THE DEVELOPMENT OF A BLACK COMMUNITY AND LEADER: ATLANTA'S AUBURN AVENUE NEIGHBORHOOD AND MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., 1906-1948
During Martin Luther King, Jr.'s youth, Atlanta's Auburn Avenue neighborhood was a vital, largely self-contained black community.  A product of segregation, the community included laborers and domestic workers as well as successful professionals and businessmen. King grew up understanding both the limits imposed by segregation and the achievements that blacks accomplished in spite of it. The Auburn Avenue environment helped shape King's mature views on racial harmony and social justice.
The Auburn Avenue community developed against a backdrop of increasingly rigid, legally enforced racial segregation and the effective disfranchisement of blacks throughout the American South in the 1 890s and 1900s. Following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, inconsistency and flux characterized southern race relations. Before 1900, few southern states required segregation in public places. Separation in public activities was common, but local racial protocol varied considerably. In urban areas, limited racial mixing on public carriers, in common areas, and even in work places testified to the fragile foothold that blacks had established in municipalities. The political participation of southern blacks also varied considerably in this period. Beginning in the 1890s, however, southern whites fashioned a strictly segregated public realm and eliminated blacks' civil and political rights.  In Atlanta, a 1906 race riot accelerated the development of separate spheres for blacks and whites in the city.
The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited the denial of the franchise "by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."  However, when the protection of federal troops was withdrawn, blacks' voting rights increasingly were restricted through intimidation, restrictive legislation, and discriminatory practices. Whites employed numerous devices to disfranchise blacks without openly flouting the Fifteenth Amendment. Southern governments created all-white primaries, poll taxes, literacy tests, and complicated voting procedures to exclude black voters. Many of these measures also limited the franchise of less affluent whites, in spite of mitigating efforts like "grandfather clauses." Grandfather clauses sheltered illiterate whites by exempting from literacy requirements individuals whose ancestors had voted prior to emancipation. By 1910, nearly all southern states had enacted suffrage laws that prevented blacks from voting. 
In Atlanta, whites limited black political participation as early as 1872. That year the city's Democratic Party adopted the white primary, excluding blacks from this preliminary selection process.  Following the decline of the Republican Party in the South, nomination in a Democratic primary usually assured victory in the general election. Although blacks in Georgia were generally excluded from Democratic primaries, their votes were occasionally sought, and often manipulated, in close contests. In the 1 890s, the rise of the Populist Party led to increased competition for southern black votes. Georgia disfranchisement policies wavered as Populist and Democrat candidates vied for urban and rural black votes in 1892, 1894, and 1896. Shortly thereafter, Georgia whites, uncomfortable with black political power, especially in close elections, resumed efforts to effectively disfranchise blacks. This was accomplished in an amendment to the state constitution ratified by referendum in 1908. The primary motivation was to prevent blacks from voting in state and national contests. Even after this date, some blacks were able to vote in Atlanta municipal elections. 
By 1900, increased efforts to codify segregation practices accompanied disfranchisement measures. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited segregation on steamboats, railroad cars, hotels, theaters, and other places of entertainment, but it was rarely enforced. In October 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the act's enabling clauses unconstitutional, nullifying its effectiveness. In 1890, the court went further and upheld a Mississippi law mandating "separate but equal" accommodations for black and white railroad passengers. In 1896, the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned the same principle of racial separation in education. Following these rulings, southern states enacted numerous segregation or "Jim Crow" statutes limiting black and white contact in most public places. 
Atlanta's Auburn Avenue reflected the changing nature of southern race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As was typical in newer postbellum southern cities, Atlanta blacks were clustered residentially in a number of distinct settlements. Many black neighborhoods were in less desirable low-lying areas or near railroad tracks. However, Atlanta neighborhoods and blocks were less rigidly segregated from 1870 to 1890 than they were after 1900, when Jim Crow was more firmly established. De facto residential segregation existed in the late nineteenth century but was not uniform. After 1900, as Atlanta grew and white hostility increased, the color line became firmly drawn. 
Auburn Avenue was opened in 1853 as Wheat Street, named for Augustus M. Wheat, a white merchant. The street runs east from Whitehall Street in downtown Atlanta. The Atlanta City Council renamed the street in April 1893 at the request of residents who thought Auburn Avenue sounded more stylish.  Between the 1850s and 1906, Auburn Avenue developed primarily as a white residential and business district that included a substantial black minority.  From 1884 to 1900, the racial make-up of the area bounded by Old Wheat Street, Howell, Edgewood, and Jackson (now a portion of the Site) remained substantially constant at approximately 55 percent white and 45 percent black.  As one study noted:
Around 1900, more blacks began to move to the Auburn Avenue neighborhood. This trend accelerated following the bloody September 1906 race riot, during which whites attacked many blacks and black-owned properties in downtown Atlanta and other neighborhoods. A riot relief committee reported that ten blacks and two whites died in the rioting, but contemporary observers put the death toll as high as 100. Black enfranchisement, racial fears, and black economic power were all factors involved in the build-up to the riot. The riot followed a Georgia election for governor in which both candidates, Hoke Smith and Clark Howell, appealed to anti-black sentiment. Both candidates had ties to Atlanta newspapers, which published a series of highly sensationalized accounts of alleged crimes by black males against white women. The month prior to the riot, one thousand delegates to the National Negro Business League convention had met in Atlanta, antagonizing some whites who resented successful blacks. 
Subject to increased hostility and rising rents for downtown retail and office space, black businessmen left the central business district and began to concentrate on Auburn Avenue between Courtland and Jackson streets. This area's growing black residential population provided a customer base for these businesses. By 1909, black residences outnumbered white residences along Auburn by 117 to 74, and the section of Auburn Avenue between Courtland Avenue and Jackson Street contained 64 black businesses. Once the Auburn Avenue black business area was established, the number of downtown black business concerns declined sharply. 
The Auburn Avenue black community emerged because rigid social and physical segregation denied blacks meaningful roles in white-dominated society. In Atlanta and elsewhere in the urban South, blacks developed and strengthened their own churches, businesses, social and cultural institutions, and social welfare agencies.
Between 1910 and 1930, the Auburn Avenue neighborhood became the center of Atlanta black life. Black Masonic leader John Wesley Dobbs tagged the area "Sweet Auburn," because its churches, homes, and commercial buildings were highly visible emblems of black achievement. The Avenue and its vicinity was the site of influential black businesses, churches, and a diverse black residential community. Businesses concentrated on Auburn west of Jackson, and residences lay east. After 1920, industrial concerns that presumably employed blacks, such as laundries and a pencil factory, located on Houston Street. Housing segregation confined blacks to limited areas in Atlanta, and working-class and middle-class blacks often lived side by side in the Auburn Avenue neighborhood. 
Small retail businesses, such as barber shops, cleaners and tailors, groceries, drugstores, and restaurants, shared the Avenue with substantial black-owned banks and insurance companies. The Atlanta Life Insurance Company began as a small mutual aid society founded by members of the Wheat Street Baptist Church in 1904. Purchased by black entrepreneur Alonzo Herndon in 1905 and combined by him with other small mutual aid societies, Atlanta Life became one of the largest black-owned proprietary companies in America. 
Auburn Avenue exhibited considerable social class and occupational diversity. From 1910 to 1930, many black teachers, clergymen, physicians, and businessmen lived in the community. The most prestigious addresses were on Auburn Avenue and on Houston Street, known as "Bishops Row," because it was home to several Methodist bishops employed at nearby Morris Brown College. Other prominent Auburn Avenue residents were Bishop Lucius H. Holsey of the Methodist Church, Charles L. Harper, the first principal of Booker T. Washington High School, and the Reverend Peter James Bryant of Wheat Street Baptist Church.  Domestic workers, laundresses, carpenters, and laborers also called Auburn Avenue home. Many laborers found employment in the industrial concerns along Houston Street. The neighborhood's housing stock reflected this diversity in employment. Two-story Victorian houses, two-room shotgun cottages, and boarding houses shared Auburn Avenue addresses (photographs 2 and 3).
Black churches were the oldest and most important Auburn Avenue institutions. Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches dominated black community life, providing spiritual support to their members and meeting places for many community groups. Numerous social, cultural, and educational institutions and businesses, such as banks and life insurance companies, originated in church benevolent societies. Church leadership conferred great status and autonomy within the black community and often served as a conduit to the white power structure. Ministers led efforts to improve conditions in the community and served on the boards of black colleges, businesses, and social-service institutions.  Prominent Auburn Avenue churches included Wheat Street Baptist Church (founded 1870), Bethel AME Church (reorganized in 1865), Butler Street Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church (founded 1884), First Congregational Church (founded 1867), and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church (founded 1886). 
Auburn Avenue boasted an array of organizations devoted to enriching the social, cultural, and social-welfare aspects of black life. These groups included women's clubs, an orphanage and school, Social clubs, fraternal orders, libraries, and a YMCA. Large black fraternal orders, like the Odd Fellows, Masons, and Knights of Tabor, added self-help activities to their social and recreational concerns. Members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows participated in an insurance benefit program and could borrow money from the order to start businesses and purchase property. 
The chief rival to Auburn Avenue as a center of black life was the area surrounding the Atlanta University complex on the city's West Side. The site of several black colleges since the 1870s, the West Side in the 1920s began to attract middle-income blacks in search of new homes. Serious overcrowding in the Auburn Avenue neighborhood contributed to the shift to the West Side. By 1950, if not earlier, the West Side had replaced Auburn Avenue as the preferred residential address for relatively affluent blacks, but Auburn Avenue continued as a center of black business activity well into the 1950s. 
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., IN THE AUBURN AVENUE NEIGHBORHOOD
Martin Luther King, Jr., lived within the Site until he was twelve and within the broader Auburn Avenue community until he was eighteen. The close-knit world of Auburn Avenue, with its emphasis on church and family and its pride in black self-reliance and achievement, profoundly influenced King. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in a house at 501 Auburn Avenue (Birth Home) on January iS, 1929. The Reverend Adam Daniel Williams (known as A. D.) of Ebenezer Baptist Church, King's maternal grandfather, had purchased the house in 1909. King's father, Martin Luther King, Sr. (Daddy King), moved to the house in 1926, upon his marriage to Alberta Williams (photograph 4). The King family lived on Auburn Avenue until 1941, when they moved three blocks away to 193 Boulevard, near the intersection of Boulevard and Houston Street. This house, built about 1924 and occupied by a black physician, John W. Burney, from 1925 to 1939, is no longer standing and was located outside the Site's boundaries. 
In childhood, King observed blacks succeeding within the constraints of a segregated society. Daddy King's ministry gave the family many contacts with black community leaders. Black clergymen, educators, and businessmen often visited Ebenezer Church and the King home. Yet, the community housed a broad range of residents, and King's neighbors employed shovels and brooms as well as pens and cash registers. This environment exposed King to the richness and poverty of black community life.
From an early age, King resented the limitations segregation imposed on blacks, both within and outside his community. King attended Younge Street and David T. Howard elementary schools, both segregated institutions, and commuted on the backs of buses to Atlanta University Lab School and Morehouse College on the West Side of Atlanta. He received discriminatory treatment at downtown stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. One Georgia bus trip fixed the humiliations of segregation in King's mind forever. The driver ordered King and a high school teacher, returning from an oratorical competition, to give up their seats to whites. King later said he was never angrier than on that day. 
King also observed the efforts of his father and others to resist the inferior treatment of blacks. In his autobiographical work, Stride Toward Freedom, King related how his father forcefully objected when a white policeman called Daddy King a boy. On another occasion, the senior King stormed out of a downtown shoe store when asked to step to the rear of the store. King's father and grandfather both worked to register black voters; A. D. Williams's efforts helped defeat Atlanta school bond issues until they provided for a black high school. Daddy King was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and helped lead efforts to equalize the pay of black and white school teachers, to establish Booker T. Washington High School (Atlanta's first public high school for blacks), and to desegregate elevators in the Atlanta courthouse. 
As the son and grandson of prominent Baptist ministers, King knew from personal experience the crucial role of the church in southern black life. Just two blocks west on Auburn Avenue, Ebenezer Baptist Church was a second home to young Martin Luther King, Jr. He spent all day Sunday and much of weekday afternoons and evenings at the church.  Prominent black clergymen from as far away as Chicago stayed with the Kings when in Atlanta. King's father was active in his denomination's national organization, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., serving on its executive board.  Ministers had been leaders of the black community from slavery days and would play a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement.
King's background in the black Christian church also helped him to develop a moral basis for opposing segregation. Christian precepts of community, the redemptive power of suffering, and love for enemies provided the basis for King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance to discriminatory laws and customs. King's theological studies at Crozer Seminary and Boston University built on this early exposure to Christian principles at Ebenezer Baptist. Because of his background, King was able to call upon the images and metaphors familiar to millions of southern black churchgoers to rally support for the Civil Rights Movement. Old Testament themes of exile and eventual deliverance had special meaning for southern blacks, who often saw themselves as internal exiles. Black spirituals and gospel songs became mainstays of the Civil Rights Movement. 
The experience of growing up on Auburn Avenue firmly rooted Martin Luther King, Jr., in southern black culture. He learned of the diversity, triumphs, and failures of southern blacks. King used this experience to lead blacks in the struggle against segregation. The black church provided a community model that transcended class and status distinctions. King's youthful experience in the Auburn Avenue community helped shape his vision of a just interracial society.
ASSOCIATED PROPERTIES AND PROPERTY TYPES
The Birth Home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and other Site residences are the properties associated with the context The Development of a Black Community and Leader: Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Neighborhood and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1906-1948. Residences are grouped as a property type because they share functional and associative characteristics. The Birth Home is considered separately because of its unique associations with King's youth, while Ebenezer Baptist Church is the only religious building within the Site associated with this context.
East of Boulevard, the Site remains a residential neighborhood, as it was during King's residence. The basic spatial relationships along the Birth-Home Block (Street and sidewalk widths and building setbacks) are unchanged from the 1929-1941 period, although several residences and small store buildings have been demolished. West of Boulevard, the King Center and the Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Center have replaced residences, altering the character of land use surrounding Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The Birth Home, SOl Auburn Avenue, was built ca. 1894 and occupied by whites until sold to the Reverend A. D. Williams, King's maternal grandfather, in 1909. The house is a two-story frame structure with Queen Anne features, including irregular massing, shingled gables, a broad front porch wrapping around part of the west side, scrollwork porch brackets, and a circular window next to the front door (photograph 5). The NPS has restored the interior and exterior of the Birth Home to reflect the period of King's occupancy.
Ebenezer Baptist Church (407-413 Auburn Avenue) is a three-story red brick and stucco Gothic Revival church constructed from 1914 to 1922 and located at the southeast corner of Auburn Avenue and Jackson Street. To the east of the church is a 1956 education building addition, faced with red brick.
The other Site residences located on Auburn Avenue, Old Wheat Street, Howell Street, Hogue Street, and Boulevard date from circa 1880 to 1933. Two subtypes of residence predominate: single-family houses from 1890-1910 and double shotgun houses from the first decade of the twentieth century. The single family houses are generally two-story frame structures, with Queen Anne or vernacular Victorian detailing. Typical characteristics of these houses include irregular massing, projecting bays, broad front porches carried on columns or posts, contrasting surface areas of shingles and clapboard siding, and decorative millwork. The double shotgun houses are single-story frame structures, often with turned and jigsawn porch decoration. In plan, the shotgun houses are one room wide and two or three rooms deep, with each room opening directly into the room behind. The double shotgun houses consist of two shotgun houses joined by a party wall with separate front entrances for each half of the house. Ornamentation on the double shotgun houses is minimal. One rectangular frame store building, built around 1920, survives at 521-1/2 Auburn.
Chapter 3, Architectural Resources of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, ca. 1880-1950, contains detailed physical descriptions of the Birth Home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the other Site residences.
The Birth Home and Ebenezer Baptist Church are closely associated with the formative years of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. King was born in an upstairs bedroom of the Birth Home and lived there until he was twelve. King's family was a prominent one in the Auburn Avenue black community, and black ministers, educators, and businessmen were frequent guests in the house. The Birth Home represents the role of King's family and the black community in shaping King's beliefs and character. As the eldest son of Ebenezer's pastor, King spent a great deal of time in the church, at services and other church functions, from his earliest years until he was eighteen. Ebenezer Baptist Church was also an important institution in the largely self-sufficient Auburn Avenue black community. Ebenezer symbolizes the important place of the black church in this community and in King's youth.
The other residences, fire station, sidewalk store building, and landscape features within the Site help to evoke the appearance of the neighborhood where King grew up. These houses formed the physical environment of King's youth. Two houses within the Site were occupied by prominent members of the Auburn Avenue black community. The Reverend Peter J. Bryant, pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church, and later, Antoine Graves, a real estate broker, lived at 522 Auburn, and Charles L. Harper, Atlanta's first black high school principal, lived at 535 Auburn. The diversity in size and cost of the extant residences within the Site helps to convey the social class and occupational diversity that characterized the neighborhood during King's youth.
The Birth Home is nationally significant under Criterion B (persons) as the birthplace and boyhood home of Martin Luther King, Jr., a nationally recognized civil rights leader. King's own autobiographical writings as well as the written and taped recollections of his father and sister document his childhood in this house. King's national significance as an adult civil rights leader is documented below in chapter 2. The Birth Home is also locally significant under Criterion A (events) as a component of the larger Auburn Avenue black community.
Ebenezer Baptist Church is nationally significant under Criterion B (persons) as a place where King spent much of his youth and where his mature beliefs and values began to take shape. Ebenezer Baptist Church is an extremely significant link to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s formative years. At Ebenezer, King learned the Christian doctrines that helped form the basis of his nonviolent opposition to racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement relied on themes and images common to the southern black Christian experience. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s exposure to southern black religious culture largely occurred at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King's youthful activities at Ebenezer are well documented in his autobiographical writings and in several biographies of King. Ebenezer is also locally significant under Criterion A (events) as an important institution in the Auburn Avenue community. King's later involvement with Ebenezer Baptist Church as co-pastor from 1960 to 1968 and the church's role as a site for numerous Civil Rights Movement conferences, meetings, and strategy sessions enhance the national significance of this resource under Criterion A (see chapter 2 below).
Other residences within the Site, Fire Station Number Six, and landscape features such as historic sidewalks are contributing resources under Criteria A (events) and B (persons), because they represent the environment in which King grew up. The largely self-contained Auburn Avenue black neighborhood helped form King's character and influenced King's future development as a civil rights leader. The extant Site residences are physical links to the community that existed from 1929 to 1941
The eligibility of these resources under Criterion C (design/construction) is considered below in chapter 3.
In general, birthplaces are eligible for National Register listing if the person is of outstanding historical importance and other appropriate sites connected with the individual's productive life are not available. For Martin Luther King, Jr., Congress specifically authorized the protection and interpretation of King's birthplace as part of the Site. King is unquestionably of national historical importance as a civil rights leader.
The NPS has restored the interior and exterior of the Birth Home to represent its appearance during King's years of residence. The Birth Home possesses integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. The essential physical features that defined the appearance of the house in 1929-1941 are intact.
Church properties usually are eligible for National Register listing only if their significance derives primarily from architectural or historical importance, independent of the property's religious function. Ebenezer Baptist Church has historical importance in relationship to this context both as an institution of great importance to the Auburn Avenue black community and as a place where Martin Luther King, Jr., spent much of his youth. King became historically important as a national civil rights leader, not as a pastor. The influences that shaped King's career as a civil rights leader are represented in Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Ebenezer Baptist Church possesses a high degree of integrity. The exterior and interior are substantially as they were from 1929 to 1941. Exterior materials, window and door openings, decorative brick work, and stained glass windows are unchanged. The addition of an education building in 1956 and a minor 1971 addition to the south facade of the church are changes with minor visual impact. The education building has significance under the Civil Rights Movement context as the site of important events connected with the Civil Rights Movement (see chapter 2). Ebenezer Baptist is in current use as a church and is instantly recognizable as such. It possesses integrity of location, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and setting. It also retains considerable integrity of setting, although surrounding land use has changed somewhat from residential to institutional (King Center and community center).
To qualify as contributing resources, Site residences must have been present during the period (1929-1941) that Martin Luther King, Jr., lived within the Site. Residences on the Birth Block or near enough to it to have been an important part of King's youthful environment are evaluated under this context. Because residences are primarily significant under this context for associative characteristics rather than for design, a considerable degree of alteration or deterioration may be present without defeating eligibility. Much of the housing stock within the Site has deteriorated since 1941, detracting from the integrity of design and workmanship in some cases. Some single-family houses have been converted to multiple occupancy; nonhistoric exterior treatments, such as asphalt siding, have been applied to some structures; and some original architectural details have been removed or replaced. To be eligible as a contributing resource, enough original fabric should remain to permit a residence, after exterior rehabilitation, to adequately represent the appearance of the neighborhood in the 1929-1941 period.
Some residences within the Site are not eligible as contributing resources under this context because they lack integrity. More than 75 percent of the original fabric of 492-494 Auburn had to be replaced, making this structure a reconstruction and therefore ineligible. 18 Howell, which has suffered years of structural and architectural deterioration and a fire, does not retain sufficient integrity to qualify as a contributing resource. In addition, 479-481 Old Wheat Street, through various alterations over the years, has lost most of its distinctive architectural decorative features such as the porch millwork. It also has a concrete porch and has been converted to a single-family residence.
Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407-413 Auburn Avenue
472-474 Auburn Avenue (1905)
NONELIGIBLE PROPERTIES492-494 Auburn Avenue (ca. 1897), a reconstruction managed as a cultural resource
18 Howell Street (1927)
479-481 Old Wheat Street (1905)
Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002