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Buildings on Auburn Avenue in the Sweet Auburn Historic District

NPS Photograph by Jody Cook

Concentrated along a short mile and a half of Auburn Avenue, the Sweet Auburn Historic District reflects the history, heritage and achievements of Atlanta's African Americans. The name Sweet Auburn was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, referring to the "richest Negro street in the world." Like other black communities throughout the country, Sweet Auburn's success was intricately tied to the residential patterns forced on African Americans during the early 20th century--the result of restrictive laws in southern states which enforced segregation of the races, known as Jim Crow laws. It was here that many African Americans established businesses, congregations, and social organizations.

Several churches located along the avenue, such as Big Bethel AME and First Congregational, helped build and maintain the heritage of the street. The Royal Peacock Club provided an elegant setting where many African Americans could perform and bring the changing styles of black popular music to Atlanta. Originally called the Top Hat Club when it opened in 1938, the club hosted local talent and national acts such as B.B. King, the Four Tops, the Tams and Atlanta's own Gladys Knight. One of the many significant commercial buildings within the district is the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. The second largest black insurance company in the United States, Atlanta Life Insurance was founded in 1905 by Alonzo Herndon, a former slave from Walton County, Georgia. The company steadily grew so that by 1910, there were more than 42 branch offices. The central building of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company complex is a Beaux Arts building facing Auburn Avenue. The district also includes the Rucker Building, Atlanta's first black-owned office building, constructed in 1904 by businessman and politican Henry A. Rucker. The Atlanta Daily World, the first black-owned daily newspaper, was founded here in 1928.

Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. However, like so many other inner-city neighborhoods, Sweet Auburn fell victim to lack of investment, crime and abandonment, compounded by highway construction that split it in two. In 1992 the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized that it was one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) was formed to turn the trend around, starting with houses surrounding the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and working outward. HDDC designed Sweet Auburn's renewal to improve the community without pricing lower-income residents out of the neighborhood. Since 1994, HDDC has built and rehabilitated more than 110 single-family homes and more than 50 units of affordable rental housing. HDDC is are now focusing on the renewal of the district's commercial area.

Sweet Auburn Historic District is located along Auburn Avenue, generally between Courtland St. and I-75/85 in downtown Atlanta. Walking tour maps are available through the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, 404-222-6688. For more information contact the Friends of Sweet Auburn. Group walking tours are also available. Call 404-688-3353 or visit the Atlanta Preservation Center for more information.

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