Jamaicans In Atlanta

For Jamaica’s 50th: A Glimpse into the Jamaican Community in Atlanta

Written by DerrickWright

The community of Jamaicans was sparse when I moved to Atlanta in the early 1980’s. So, for me, it could have been a lonely period of isolation separated from my own people for a while…a situation that was quite untenable. If I wanted to connect with my own Jamaican people in the metropolitan area, I knew exactly what I had to do, or so I thought: link up with a Jamaican organization.

But it was not that easy, back then; Jamaican organizations operated basically in relative obscurity: no telephone listings, no overly-publicized events…nothing like that. Access to the media was limited, and social media had not yet been invented. As I recalled from my college days, though, the next best thing to do to connect with our people: Find a Caribbean restaurant or place of business.

My telephone company work associates soon told me about this cozy place in downtown Atlanta that was selling meat pies. “Oh, patties, you mean! Yes! Tell me where to find this place,” I said excitedly.

At lunchtime the very next day I made my way through winding streets to the outskirts of the city. For obvious reasons, the Patty Shop, as I remember it being called, was not located in the bustling section of the city; it was not amongst the glistening and ultra-modern high-rise buildings built by noted American developer John C. Portman, a Georgia Tech graduate. Of course not! Who could afford to operate a modest restaurant in the upper-scale, high-priced areas of downtown Atlanta? Jamaicans were not that much of a force to be reckoned with…not then.

Fancy or not, The Patty Shop was where Jamaicans congregated and socialized informally at lunchtime during the week. And from those humble beginnings, the Jamaican community in Atlanta enjoyed explosive growth over the next 30 years, with Jamaicans from all walks of life moving from “ice belt” regions and elsewhere, to Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate,” as it was so often characterized.

On a number of visits to The Patty Shop, I met quite a few Jamaicans, many of whom are now seen basically as pillars of the community. I met the well-connected and the common-man alike, the wealthy and the poor, the famous and the obscure, and just about every classification of well-meaning Jamaicans one could ever hope to interact with.

As an example, I met people such as Denzil Dixon. Now retired from the corporate world, Denzil has the distinction of being one of the first Jamaicans to move to Atlanta. Further, I recall Dr. Juan Reid. He was the President of the Jamaican Association at the time I first met him, and he served the community, and still serves, to this day, as a prominent dental surgeon.

I also recall Mike Mordecai. Sadly, Mike passed away a few years ago, but he was the father of a sports club that was instrumental in introducing division league soccer and cricket to the area. I recall Bernard Headley (now distinguished Professor Headley), a young and fairly calm Jamaican social scientist at the time I met him.

In addition, I later met the Rt. Rev. E. Don Taylor (later Vicar Bishop, now retired to Jamaica). He served as the first honorary consul of Jamaica to Georgia. In addition, Don Taylor, as he was known affectionately from way back when he was the headmaster of one of Jamaica’s most prominent high schools, was one of just three Jamaicans in Atlanta featured in the original Jamaica Gleaner book compilation of who’s who of Jamaicans in North America and Europe. The other two Jamaicans featured: yours truly, plus a rising star business executive at the time (now media mogul in Jamaica), Ms. Kay Osborne.

I met and worked on numerous community service projects with Tony Winkler, author extraordinaire. Tony is a consummate and award-winning writer and story-teller of the highest order.

I also met Hon. Sylvia Henry-Ashley. Hon. Henry-Ashley was the second of three honorary consuls of Jamaica to Georgia. She was highly involved with various community-oriented projects both in Atlanta and in Jamaica. Over time, professionally, Hon. Henry-Ashley moved up the corporate ranks and attained a senior executive position with Good Works International, the global advisory firm that links forward-thinking companies with fast-growing economies.

Interestingly enough, many of those who served the Jamaican community way back when did so largely through, or in concert with, the Atlanta Jamaican Association (The AJA). Based primarily on its range of services and how long it has been in operation, it is undoubtedly the most prolific and probably the most proficient Caribbean organization in Atlanta. Not surprisingly, The AJA plays a pivotal role in benevolent missions within Jamaican communities in Atlanta and at home, even now.

The AJA has had a number of distinguished leaders over the years. Those include such notables as Ms. Cecilia Smith, Dr. Juan Reid, the late Michael Mordecai, Professor Bernard Headley, Mr. Denzil Dixon (life member), Hon. Vin Martin, Esq. (life member), yours truly (life member), Dr. Noel Erskine, Allan Alberga, Esq., Mr. Tony Winkler, Ms. Monica Pinnock, Mr. Astley Leslie, Mr. Derrick Harvey, Mr. Brian Carter, and Mr. Errol Ritchie, among others.

After many years of promoting and celebrating Jamaica’s cultural heritage on a relatively smaller scale, The AJA was instrumental in sponsoring a major Independence Ball a while back at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, a John C. Portman-designed hotel which, at 73 floors high, was the tallest hotel in the world when it was opened in 1977. Imagine just how far Jamaicans had risen, metaphorically speaking: From The Patty Shop, to one of the grandest hotels in the world…period!

The current president of The AJA is Errol Ritchie, a president credited with leading the organization into a new era, and doing so in fine style. For the most part now, though, Jamaica’s cultural heritage is promoted primarily by the Union of Jamaican Organizations in Atlanta, or UJOIA, for short. Headed up by Hon. Vin Martin, Jamaica’s current honorary consul to Georgia, the major community service and benevolent organizations in Atlanta nominate volunteers to serve as UJOIA planners.

As is the case in cities around the world, there are numerous past student associations in the Atlanta area. In fact, there are too many past student organizations in Atlanta to mention.

I am obliged to mention the Kingston College Old Boys Association (KCOBA), however. Why? KCOBA has the distinction of being named by Jamaicans.com in Year 2010 as being the “The Best Jamaican Social Club/Association in Atlanta.” In addition, KCOBA has a long history of serving the Atlanta community, as it works diligently and in close partnership with other past student organizations, and with several community-based organizations in Atlanta, as well. Not only that: KCOBA works constructively and consistently in support of the underserved in Atlanta.

I wrote the following of KCOBA-Atlanta a while back: “True, as part of its mission, KCOBA raises funds for the College, and it provides direction and support for KC Old Boys and current students, but it also participates in a variety of events designed to benefit the greater Atlanta area and the connected communities.”

Another rising-star community service cultural and benevolent organization is Integrity Children’s Fund, headed up by Karl Chambers, a retired Jamaica Defense Force Major. Under Karl Chambers’ leadership, Jamaicans in Atlanta have enjoyed well produced events that I may classify as being wonderfully entertaining. In fact, in a brief review of the organization’s most recent presentation “Chrismus Can Across It,” I wrote: “It was fantastic…immensely entertaining with highly talented and spirited performances from the entire cast, capped with a stellar, extended presentation from the star attraction, Comedienne Joan Andrea Hutchinson.”

The descendants of recent and long-time Jamaican residents alike are making their mark in the community, also. Check the rolls at Georgia Tech (President Jimmy Carter’s and John C. Portman’s old college), and at Emory University (with its top-ranking law and medical schools), and you will find Jamaicans excelling at those institutions, and many, many other institutions, as well. It’s not uncommon to hear of Jamaican presidential scholars attending and graduating from those institutions, and entire families, including the parents, studying over time at Georgia Tech, one of the nation’s most prestigious engineering schools.

With Jamaicans relocating to Atlanta in vast numbers on an ongoing basis, the Jamaican population in Atlanta continues to grow exponentially. Both the young and the mellowed, alike, are moving to Atlanta. They come to Atlanta for the quality of life, they say, and to some extent, for the stately yet affordable homes. Today, and for a long, long while, they can afford to live wherever they choose, and they set up businesses wherever they wish. Jamaicans, as a group, are well-connected, and they have “talk,” as they like to boast.

Ask anyone for an estimate as to how many Jamaicans currently reside in the Atlanta 10-county metropolis and you will get a wide range of estimates…anywhere from 100,000 to hundreds of thousands. One thing is for sure: there are Jamaicans from every walk of life in Atlanta, and many have made their marks on this great city…a sister city to Montego Bay, as you may already know.

In essence, Jamaicans in Atlanta have, over the years, designed complex structures, possibly as complex, or even more so to a greater extent than designs by other leading, world-renowned designers. They lecture at some of the world’s finest institutions…and they do so all over the world. They are screen writers for great plays and movies. They excel in the halls of justice. They perform medical miracles in the operating rooms. Their names and their achievements are known far and wide. In fact, whether they may be a mechanic or a scientist, their contributions are innovative and meaningful…period!

Considering the vast number of Jamaicans in the community, it would be an impossible task to name everyone who has made a major contribution to the community in Atlanta. Suffice it to say, though, there are many, many Jamaicans in Atlanta, of whom everyone can be well proud.

As we celebrate Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary of Independence, it is important that we take a look, not just at her past, but we should consider what the future may hold for her. For me, I glimpse back to recall symbolisms for the black, green and gold: “Hardships there are, but the land is green, and the sun shineth.” One interpretation for the symbolisms may be that we are blessed. Blessed with hardship, one might ask? Yes, of course! Through hardship, though, we can gain strength, and reach great heights.

The intrinsic symbolisms inextricably intertwined with the colors of our flag will remain true to form for the next 50 years and beyond, yet they should take on new meaning, and added significance. For us, the black should symbolize endurance, and the act of overcoming. Heaven knows: we have had our share of hardships.

For the green, we should now see that as our larger charge to lead in preserving both the land and our environment…leading not just at home in Jamaica, but on the world stage, especially.

Finally, for the gold, let us see that as a call to move to a new, even greater standard of excellence, not just in music and sports and education, and in the many other areas in which we have excelled so admirably throughout our history, but also in reaching for and attaining new heights…new life…new accomplishments…new vigor…new charge–a new form of positive excellence, in everything we do.

Happy 50th Anniversary of Independence, Jamaica!

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DerrickWright