 19 years.

Glenn Hunter, who also attended the ribbon-cutting, likened her family to “a washing machine.”

“You use a washing machine to get the dirt out of your clothes,” she said. “And that’s how I look at my family – we were like a washing machine, back in those days when things were not so nice, when things were dirty, we were those agitators that got that dirt out of that nasty laundry. And now we can see the results of our efforts, and it has made life better for our next generation.”

During the ceremony, Jackson said that the city council has agreed to make Wiggins Street a one-way street so that the PATH Foundation’s hiking and biking trail can be extended from Council and Johnson streets to Wiggins Street, where the interpretative garden is located.

She said more details about the PATH extension will be announced as the project progresses.

The Ruth Carroll Dally Johnson Interpretive Garden is open daily from dawn to dusk. For more information, visit arabiaalliance.org.