I have a talk to give on Friday at the Atlanta Studies Symposium about the 1990s tax revolt in Fulton County. I am seriously considering peeling off and relating the life story of Moreton Rolleston instead. He was a player in that tax revolt, though his significance as a figure in making present-day Atlanta is probably better summed up by his early days as a segregationist and the nearly unbelievable turn of events in his later life, a coincidence that is too amazing for me not to blog about it now. I suppose that for many Atlanta residents the climax of the story might be well-known fact, but I find it absolutely mind-blowing.
In 1964, Rolleston, the owner of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, filed suit immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Rolleston was part of a semi-organized movement of businessmen who hoped to fight integration on the hill of private enterprise by claiming the right to operate a private business by serving whatever customers they chose. The United States Supreme Court said otherwise. Rolleston didn’t do too badly all things considered, as he sold his hotel for more than $11 million rather than be compelled to operate it on an integrated basis. I imagine that took some of the sting out.
Nonetheless, Rolleston was not done fighting the power on behalf of affluent white Atlantans, launching litigation against Fulton County tax reassessments in the early 1990s that rectified an effective tax subsidy for the county’s richest residents that resulted from longstanding underassessment of property. His North By Northwest Civic Association won in a lower court, but the Georgia Supreme Court upheld an appeal by Atlanta and Fulton County’s tax assessor. Once again, Rolleston lost a big battle.
But that was nothing compared to what lay in store….
Rolleston’s Buckhead home was seized to satisfy a legal malpractice judgment for a former client against Rolleston. The property was sold to the African American filmmaker Tyler Perry, who demolished Rolleston’s former house to build his new 30,000 square foot mansion. For reasons that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter D.L. Bennett could only hint at, Rolleston sued Perry, claiming to be the true owner of the property. This aggressive litigation culminated in Rolleston’s disbarment at age 89 in 2007. I can only speculate about his motives, and Rolleston insisted he was the legal owner of the property to the end, but I can only imagine that seeing a ridiculously wealthy black man bulldoze his house to put up a significantly larger one was something that the segregationist crusader wouldn’t take lying down.
There’s a lot to dislike about Tyler Perry’s films, but if he goes down as the guy who drove Moreton Rolleston around the bend, that’s a point in his favor that not even another dozen Madea films can erase.
Bennett, D L. “22 Years of Twists, Turns for Tyler Perry’s Property.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, September 26, 2007.
———. “Attorney Disbarred over Turf War Ending with Entertainer.” The Atlanta Journal – Constitution, October 10, 2007.