A monumental milestone

Nearly 90 years after Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe founded Savannah and established Georgia as the last of the 13 original colonies, the Georgia General Assembly would act on December 9, 1822, to create and charter the county of DeKalb out of parts of Fayette, Gwinnett, and Henry counties. So as of this month, DeKalb County is celebrating its bicentennial year and the anniversary of its founding.

 The then-new county, which included almost all of what is now Atlanta, was named in honor of Baron Johan Von de Kalb, a major general in the Revolutionary War, who died on the field of battle in Camden, South Carolina. Kalb was not born into nobility; he married into it after serving in the French and Indian Wars and numerous other theaters of war, as a Bavarian-born and French-trained military officer. The baron was fluent in several languages and was sent by the government of France to gather intelligence on the growing discontent among the American colonies with their ruler King George III.

 Kalb, already a war hero living in a French chalet near the palace of Versailles, was at a point where most men of this age (50s), could settle back and lead a quiet and comfortable life. But the baron, who himself had come from humble beginnings was impressed with the pluck and independent spirit of the colonists he met and got to know, then attempting to break free from the world’s greatest military power and empire.

 Kalb would risk his life, station, and wealth to sail for America in the company of the much younger Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette would join his mentor in volunteering to serve in the Colonial Army and bring to bear his own considerable wealth to fund the purchase of weapons, ammunition, and munitions for colonial troops and forces. Lafayette would become an advisor and confidante of Gen. George Washington and go on to become a hero of the Revolutionary War as well. Lafayette and Kalb were both with Washington during the long and deadly winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

 Kalb’s valor and story became well known, and nine American townships, villages, cities, and counties in numerous states now bear his name. Born poor, and later a nobleman and war hero, Kalb volunteered for unpaid military service and lost his life in support of the hopes and dreams of independence of another people and nation – an immigrant, who left behind his wealth and family to help birth a new nation.

 DeKalb County was then a frontier largely occupied by the Muscogee Indian tribe, and formed a modest triangle shaped like a smaller version of the state of Georgia, wedged between vast Cherokee holdings to its north and former Lower Creek Indian lands to its south. The county would remain largely rural and farmland until after World War II but is now home to among the largest and most diverse populations in the state as well as the southeast. 

 In celebration of this milestone anniversary, DeKalb and its county seat, the city of Decatur, have raised more than $500,000 in private funds to commemorate the life and legacy of U.S. Congressman John Lewis with a prominent statue, replacing a controversial obelisk and Confederate Memorial on the Historic DeKalb Courthouse grounds. DeKalb County School District’s John Lewis Elementary School in Brookhaven was the first school named in honor of the Civil Rights icon.

 DeKalb’s elegant and palatial old courthouse building will be renovated. The clock atop and facing the town square will be restored to operation. The building is reminiscent of the courthouse and clock in the center of the Back to the Future trilogy of films. Interior spaces and building systems will be fully brought up to code, and new funding will be secured for DeKalb History Center, a building tenant since 1968, and for the last 15 years its primary caretaker and curator.

 DeKalb County has a current population of nearly 770,000, and a wide array of stories yet untold. The DeKalb Bicentennial Commission will endeavor to identify and recognize additional historic sites, raise profiles, and tell stories lesser known and give all of DeKalb’s residents, businesses, and visitors all the more reason to believe that the county’s best days are yet to come. Happy birthday DeKalb, and thanks baron for giving us an example to follow and live up to. Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and all the best wishes for the holiday season.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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