Honoring Community Matriarchs Mattie Freeland & Kathryn Johnston: History of Two of the Westside’s Newest Parks

After decades of neglect, many properties, including whole blocks in the English Avenue community, are suffering from abandonment and blight. In the past few years, two parks have been constructed in the neighborhood to honor Westside community matriarchs Mattie Freeland and Kathryn Johnston. We’re sharing their stories to honor Women’s History Month and to celebrate their impact on the Westside.

Mattie Freeland Park 

For more than 55 years, residents of English Avenue could see Mattie Freeland on the porch of her D’Alvigney Street home when they passed by. She came to the neighborhood in its prime  — a bustling Black middle-class community home to visionary civil and business leaders — and stayed through its fall from grace.

Over the years, English Avenue felt the crippling impacts of disinvestment in the community, leading to widespread poverty and community neglect. Mattie watched the landscape around her dwindle each year, with neighbors leaving, crime increasing and resources becoming scarce.

Across the street from her home, an empty lot quickly filled with abandoned cars, trash and unsightly waste that was not only an eyesore, but a danger to children and others in the community. What many saw as a blight, Mattie saw as an opportunity.

Known to many in the neighborhood as “Mother Mattie,” she was a regular attendee of the nearby Life Covenant Church and was renowned for being a source of life, love and care for her neighbors. When in need, one could count on her to offer a meal, a phone call or even a couch to sleep on.

One day in 2007, when speaking with neighbors and members of her church, Mattie expressed a vision to transform the blighted lot into a flower garden, envisioning the space as a place for the community to gather and grow together. She passed away before her vision could be realized, but it was not forgotten. In late 2008, neighbors gathered and formed what would become the Friends of Mattie Freeland Park, a group dedicated to the clean up of the blighted property.

Over the next several years, the space became a community gathering spot. It included space for children to play pick-up field sports, picnic tables and a grilling area. The atmosphere inspired murals to be painted on abandoned structures along the property and the creation of a homemade screen community members would use with a borrowed projector for gatherings.

In 2015, a conceptual park plan was created with the help of Park Pride and the available lots were purchased by The Conservation Fund on behalf of the City of Atlanta Parks Department. Together, the organizations planned to integrate the space into the Atlanta Park System and make it a permanently protected community green space.

After a few years of planning and community input, the project broke ground in 2020. Construction continued through late 2022 when Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, City Councilmember Byron Amos, the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, Park Pride, The Conservation Fund, and the Friends of Mattie Freeland Park held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the long-anticipated grand opening of Mattie Freeland Park.

Now, “Mother Mattie” Freeland is cemented—and landscaped— into the neighborhood she knew and loved for years to come.

Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park

The fabric of the Westside community, City of Atlanta and our nation as a whole was deeply impacted onNovember 6, 2006, when three undercover Atlanta Police officers carried out a botched no-knock warrant raid on the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston.

Just after sunset, Officers Gregg Junnier, Jason Smith and Arthur Tesler knocked down the door of Johnston’s Neal Street home on English Avenue, carrying out a warrant on the home of a suspected drug dealer. In a rapid series of events, officers fired 39 rounds into the home, striking Johnston multiple times. She died at the scene.

Johnston was known as a kind, caring woman and matriarch of the local community. The circumstances permitting the officers’ warrant immediately came under question as it was clear unforgivable mistakes had been made. The three officers involved were fired from the police force and the incident was immediately investigated. Over the next several months, the investigation revealed that much of the intelligence behind the warrant was partially or entirely falsified.

Local and national protests emerged as all eyes turned to the disaster on Neal Street, reigniting an ongoing national conversation around police brutality and a failed system of community policing. In 2009, after a lengthy investigation and trial, Chief U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes sentenced the three officers to prison on the charge of conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death.

While justice was served against her killers, community members and city leaders knew more had to be done to honor Johnston’s legacy and ensure the story of her grievous passing would not be forgotten.

In 2018, after months of community discussion, Park Pride, The Conservation Fund and the City of Atlanta broke ground on Kathryn Johnston Memorial Park on English Avenue with the intention of it serving as a constant reminder of the ongoing efforts to ensure that Atlantans not only remember her contributions to her community, but also continue to work toward the prevention of future tragedies.

Located a block from the site of the incident at her home, the park transformed vacant and blighted lots into a community greenspace where children and families in the Westside community can gather and play.

In addition to being a beautiful outdoor attraction, the park is built specifically to help mitigate stormwater, which had long flooded and plagued the neighborhood. According to Park Pride, it’s capable of managing more than 3.5 million gallons of water annually.

The ribbon cutting ceremony for the park took place on November 6, 2019—exactly 13 years after her murder. Today, the park is full of life.

Westside Future Fund has prioritized property development on the blocks surrounding the park. Several single family homes are being remodeled or built nearby, including four properties adjacent to the park on Proctor Street. New homeowners moved in this past December and January, and two more closings are scheduled for March 2023.