Martin Luther King, Jr.
Historic Resource Study
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Martin Luther King, Jr., is best known nationally and internationally for his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement [1] and his subsequent efforts to promote world peace and economic equality. The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, located in the historic east side Atlanta black community where King was reared and to which he later returned in the height of his activism, commemorates King's lifetime achievements. The Site preserves the King Birth Home and the immediate historic black neighborhood where King spent his youth. The larger "Sweet Auburn" community, which served as the economic, cultural, and religious center for Atlanta's segregated black population from 1910 through the 1960s, greatly influenced King both as a youth and as an adult.

On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta at 501 Auburn Avenue within a prosperous black commercial and residential district. He lived in this house with his mother, father, grandparents, sister, brother, and an occasional boarder until he was twelve years old. King attended public schools nearby and walked to services at Ebenezer Baptist, where his maternal grandfather and father served as ministers. In 1941, the family moved to another house within the Auburn Avenue community, and King commuted to Atlanta University on the west side to attend high school classes. As an adult, King left Atlanta to attend Crozer Seminary, in Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and continued his education at Boston University. King led the members of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. while completing his doctorate in theology at Boston University. After serving in Montgomery for six years, King traveled to Atlanta to help organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and eventually moved to the city in 1960. The dominant force in the SCLC, King also co-pastored at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Auburn Avenue community with his father.

Few nationally significant civil rights activities occurred under King's mantle in Atlanta. However, King served upon the governing board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headquartered in Atlanta, participated in a lunch counter boycott at Rich's department store, a well-known Atlanta commercial establishment, and supported black Atlanta union members in a strike. King's best known and most effective civil protests occurred outside Atlanta, particularly in Alabama, where blacks wielded little economic, social, or political power.

Nevertheless, the black commercial and residential district centered around Auburn Avenue and the prominent black religious institutions in the community had a lasting impact on King and other black community leaders. Throughout the South, civil rights activities relied on strong communities and outspoken religious leaders. Auburn Avenue and its surrounding black residential areas developed as a direct result of segregationist policies common throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century Southern urban centers. Within this milieu of hardship, black economic, cultural, and political institutions waxed, and in some cases, flourished. Auburn Avenue's vitality surpassed that achieved by many southern black communities. This unique community greatly influenced the life path chosen by King, to challenge racism, poverty, and the denial of black civil rights.

Auburn Avenue and its coterminous residential community developed as a stronghold of black Atlanta politics, commerce, spirituality, and Social life. Sweet Auburn described the corridor east of Peachtree to Howell Avenue and north of Auburn to Houston Street. Edgewood Avenue, located just south of Auburn Avenue, developed later predominantly as a white commercial corridor. On both avenues, access to the central business district to the west via horse cars, streetcars, and eventually, private automobiles greatly augmented their growth (photograph 1). The first settlers along Auburn Avenue differed greatly in race and class from subsequent residents. In nineteenth-century cities, the elite occupied the residential areas located within walking distance of the central business district. As the Atlanta city limits widened from one concentric mile in the 1 840s to one and one-half miles in the 1 890s, elite residential settlement branched out, and patterns of settlement along Auburn Avenue changed. The avenue was predominantly black by 1910.

Auburn Avenue
Photograph 1: Auburn Avenue with downtown Atlanta in background

Martin Luther King, Jr., matured within a unique environment of black independence and progress, in a city that defined its black citizens as economically and socially inferior, and in an era that promised little black opportunity outside of prescribed roles. Between 1910 and 1960, the Auburn Avenue black community hummed. From Courtland Street to Randolph Street, food and drug stores, movie theaters, barber shops and beauty parlors, banks, insurance companies, restaurants, newspapers, and meeting halls, all owned and operated by black entrepreneurs, lined the street. Three churches towered over Auburn Avenue, and their ministers demanded from members participation in spiritual, social, and civic progress. Middle class professionals, ministers, skilled craftsmen, laborers, and domestics all resided on or near Auburn, thriving for several decades within the black world they nurtured.

At his birth in 1929, King became part of an economically and socially prosperous community, but one which also struggled within the confines of racial segregation. King's childhood in this community combined racial pride and progress with persistent fears of economic decline and the humiliation associated with unpredictable and irrational racial prejudice. Within a few years of King's birth, the Depression began to take its toll upon the community, especially the residential section. Black professionals exited the community for new residential areas to the west, leaving behind laboring residents unable or unwilling to invest money and time into older, often rented dwellings. As the century progressed, Auburn Avenue's commercial vitality persisted, but decades of poverty and neglect had degraded the housing.

Between 1929 and 1941, King and his family lived at 501 Auburn Avenue, in a two-story, Queen Anne house. His neighbors included black professionals like Charles Harper, the first principal of Booker T. Washington High School, as well as skilled and unskilled laborers. The blocks between Boulevard and Howell Street had two-story Queen Anne houses and modest two- to three-room vernacular dwellings. Originally, the entire area east of Jackson Street (the Site's western boundary) and north and south of the Site was predominantly residential. King attended David T. Howard Elementary School, several blocks north of his home, played in grassed vacant lots behind his house along Edgewood Avenue, and frequented several corner stores within a two-block vicinity. Auburn Avenue west of Jackson Street consisted of denser commercial development. Ebenezer Baptist Church straddled the commercial and residential boundary.

In 1941, the King family moved north of Auburn Avenue, to a middle-class residential area known as Bishop's Row at Boulevard and Houston. King's house was demolished to make way for the Freedom Parkway. Daddy King, young King's father, still ministered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and King attended services there until he left Atlanta to pursue his theological education in Pennsylvania and Boston. Ebenezer later played an important role in King's return to Atlanta in 1960. King followed in his father's footsteps, pastoring at Ebenezer and utilizing his pulpit and its conferred social status to help organize black civil rights activities in Atlanta and across America.

Ebenezer Baptist Church symbolizes both King's individual efforts toward achieving racial equality and the impressive role black clergymen played in post-World War II civil rights activities. Black clergymen traditionally had great prestige and authority in the black community, but prior to the 1950s, they rarely led civil rights protests that extended beyond their church membership or community. A new generation of southern black ministers, including King, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. C. K. Steele, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, took the lead in the fight against segregation on a national level. King urged civil rights activists to utilize the Christian doctrines of nonviolence, redemption through suffering, and love for all enemies in their protests. Having studied the principles of civil disobedience exemplified by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi, King and the SCLC developed new strategies utilizing massive peaceful marches and demonstrations to confront the southern system of segregation. Beginning with the boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955-1956, King spearheaded the movement that spread throughout the South and elicited considerable sympathy among whites nationally.

Through the SCLC, King supported local movements against segregation in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; and elsewhere. Demonstrations planned or led by King often were brutally repressed by white authorities, resulting in intensive national media coverage of these events. The attention that King focused on the plight of southern blacks was instrumental in gaining passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, major legislative victories for the Civil Rights Movement. King received numerous awards, including the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his nonviolent civil rights work.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, robbed the American Civil Rights Movement of one of its most effective and respected leaders. Following his death, SCLC and other black activist organizations continued civil protests. But these organizations' beliefs and tactics varied widely, and their subsequent campaigns never gained the cohesion which, although fragile at times, generally characterized the progressive campaigns led by King.


The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site is a small, urban park located in the city of Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. Containing approximately 38 acres, 4.78 of which are federally owned, the Site lies 1-1/4 miles east of the central business district (map 1). [2]

Map 1: Location of Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Most properties within the Site front one of two avenues running east and west, Auburn Avenue and Edgewood Avenue. The Site is irregularly shaped and roughly bounded by Jackson Street on the west, Cain Street on the north from Jackson to Boulevard, Old Wheat Street on the north between Boulevard and Howell Street, Howell Street on the east, and the rear property lines on the south side of Edgewood Avenue. Current land use within the Site is mostly residential on Auburn Avenue and largely commercial on Edgewood Avenue and north of Irwin Street. The Site is located in a predominantly black residential and commercial area characterized by low-income housing in poor condition and moderate commercial activity on Edgewood and along Auburn Avenue west of the Site. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. (King Center), is located on the west side of the Site and occupies an entire city block. [3]

The Site commemorates the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., a prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Federal legislation established the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site and Preservation District on October 10, 1980, to "protect and interpret for the benefit, inspiration, and education of present and future generations the places where Martin Luther King, Junior, was born, where he lived, worked, and worshipped, and where he is buried." [4] Historic resources within the Site include the houses along the block where King was born (Birth-Home Block), Ebenezer Baptist Church where King, his father, and grandfather were pastors, and commercial buildings along Edgewood Avenue. As noted, the legislation identifies the grave site of King as a resource requiring protection and interpretation. Since 1971, the King Center has housed the grave site, consisting of the marble tomb and eternal flame. The King Center, a modern complex built between 1971 and 1981, also includes a memorial plaza with a fountain, interpretive exhibits, a restaurant, and administrative offices. The National Park Service (NPS) does not contribute to interpretive programs at the gravesite. However, NPS does maintain the grave site at the King Center and conducts tours of the Birth Home.

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Preservation District (Preservation District), also established in the 1980 legislation, adjoins the Site on the east, north, and west and embraces the larger Auburn Avenue black community in which King grew up. The Preservation District links King's career to the black business, religious, social, and political organizations that flourished along Auburn Avenue prior to and during King's lifetime (map 2). [5]

Map 2: Martin Luther King, Jr. NHS and Preservation District.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)


This Historic Resource Study (HRS) identifies and evaluates the historic properties within the Site. The study establishes and documents historic contexts associated with the Site and then evaluates the extent to which the historic resources represent those contexts. The completed HRS will serve as a tool for future Site planning, resource management decisions, and the continuing development of interpretive programs at the Site.

The architectural resources of the Site primarily represent the formative years of King's life, from 1929 through 1948, rather than the events for which he subsequently gained national and international recognition. Although much of his civil rights activity occurred outside Atlanta, King resided in Atlanta from 1960 to 1968. He also established a base of operations for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the city in 1957. Most of the resources within the Site are important for interpreting King's youth; Ebenezer Baptist Church is the only significant Site resource associated with King's adult career.

The Site is located in an urban area that has suffered significant deterioration in recent decades and continues to be threatened. Several architectural surveys have been conducted within the Site and the Preservation District. Although the park is listed in the National Register, many individual structures were not documented in the nomination, and a comprehensive interpretive study of the Site remains unfinished. The HRS and associated surveys will provide park management with a physical survey of structures, an interpretive framework for the Site, and National Register documentation for the park's historic resources.


Survey Methodology

Goals of the historic resources survey of the Site are to 1) update the List of Classified Structures (LCS) database for the Site for use by park management; 2) prepare a Historic Resource Study for the Site; 3) update National Register documentation for the Site; 4) assemble a comprehensive inventory of the Site's historic structures, completing Georgia State Historic Preservation Office survey forms and a photographic record for each structure built prior to 1950 and considered eligible for listing in the National Register. The assembled documentation will be used in complying with Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Initially, the survey team examined building files, maintenance records, historic research compiled by the park staff, and maps at the park headquarters. The field survey of the park yielded information on the present condition of the historic resources. Additionally, the team reviewed archival materials at the Southeast Regional Office of the National Park Service (NPS) and at the Site. Research with primary and secondary sources was conducted at the park library, the Atlanta Historical Society, the Fulton County Clerk of Court, and elsewhere to obtain information on the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement. Maps and Atlanta city directories helped trace the physical development of the area. The survey team relied heavily on several unpublished studies of the Site and vicinity for specific information. Independent researchers and park staff previously compiled most of the necessary historic information, though several buildings with uncertain construction dates required additional research.

Determination of Historic Contexts

This study will assess and evaluate the Site's historic resources in relationship to three historic contexts identified by the survey team. These contexts correspond closely to historic themes identified by the NPS and the Georgia SHPO. The thematic framework of the NPS is outlined in History and Prehistory in the National Park System and the National Historic Landmark Program. In addition to general historical themes like "Architecture" or "Commerce," the Georgia SHPO has identified twelve distinctive aspects of Georgia history. These aspects are currently undeveloped but should be considered when assembling local and state context studies.

The following three historic contexts (chapters 1 through 3) were developed for this study: 1) The Development of a Black Community and Leader: Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Neighborhood and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1906-1948; 2) Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1968; and 3) Architectural Resources of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, ca. 1880-1950.

The first context, The Development of a Black Community and Leader: Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Neighborhood and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1906-1948, relates to the NPS subtheme "Ethnic Communities" of Theme XXX, "American Ways of Life." This context also relates to two aspects of Georgia history: "Large Black Population and Strong Cultural Presence" and "Conflict and Accommodation in Race Relations." The context addresses the physical, social, and economic environment in which Martin Luther King, Jr., was reared. The Site embraces only a portion of the Auburn Avenue neighborhood, while the geographical area for this context encompasses an area akin to the Preservation District. Subthemes within this context include urban life, ethnic community growth and isolation, and occupational and class distinctions. The context begins in 1906, the year a bloody race riot signalled increased racial segregation patterns among black and white Atlantans, both residentially and commercially. The context ends in 1948, the year that King left Atlanta to pursue his education at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania.

Chapter 1 will briefly summarize the development of the Auburn Avenue black neighborhood. The chapter then will address the influence of the community on the intellectual and moral development of Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout the period of significance, Auburn Avenue between Pryor on the west and Randolph on the east was the focus of Atlanta's east-side black community. Many of the churches, businesses, and other institutions of key importance to the Auburn Avenue black community are located outside the boundaries of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic Site. Thus, a discussion of these community institutions is essential in establishing this context, but only those historic resources that lie within the historic site will be evaluated in relation to this context.

The second context, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement, 1955-1968, is closely related to the NPS subtheme "Civil Rights Movements" under Theme XXXI, "Social and Humanitarian Movements." The context relates to the Georgia SHPO contextual theme "Major Theater for Civil Rights Movement." Chapter 2 encompasses the period during which King was a nationally prominent civil rights leader. King's civil rights activity in Atlanta during the period was limited primarily to his involvement with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Ebenezer Baptist Church, local lunch counter sit-ins, and a labor dispute at Scripto, Inc. Events occurring across America, many involving King, are important in establishing this context and will be briefly sketched. The chapter begins with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by the city's religious leaders, including King, and ends with his death in Memphis, Tennessee.

The final context, Architectural Resources of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, ca. 1880-1950 relates to NPS theme XVI, "Architecture" and to the Georgia SHPO historical theme, "Architecture." [6] This context addresses buildings possessing local architectural significance recognized under Criteria C. The context commences with the earliest building construction date within the Site. All buildings constructed prior to 1950 were surveyed; however, only in exceptional cases are buildings less than fifty years old eligible under this context. The Site's architectural resources represent residential and commercial buildings common in urban areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Few of these resources exhibit high-style architectural features, but they serve as good examples of local adaptations of popular methods of construction which often incorporate elements of nationally popular architectural styles.

Determination of Significant Property Types

Property types are determined by shared form, function, associations, events, or physical characteristics among a group of resources and may include buildings, sites, structures, or objects. These property types are primarily based on a knowledge of historic contexts and then on whether the type is a manageable and efficient tool for setting requirements for National Register listing. Base property types relate to National Register criteria, either physical or associative, and illustrate the broadest possible range of applicable resources.

National Register Bulletin 16B discusses some applications of structural typology. "Property types may be defined to include resources that are associated with the general growth or prosperity influenced by the theme and that are not directly resultant from the predominant theme of the context." As an example, the bulletin states railroad-era buildings and structures "could include commercial buildings, public buildings, residences, bridges, storage sheds, as well as railroad stations and freighthouses" of the period. [7]

The historic resources of the Site, composed largely of residential and commercial buildings, derive their primary significance from their association with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement. Many of these buildings also are eligible for listing in the National Register as examples of late nineteenth and early twentieth century urban structural fabric once common throughout Atlanta. Building typologies, such as double shotguns, provide a framework in which significant property types can be studied and their relationship to historic contexts solidified. Property types at the Site are based on massing, architectural style, function, and period of construction.

Derivation of Integrity Requirements

Requirements for integrity were based upon the property's association with the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement (Criteria A and B.) In addition, integrity requirements stress the physical characteristics of the properties (Criterion C) as they relate to location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. Properties eligible for listing only under Criterion C are held to a higher standard of integrity than those eligible under Criteria A and B.


The historical base map (Appendix A) visually connects resources extant during the period of significance with the present physical environment. The historical base map for the Site illustrates the built, urban environment during the period King lived on Auburn Avenue (1929-1941). The map includes street layout, as well as residential and commercial buildings, alleys, and the spatial relationships among buildings and other urban structural features. Extant structures (1992) are represented by a solid line; extant historic structures are shaded; and nonextant historic structures, including streetcar lines, alleys, and buildings, are indicated by a broken line. All nonextant historic structures were present during the period of significance; some have been replaced by nonhistoric buildings. Thus, broken line building footprints and solid line imprints in some cases are overlaid. Buildings destroyed or replaced by other structures within the period of significance are not indicated. Thus structural change within the period of significance is not discernable. Two important environmental features—the presence of alleys, both dirt and paved, and streetcar lines—are illustrated by broken lines indicating that they are no longer extant. A second map is included that indicates the street addresses of extant historic buildings. All of these structures except King's grave site were present during the period of significance. The grave site is an eligible historic resource that falls outside the period of significance (see page 51). Additional information on the historic structures is provided in Appendix B, Building Descriptions.

The historical base map best illustrates the use of space in an early twentieth century black neighborhood. Closely spaced housing and commercial buildings are located on major city thoroughfares and narrow alleys. Outbuildings for autos and storage are abundant, and the corner store also is a common feature. Detailed landscape features on the Birth-Home Block, such as sidewalk pavement, fencing, location of utility lines, street lighting, and fire hydrants will be illustrated on maps included in the Cultural Landscape Report.

Several sources were consulted to compose the historical base map: 1911 and 1932 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a 1928 City Engineer (Atlanta) Topographic Map, and two aerial photographs taken by the Soil Conservation Service in 1939 and the Atlanta Metropolitan Planning Commission in 1949. Historic photograph collections at the Atlanta Historical Society, the Georgia Department of Archives and History, and the Georgia State Labor History Archives were consulted. Also, a Works Projects Administration cadastral map (1937) and City of Atlanta Council Meeting Minutes verified changes and additions to the urban environment including alleys, paving, water sources, and streetcar lines.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002