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1906 Atlanta ‘Race Riot’ was a massacre

Published Oct 2, 2006 11:37 PM

Did you know that Atlanta, the “city too busy to hate,” was once the site of a racist massacre that lasted four days, when mobs of thousands attacked, beat and slaughtered any Black person they saw on downtown streets, destroying businesses and homes at will?

It’s true. Even most Atlantans aren’t aware that when they walk down Peachtree Street, enter the 5 Points MARTA station or go to class at Georgia State University, they are in an area where, 100 years ago, as many as 10,000 white men were involved in a violent rampage of killing.

Today, the tens of thousands of people who pass by the statue of Henry Grady, located on Marietta Street just blocks from CNN Center, are probably oblivious to the fact that the bodies of three African-American men were heaped in a bloody pile at the base of the monument, which is dedicated to the famous editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper who championed the idea of the “New South,” with Atlanta as its capital.

This year, from Sept. 21 to Sept. 24, a grassroots coalition of historians and scholars, high school and college students, community activists, artists, religious leaders and descendants of those who survived the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot organized a multi-faceted program of education, discussion and cultural works designed to bring this grievous crime into the light.

In 1906, Atlanta was a bustling city of commerce and banking, transportation and manufacturing. According to the 1900 census, it had a population of 89,000, of whom about 35,000 were Black. By 1906, the city had grown to 115,000 with approximately 40 percent listed as Black.

Thousands of sharecroppers—Black and white—had come to the city to make a better living, looking for work in the mills and factories, railroads, hotels and offices. White working-class women were also getting jobs—a form of independence from traditional family structures. Most Black people worked in white-owned businesses or homes, but there was a thriving Black middle-class based in educational institutions and in certain services, such as tailors, barbers, restaurateurs and the like.

One of the best-known Black entrepreneurs was Alonzo Herndon, who operated three barbershops that catered to white clientele. His shop on Peachtree Street, situated among some of the city’s most exclusive hotels, featured crystal chandeliers and marble floors. He also founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. and was soon to become one of Atlanta’s Black millionaires.

While segregation was practiced, the downtown area was a checkerboard of white and Black-owned businesses, operating side by side and competing for business. Atlanta had a well-used trolley system in which whites were seated in the front and African-Americans in the back, but in the middle of the car passengers stood shoulder to shoulder.

Change was occurring despite the strong ideology of white supremacy that operated daily.

Events leading up to massacre

In the summer of 1906, a strongly contested race for the governorship of Georgia took place. Hoke Smith, former owner of the evening paper, the Atlanta Journal, whose campaign manager was its editor, was battling in the Democratic primary against Clark Howell, the editor and principal owner of the morning paper, the Atlanta Constitution.

The main issue in the election was the disenfranchisement of the Black vote. Although the number of registered Black male voters was relatively small—about 28 percent of those eligible—the question of Black political power was a highly incendiary matter to the white population, which was anxious about its changed circumstances and was being bombarded with inflammatory and fallacious accounts of a “Black crime wave,” with particular emphasis on claims of insults and assaults on white women.

Common racist terminology referred to suspects as “fiends” and “Black devils.” There were two additional newspapers, the Atlanta Evening News and the Georgian, that were even more rabid in their “news” coverage, with sensational headlines of rape and equally gory details of lynchings and castrations.

These papers editorialized in support of vigilantes who would “protect white womanhood” and proposed the re-establishment of the Ku Klux Klan. On Friday, Sept. 20, 1906, the Atlanta Evening News printed an editorial declaring, “It is time to act, men.” Posters were put up along Marietta Street the next morning announcing the Klan was going to take action.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, thousands of white men and boys gathered downtown, waiting, talking, drinking. The newspapers printed special editions throughout the day, with more outrageous stories of “Black debauchery” stirring up ever more racist animosity.

Finally, a man climbed onto a box in front of the luxurious Kimball House Hotel, waving a copy of one of the papers and shouting, “The time to strike back is now.” With that signal, as many as 10,000 vigilantes poured through the downtown streets and pursued any African American they saw.

The Herndon barbershop was vandalized and destroyed. The barber who worked in the Kimball House lobby was killed on the spot. Trolley cars were stopped, their Black passengers pulled out of the windows and doors to be beaten, stabbed and killed. Men were thrown off bridges onto the railroad tracks or hung from lampposts, their bodies riddled with bullets.

The mayhem continued in the residential neighborhoods near downtown and as far as East Point—home of the Atlanta airport today—and Lakewood over the next three days.

As word of the mob violence spread, some Black communities that organized resistance with butcher knives, pitchforks and Civil War-era muskets were able to fend off the marauders. Although laws had been passed some months earlier prohibiting the sale of guns and ammunition to African Americans, pistols and rifles were to be found in Black homes.

Police got word that Brownsville, a neighborhood south of the city that was home to a mix of middle- and working-class Black families, was heavily armed. When they stormed into Brownsville, a white policeman—Jim Heard—was killed along with an unknown number of community members. It took three companies of Georgia militia to subdue the area. Hundreds of men were arrested; 60 were charged with the death of the policeman. Brownsville resident Alexander Walker was eventually convicted of killing Heard and sentenced to life in prison.

No member of the white mob, police or militia was ever charged in any of the many deliberate murders and maimings of Black Atlantans.

After four days of racist terror, one of the papers declared, “It’s time to go back to work.” As many Black families quietly buried their dead and tended to the wounded, afraid of further reprisals, hundreds if not thousands left Atlanta, never to return.

The official number of those killed is 11 or maybe 12, since a white woman died from a heart attack while watching the violence from her porch. The actual number is at a minimum 25, and may have really been as high as a few hundred.

Nevertheless, within days, the Atlanta Journal proclaimed, “Atlanta is herself again; business activity restored and the riot is forgotten.”

One of those who left was Walter White, 13 years old, who on Sept. 21 had been downtown with his father, who worked at the U.S. Post Office, and witnessed the brutal murder of a disabled shoeshine child by the mob. Forever altered by what he had experienced, White went on to become the head of the NAACP.

W.E.B. DuBois, the renowned scholar, taught at Atlanta University. Although he was not in the city during the riot, he analyzed it in future writings. His poem, “The Litany of Atlanta,” evokes the horror of the massacre with these words, “Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air ....”

The news of the Atlanta Race Riot was carried in papers across the country and in Europe, much to the consternation of the business elite, who saw the profit to be made in a pacified and docile workforce, whether Black or white. Recognizing that they had a public relations nightmare that had to be effectively managed, they shortly convened the “Committee of Ten,” whose mission would be to smooth over the matter.

James English—a Confederate veteran, former city mayor and president of the Fourth National Bank—was named chair of the committee. A select handful of Black leaders were invited to attend one of its meetings at his bank offices, where a program of “cooperation” was laid out. This method of behind-closed-doors deals, which gave a small voice in civic affairs to upper-class Blacks, became known as the “Atlanta way of doing things.”

Decades later this approach was credited with preventing large-scale violence in Atlanta during the tumultuous days of desegregation and the civil rights movement.

Jesse Max Barber was an associate of DuBois and editor of The Voice of the Negro, an Atlanta journal. Outraged by the success of the Committee of Ten’s shifting of the blame for the riot to the “Black crime wave,” Barber wrote a detailed article rebutting every lie and exaggeration. It was printed in the New York World. He concluded, “The cause of this riot: Sensational newspapers and unscrupulous politicians. The remedy: An impartial enforcement of the laws of the land. The authorities must protect all the people. ”

Even though the article was signed “A Colored Citizen,” English summoned Barber to his office and demanded he swear that he was not the author, under threat of arrest if he refused to do so. Barber left Atlanta and continued writing in the North.

Legacy of racism remains

Hoke Smith won the governor’s race and laws were passed marginalizing the Black vote. By 1910, the ratio of registered African-American voters had dropped to just 4.3 percent. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot strengthened segregation, hardening the physical divisions between the races with clearly defined business and residential areas. Black businesses rebuilt further south on Auburn Avenue. German homeowners sold their property and left the neighborhood. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grandfather bought his birth home in such a transaction.

The result of this racial division remains today. The white downtown business community has steadfastly fought to maintain control of the Peachtree corridor, all the while presenting an image of racial harmony.

In 1941, a modern version of the Committee of Ten—the Central Atlanta Improvement Association—initiated a program it openly called “Negro removal.” In the succeeding decades, at least 100,000 Black people’s homes were torn down to make way for interstate highways, sports stadiums and other “improvements.”

In 1996, while Atlanta was being marketed as “the capital of the civil rights movement” in order to win hosting of the Olympics, the drive to eliminate public housing from the inner core of the city took on steam. Quality-of-life ordinances were passed by the City Council to criminalize the poor and prevent them from appearing on downtown streets.

Within the last year, Central Atlanta Progress—the latest reincarnation of white business domination—demanded the creation of a “Tourist Triangle,” an area in which the act of asking for any kind of assistance would be illegal. On the very same streets that ran red with the blood of Black men in 1906, their descendants—if they look poor, sit too long on a park bench or ask for help—can be arrested and jailed.

Tens of thousands of Atlantans, Black and white, witnessed the atrocities of 1906. It’s difficult to understand how such an event could be buried, stricken from public memory.

Yet just over a year ago, a natural disaster in the Gulf Coast states was met with racist indifference and neglect, bureaucratic incompetence and state-sponsored violence. Innocent lives were lost; families were scattered all over the country; property was destroyed and seized.

The images of thousands of people—the majority Black, stranded on rooftops, abandoned at the Coliseum and Convention Center in New Orleans, forced at gunpoint to stay on bridges with no water or food for days—were seen by millions. But one would have to search hard to find ongoing coverage of the situation today of the displaced, homeless or unemployed residents of the Gulf Coast.

From the White House to the media outlets, the spin is “everything is under control” and “progress is being made.” And if there are problems, the fault belongs to the survivors, who aren’t “moving on with their lives.”

The members of the Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot are not content to just resurrect a forgotten piece of history. They strive to bring about restorative justice and reparations, a reassessment of political power and decision-making, and the reconciliation of a broken community.

For more information about the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, including a bibliography of books, articles, audio and visual tapes of the various programs, a school curriculum and more, please go to 1906atlantaraceriot.org. Very helpful background and analysis was also found in copies of Hospitality, the monthly newsletter of the Open Door Community at opendoorcommunity.org.