Atlanta Race Riot: A journey through the city’s history

It was the turn of the twentieth century. Crowds gathered on the streets of downtown in fall. Tensions ran high as racial problems came to a boiling point, leading to the once blood soaked streets that we now use to guide our way through campus daily.

The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot marked an event in the past that changed the dynamics of racial relationships in the south, and the history of the riot a part of each students stomping ground in the university. Professor Cliff Kuhn led a walking tour of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, which took place from Sept. 22-24, to show the hidden historical gems that are right under our noses on campus.

The tour, which took place on Feb. 12 at 1 p.m., had a large turnout, with students from other universities even coming to out to attend, each with their own ideas with what they hoped to gain from the tour. “I’ve done walking tours in New York, and I really just wanted to find out the history,” said Brittany McAuley, a senior from Emory University. “I wanted to learn a little bit of history. Of what really happened,” added Jovan King, senior at Emory University.

“I didn’t know the race riots happened here so I’m ready to learn.” The tour started in Woodruff Park, where he handed out packets to everyone on the tour that contained pictures of areas that were a part of the race riots during that time. He began to set the atmosphere for the growing city full of in the early 1900’s. “This was really the heart of downtown, Five Points,” said Kuhn. “In Atlanta there were people whose presence often times constituted a threat to other Atlantans of the day. Atlanta had a large population, relatively speaking of educated and affluent African-Americans”

These people included the well-known W.E.B. DuBois and the lesser known Alonzo Herndon, successful barber and Atlanta’s first black millionaire. Herndon’s financial accomplishments came partially through his founding of an insurance company, but also through his extravagant barbershop on 66 Peachtree Street, which is now the empty lot that used to be TriBeCa. Herndon’s barbershop was filled with knick knacks that presented it as the height of luxury, with the shop being about a block long and chandeliers suspended from the ceiling.

It was also one of the most deluxe barbershops in the southeast, according to Kuhn, which only increased the bitterness between the races that had already developed between black and white barbers. “At this time we’re talking about in 1906, there was a fair amount of competition between black and white barbers. There was a lot of resentment of black barbers,” said Kuhn. “But there was also resentment because black barbers cut the hair of white women and children.”

On the evening of the race riot, Herndon let his barbers out early because at that point Atlanta was at the brink of erupting into chaos and everyone knew it, explained Kuhn. Still, by the next morning the glass of the barbershop was shattered and destroyed. Further down, Decatur Street was fenced with a string of theaters, pawn shops, and saloons, covering ground that now includes Walters shoe store and the sports arena.

This whiskey drenched area of the city was called “The melting pot of Dixie” by The Atlanta Journal at the time, adding fuel to the growing threat that presented itself with the crossing of racial lines drawn in the sand. And it wasn’t long before crowds gathered on Decatur Street to break into hardware stores and pawn shops for weapons and demolishing the saloons and shops that had once garnished the street. Marietta Street, between the MARTA station and the Aderhold Learning Center, along with the Forsyth Bridge, were also sites of destruction from the spreading flame that overtook Atlanta during the race riot.

“There was a young African-American man, Frank Smith, that was a telegraph boy for the Western Union telegraph company and he was taken off a street car and taken on to what was then the Forsyth Bridge, where he was carved to death by a butcher,” said Kuhn. “Somebody else jumped off that bridge to escape the mob. Someone else was thrown off that bridge.” After the mob reached another barbershop on Forsyth Street, which is now around the same location as the McDonalds, two barbers were murdered along with Henry Welch, a crippled shoe shine boy that worked there.

Their corpses were taken to the very same Henry W. Grady monument that stands in Marietta Street today and left there. Walter White, a 13-year-old boy at the time of the riot, lived about a block away from the dorms on campus, according to Kuhn. It was on the night of the riot that he and his father picked up an African-American woman running from the mob. The morning after, the mob came into his neighborhood, looking for his father, when residents of the neighborhood used weapons for self-defense.

These same streets, these same bridges, they still exist today. Every day, a student may step over what could have been the resting place of someone who was victim of past hate. And with all these landmarks covering campus, you never know what history has tucked away under the surface.

Published February 21, 2012 in The Signal: “Atlanta Race Riot: A journey through the city’s history


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