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[photo] Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter sing with Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and other civil rights leaders during a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta
Courtesy of Jimmy Carter Library (NLJC)

The history of African Americans in Atlanta is synonymous with the history of Atlanta itself, and is one of progress and perseverance. From the early days of slaveholding until today, when the last five mayors of Atlanta have been African Americans, the story of the largest southern city can be told through the experiences of its largest ethnic minority.

The majority of African Americans were originally brought over from Western Africa and Madagascar as part of the slave trade between 1760 and 1810. Charleston, South Carolina, became the major southern port where African Americans were introduced to the lower south. By 1750 an estimated 240,000 Africans or people of African descent lived in British North America, comprising nearly 20 percent of the total colonial population, mostly concentrated in the southern colonies. In Georgia and South Carolina the wealthy planters drew upon the skills and knowledge of African Americans brought from Senegambia to aid in the cultivation of rice, which was the first major export crop of these southern colonies. The slave trade from Africa was halted by the U.S. Congress after January 1, 1808, and in the North the gradual abolition of slavery took place. In the South, economic factors, notably the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, kept the institution alive.

[photo] Charleston, South Carolina, was the main port for the African slave trade to the lower South until 1808, and slaves were sold on the north side of the Exchange and Provost Building
Courtesy of Lissa D'Aqui
Atlanta in 1864, note sign "Auction & Negro Sales"

Courtesy of Library of Congress

The city of Atlanta originated in the 19th century. Starting out as Terminus in 1837, and later named Marthasville in 1843, the rapidly growing town incorporated under the present day name of Atlanta in 1845. Already by 1850, Atlanta had a population which included 493 African slaves, 18 free blacks, and 2,058 whites. This small population would grow, and by 1870, the black population of Atlanta comprised 46 percent of 21,700 residents, a proportion roughly maintained to the end of the 19th century.

The Civil War: The early history of African Americans in Atlanta was forever altered by the Civil War. Georgia banded together with other southern states to create the Confederate States of America, fearing that the election of Abraham Lincoln to the American Presidency in 1860 election would usher in a strong Federal government opposed to slavery. Overall, as Peter Kolchin wrote about African Americans in American Slavery 1619-1877, although "some stood loyally by their masters and mistresses through thick and thin," when Union troops approached, "the transformation of master-slave relations became unmistakable as slaves sensed their impending liberation." General William T. Sherman invaded Georgia from the northwest in May 1864. Later that year he took control of the city of Atlanta and forced evacuation of the citizenry when his armies burned the city before leaving to continue their march to the sea.

Cheatham Hill: Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Confederate artillery

Courtesy of National Park Service[photo]
Potter House, Atlanta, Ga., showing effects of Union bombardment
Courtesy of National Archives, NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-111-B-4752

Many slaves escaped to follow Sherman's armies. Burke Davis recorded in his book, Sherman's March, that, concerned about the mobility of his army, "Sherman issued orders in Atlanta barring the elderly, the infirm and mothers with young children from joining the march." Under political pressure, Sherman in January of 1865 ordered thousands of acres of abandoned land in the Sea Islands and low country of Georgia and South Carolina to be made available to the freed slaves for homesteading. This order was later rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. Congress, violently opposed to President Johnson, later passed the Southern Homestead Act in 1866, which allowed for homesteading on public lands in five deep southern states, although enforcing this later proved difficult.

Reconstruction in Atlanta: In the spring of 1865 the exhausted Confederacy collapsed and Union control was exerted over the entire South. The Atlanta City Council later that year vowed equal application of laws to whites and blacks, and a school for black children, the first in the city, opened in an old church building on Armstrong Street. In 1867, General John Pope, the U.S. General in charge of Atlanta, issued orders allowing African Americans to serve on juries. In 1868, the State legislature, in defiance of Georgia's Governor Bullock, expelled 28 newly elected African Americans from the legislature. The State Supreme Court reinstated the legislators the following year.

In 1869, the State legislature voted against ratifying the 15th Amendment, which guarantees that the right to vote will not be abridged based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Federal government returned Atlanta to military rule that December, stating that Georgia would not be readmitted to the Union until the 15th Amendment was passed. The same year a positive step for African Americans was taken when the Methodist Episcopal Church's Freedman Aid Society founded a coeducational school for African American legislators that would later become Clark College in Atlanta. In 1870, the legislature ratified the 15th Amendment and Georgia was readmitted to the Union while the Governor had to fight to keep African-American legislators seated. Dennis Hammond, a Radical Republican, was elected mayor of Atlanta and the first two African Americans, William Finch and George Graham, sat on the new City Council. The era of Reconstruction ended in 1877, when the bulk of the Federal troops were removed from the South and African Americans could no longer rely on their political protection. Still, African Americans found other ways to thrive, both economically and socially. One the best examples of such success was former slave Alonzo F. Herndon, founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, located in the Sweet Auburn Historic District. Through this enterprise, Herndon became Atlanta's first black millionaire.

W.E.B. DuBois
Courtesy of National Archives, NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-H-HNP-16

The 20th Century: At the turn of the 20th century, many of Atlanta's African Americans remained poor and disenfranchised, although after Reconstruction there were political and social theories advocating more equality for African Americans. At the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, Tuskegee Institute founder and principal Booker T. Washington delivered his famous Atlanta Compromise Speech which urged African Americans to stress education, economic advancement, and gradual adjustment, rather than immediate political and civil rights. In the time of Jim Crow laws, this caused an uproar and divided African Americans throughout the nation. W.E.B. DuBois, a Morehouse (Atlanta University) professor and political activist, countered that "the radicals received it [Washington's speech] as a complete surrender of the demand for civil and political equality..."

The 20th century also saw the advent of violence in Atlanta as roughly 10,000 white people attacked the city's African Americans on September 22, 1906. "The immediate cause of the terrible Atlanta riot of 1906 had been the newspaper drumfire of alleged assaults upon white women by black men," wrote David Levering Lewis in his Pulitzer prize winning biography, W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race. The deeper reasons for these riots lay in the class conflicts among working white people who feared losing jobs to lesser paid black laborers, as well as a social fear of the rising black middle class. The death count of the Atlanta riots numbered over two dozen slain African Americans and five or six whites. Du Bois responded to the riots with his "Litany of Atlanta" which was published in the Independent on October 11, 1906. Part of his litany reads "A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate." Mayor James Woodward called an assembly of white and African American leaders of Atlanta on the Sunday after the attacks. Promises of police reform were made, as well as the idea for the creation of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.

Atlanta segregated baseball team, c. 1900
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Before desegregation took place African Americans created their own opportunities in businesses, publications, and sports. Evidence of successful businesses was most profound in Sweet Auburn, now known as the Sweet Auburn Historic District, a one-mile corridor that served as the downtown of Atlanta's black community. Businesses flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, including restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs where Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed. In 1928, the Atlanta Daily World, the oldest African American daily newspaper still in circulation, began publication. From 1920 until the 1940s, the Atlanta Black Crackers, a baseball team in the Negro Southern League, and later on, in the Negro American League, entertained sports fans at Ponce De Leon Park (across from the Ford Factory). Behind all the successes, however, was the daily reality of segregation.

Segregation began as an attempt after the Civil War to disenfranchise African Americans in the South with laws called "Black Codes" and "Jim Crow" laws, which were designed to regulate and limit the opportunities of African Americans. When the legality of these codes was challenged in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson , recognized the legality of "separate but equal" laws regarding African Americans and whites. This decision set the precedent throughout the South that "separate" facilities for African Americans and whites were constitutional, provided they were "equal." The "separate but equal" doctrine soon extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, and public schools. It was not until 1954, in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, that these laws would be struck down.

Many saw the injustice of these "Jim Crow" laws, and in the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement gradually formed in response. Since participation in politics was largely closed to African Americans, Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall, beginning in the 1920s, decided to train a group of black lawyers who would challenge the laws. The churches in the community played an important role, providing a leadership role for black religious leaders, especially in the South. The church, in the days of slavery and in the segregated South that followed, became a social center for the black community, serving not only as a place of worship but also, according to Taylor Branch in his book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, "a bulletin board to a people who owned no organs of communication, a credit union to those without banks, and even a kind of people's court."

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd.], 08/28/1963

Courtesy of National Archives, NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-306-SSM-4C(51)15
When the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, African Americans responded. At the heart of the movement in Atlanta were the students of Atlanta University. Many were involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was formed in 1960 when the first official meeting was held in Atlanta. One of their first demonstrations was a sit-in at the Rich's department store lunch counter in downtown Atlanta with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. participating. Born on Auburn Avenue in 1929, Dr. King followed his father's path by preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church. With his exceptional oratory and motivational skills, the Morehouse graduate emerged as a natural leader in encouraging a nonviolent approach to social change. Largely because of these ideals, Atlanta's road to integration was more peaceful than that of other cities. Still, there were tensions within the black community when negotiations were concluded to end a three-month boycott of 70 downtown white-owned Atlanta stores, which ended in February of 1961. The provision which ended the boycott, signed by 10 of the city's elder black leaders, along with the local chamber of commerce, was written in vague guarantees largely obscure to demands for desegregation. Many of the younger generation denounced the agreement. Tensions escalated at a meeting between the older and younger African Americans at the Warren Methodist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s father was challenged for his position favoring the ending of the boycott. Only the late arrival of his son united the two factions in following the agreement. It was also in Atlanta where King addressed the first major civil rights demonstration in the South since President Kennedy's assassination. On December 15, 1963, King declared segregation a "glaring reality" in Atlanta. Integrated restaurants were still picketed at this time in the city, with some visible opposition. Today the life of this civil rights leader is celebrated at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

After the Civil Rights Act became law in 1965, a new generation of leaders rose who bridged the gap between the Civil Rights movement and the entrance to local and national politics. The political power of African Americans in Georgia rose and the election of civil rights veterans Andrew Young and John Lewis to Congress was a reflection of that gain. Beginning with Maynard Jackson in 1974, the mayors of Atlanta have all since been African Americans, including current mayor Shirley Franklin, who upon her election in 2001, became the first black female mayor of a major southern city. Reflecting on African Americans in Atlanta, Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Mae Gentry wrote, "Still, Atlanta is a place where African Americans feel comfortable, a place where they have a stake in events, a place they can call home." The story of Atlanta is still being told, and now more than ever, African Americans are an integral part of the tale.

Some information found in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "African-Americans: 1.2 million Residents Make Mark on Area," by staffwriter Mae Gentry, printed in 2002 and reprinted with permission.
The following books were helpful for this essay: 1. Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon and Shuster. 1988.
2. Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King years 1963-65. New York: Simon and Shuster. 1998.
3. Davis, Burke. Sherman's March. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
4. Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang.1988.
5. Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. Du Bois Biography of a Race 1868-1919. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1993.
Information on Georgia in the Civil War was found online at http://www.cherokeerose.com/. Information on Andrew Young was found at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay. Information on George Henry White was found at http://afroamhistory.about.com and an article on African-American History found at http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages proved useful. Some of the information on African languages was found in the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001

  [image] E. Van Winkle Gin and Machine Works and link to Industrial Atlanta essay
  [image] Tullie Smith House and link to Antebellum Atlanta essay   [image] African American baseball players of Morris Brown College - Atlanta and link to African American Experience essay   [image] Historic postcard of Fox Theatre Historic District and link to Growth and Preservation essay

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