By Nancy Leighton
Longtime East Atlanta area businessman Israel Grant passed away on April 1. At one time he owned the Exxon station on Moreland Avenue between I-20 and Memorial Drive. Later he owned Grant’s Automotive Service at 1226 Custer Avenue.
Israel Grant was born in Canadys, South Carolina in 1932. He left school at an early age and got a job with the power company installing electric lines between South Carolina and Atlanta. He was 14 years old when he arrived in Atlanta in 1946, yet managed to get a job with the Gulf Oil Company where he was given duties appropriate for the young man he was. Soon his hard work and initiative was noticed and he was trained in a variety of skills with increasing responsibilities. Eventually Mr. Grant was assigned to be a fuel truck delivery driver.
As the first African American fuel truck driver in the company, he experienced tension and intimidation from fellow workers. Gulf Oil Company wanted Mr. Grant to deliver the fuel to gas stations at night because it is safer during the cooler part of the day and the stations were empty of customers. Mr. Grant received an increasing number of threats when he worked this schedule. The Teamsters’ Union contract required differential pay for night workers, which meant more money. Some white co-workers did not want an African American man to receive as much or more pay as they got. With the company’s backing and his own common sense and wit he was able to succeed as a fuel truck driver.
With this extra money he was able to ask his sweetheart, Essie Bell, to marry him. Their wedding day was March 27, 1956. In subsequent years they had three children, Israel Junior, Catherine, and Sandra. About the time he was married he went to work at the Ford Motor Company as an assembly line worker.
With the experience at Gulf Oil Company and in the automotive industry, Mr. Grant was able to take advantage of an opportunity to become the first African American owner/operator of an Exxon Service Station. He took over the Exxon on Moreland Avenue between I-20 and Memorial Drive in September 1969. It was a full service station which meant an attendant put gas in the customers’ car, washed the windshield, checked and filled the tires, checked the oil and other fluids and let the driver know if anything should be added or changed. The station had three auto repair bays and Mr. Grant kept a half a dozen or so mechanics employed repairing vehicles.
As time went on, due to the location just off I-20, Exxon wanted to go to an open 24 hours schedule. The son, Israel Grant Jr. held down the overnight shift during that time. Later Exxon wanted to eliminate the auto repair aspect of the business and rebuild the whole thing with all self-service pumps and a convenience store. Mr. Grant’s heart was not in that type of business with concerns about customers as well as the employees who would be displaced.
The dispute put him into negotiations with Exxon to sever their relationship. The settlement provided enough financial backing to purchase the old Firestone Tire building at 1226 Custer Avenue and Grant’s Automotive Service opened there in September 1984. In 1983, Mr. Grant’s daughter Sandra came to help him with the paperwork. Many women customers liked having a woman there to discuss their car problems with. Customers also liked the fact that the business would give them a ride while their car was being repaired. In recent years Mr. Grant drove them himself in his little red pick-up truck. In 2005 Sandra took over the business end but Mr. Grant continued to come in every day to be around his family. Within the last year he suggested that the business could be sold after he was gone; the building was listed for sale as of November last year.
Besides being a successful businessman, Mr. Grant was a longtime member and Deacon at Salem Bible Church, which he joined in 1955. He enjoyed watching the news, Atlanta Braves baseball games, watching WWE wrestling, and playing checkers with family and customers. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge. He will be long remembered his family, friends, and customers.
Remembering Israel Grant
By Nancy Leighton