A Brief History of Black Atlanta

I love my hometown of Atlanta. The experiences of living in a large, diverse, urban Black community have always shaped the questions I have about the world. I figured my dissertation would be a good time to start learning more about the city. As part of my literature review, I picked up Herman Mason Jr’s book Black Atlanta in the Roaring Twenties.

The book taught me about the legacy of Black community building in the 1920s. Black families moved to the Westside of Atlanta after the 1917 fire destroyed the Old Fourth Ward. Before then, most Black people in Atlanta lived within a community of free Black business owners and laborers. After the Civil War, an influx of freed slaves and Black veterans formed the shantytowns that became the neighborhoods of Black Atlanta.

The book opened with a reference to Grady Hospital and its history of segregation. The main nursing school was built in 1898 and did not accept Black women. When Black women did get accepted in 1914, they attended a separate institution, the Grady Municipal Training School for Colored Nurses.

Grady School of Nursing Collection 

The nursing schools didn’t integrate until 1965.

I also learned about Atlanta’s role in blues music and vaudeville. 81 Theater was located at 81 Decatur Street (where Georgia State University now stands). Homegrown artists like Thomas A. Dorsey, also known as Georgia Tom, performed there as did Ma Rainey and her Black Bottom band.

While Decatur Street was Black Atlanta’s entertainment district, by 1920 Auburn Avenue was the business hub of Black Atlanta. The captains of the Black industry in Atlanta earned their wealth in a multitude of ways, but mostly through owning insurance companies and banks.

Rappers frequently compare themselves to Rockefeller. However, the first Black CEOs were the men like Heman Perry, owner of Citizen’s Trust Bank. Alonzo Herndon, a former slave, founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Alonzo Herndon also built a multipurpose office building on Auburn Ave in 1924. The building served black businesses and also housed one of the first Black-serving hotels in the city.

Truman Kelia Gibson and Harry H. Pace, executives of black-owned Standard Life Insurance Company, co-founded the NAACP ATL Chapter. MLK Jr’s grandfather Rev. Adam D. Williams let his home be used as their meeting house. Later Big Bethel Church AME became the NAACP’s meeting space. Its prominent members and associates included W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White.

Many of the influential Black business owners in Atlanta attended colleges at the Atlanta University Center as undergrad institutions. Morehouse College university president Dr. John Hope also hired them and worked with them in other capacities.

Black men often joined together to do business, forming influential groups like the Odd Fellows Organization founded by Benjamin J. Davis Sr. The group built an auditorium and an office building on Auburn Avenue. Moses Amos, the first black pharmacist in Georgia, opened the Gate City Drug Store there in 1914.

Black Atlanta bloomed in the context of Jim Crow segregation. Indeed, the Atlanta City Council and Board of Education used their power and influence to restrict the mobility of Black Atlanta. When W.E.B. DuBois petitioned for a Black library, the board denied him. Later, Andrew Carnegie provided the funding for the Auburn Library Branch.

Booker T. Washington High school, the first Black public school in Atlanta, was built on Atlanta’s Westside in 1923. Black Atlantans and NAACP protested and held a voter drive to gain the influence to build the school. With the backing of a Board of Education member and mayor James E. Key, money got allocated to build the school and other schools. Before then, Black students attended a few small, one-room schoolhouses built in the wake of the Civil War and had no access to education beyond the seventh grade.

Learning more about the history of Black Atlanta helped me better understand the ways colonialism continues to shape our lived experiences. The other cities I am going to study in are D.C. and Memphis. I am interested in seeing if Black communities forming in this region emerged in similar ways or if other factors are at play for how Black people turn a space into a place into a community.

Insights about pre-Civil War Atlanta come from Tera W. Hunter’s To Joy My Freedom.