As African Americans achieved economic success in Atlanta in the early 1900s, the city simmered with racial strife that was further inflamed by yellow journalism.
In the center of downtown Atlanta, a handful of streets intersect, forming what locals know as Five Points. Today, a park, a university, high-rise buildings and throngs of motorists and pedestrians make this a bustling area, belying its history of bloodshed. In 1906, Five Points became the epicenter of the Atlanta Race Massacre that claimed the lives of at least 25 African Americans and two white residents.
The four days of violence that began on September 22 were spurred on by a number of factors, including yellow journalism, rape accusations and a resentment of African Americans enjoying greater access to voting rights and economic opportunity.
Atlanta Offers Opportunity During Reconstruction
During Reconstruction, many African Americans moved to Atlanta from rural areas to pursue job prospects. An industrial, financial and railroad center, Atlanta was widely viewed as the capital of the New South, but the city was also rife with race and class conflicts.
READ MORE: Reconstruction: A Timeline of the Post-Civil War Era
The 1906 gubernatorial race only heightened these tensions. The race featured a neck-and-neck race between Clark Howell, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, and Hoke Smith, the former editor of The Atlanta Journal. Democratic candidates Both men attempted to win voter support by emphasizing their plans to disenfranchise Black men.
“They were very clear,” says Clarissa Myrick-Harris, an Africana Studies professor and Division of Humanities chair at Morehouse College. “We can't have Negro rule. We have to stop them. We have to keep them from voting. They’re getting too uppity. They're taking over.”
In addition to voting rights, many white residents wanted to shut down bars on Decatur Street, one of the thoroughfares that made up Five Points. They argued that these establishments attracted African American criminals. More than crime, however, critics objected to interracial socializing between Black men and white women in the saloons. Others resented the success of Black-owned businesses that were propelling African Americans into Atlanta’s middle and upper classes.
“What's remarkable about this period is that in spite of all those things done to suppress, repress, discriminate against, terrorize, massacre, kill and destroy Black people in Black communities, Black people not only survived but in many cases also thrived,” says Myrick-Harris, who co-curated an exhibit about the Atlanta Race Riot to commemorate its 2006 centennial.
“In 1906, many of the Black businesses were located in the Peachtree Street area in downtown Atlanta. They were competitors with white business owners, and they [the white entrepreneurs] didn’t like that.”
Newspapers Print Sensationalistic Stories
The local press capitalized on Atlanta’s growing racial strife with sensationalistic articles. By the end of summer, a series of articles began rolling out—including in newspapers affiliated with the dueling gubernatorial candidates—featuring white supremacist groups and lynchings, as well as an alleged, likely fictional rash of sexual assaults of white women by African American men.
“In a couple of cases, the white women said, ‘No, that’s not true. That didn’t happen to me,’” Myrick-Harris says. “But that didn't matter. You had the Atlanta Georgian newspaper publish a three-part series of editorials on the reign of terror for seven women. Seven white women became a pawn in the plan of essentially destroying the Black community and Black men, most notably. There was a fear of Black rule.”
By the evening of September 22, 1906, armed white mobs numbering in the thousands descended upon Five Points and terrorized any Black men, women and children they encountered on streets or in street cars. The mob destroyed Black-owned businesses and homes and targeted the historically Black colleges and universities in the area. A barbershop owned by Alonzo Herndon, one of the nation’s first African American millionaires, was vandalized, Myrick-Harris says.
After days of violence, the state militia quashed the riot, arresting roughly 250 African Americans. No arrests were reported among the thousands of white Atlantans who had beaten, and even killed Black residents. Allison Bantimba, liaison for the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition, says many Black Atlantans were arrested simply for arming themselves to protect their families and neighborhoods. The coalition has learned the names of 14 people killed during the Atlanta Race Riot and aims to identify the other 11, though Bantimba estimates that up to 100 African Americans were killed during the massacre rather than the reported figure of 25.
Myrick-Harris says that the individuals responsible for the violence defy stereotypes. “They were not all so-called lower class, working class, illiterate white people who were in this mob,” she says. “These were the upstanding white citizens of the city. They ran the gamut from lower class, working class, middle class, upper class, law enforcement, lawyers, doctors. They were all a part of this raging mob.”
News reports of the massacre spread throughout the United States and Europe, but much of the coverage was inaccurate because Atlanta officials minimized the degree of death and destruction that occurred to spare the city’s reputation and protect its business interests.
“The newspapers were reporting things like ‘All is quiet now in the city. The violence is over. The city is herself again,’” Bantimba says. “So it was very much like this was a kind of a blip in Atlanta history and not who Atlanta is or what Atlanta is.”
After Massacre, Groups Work to Prevent Future Violence
To prevent another race riot from taking place, prominent figures in Atlanta’s Black and white communities met regularly to discuss the circumstances that led up to the violence. The Atlanta Evening News, notorious for its yellow journalism that escalated the city’s racial tensions, stopped publishing. And city leaders dropped by Black churches to reassure members that safeguards would be instituted to stop future episodes of mob violence.
The activism that took place after the massacre paved the way for the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Just age 13 when the Atlanta Race Massacre broke out, Walter White witnessed a white mob kill a Black child. The memory never left him and contributed to his decision to pursue civil rights as a career. He eventually served as head of the NAACP, which formed in 1909.
The massacre also made an impression on Black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote about it in his essay “A Litany of Atlanta.”
“Atlanta became this incubator, more broadly, for national leadership, for the establishment of national organizations and institutions that would have a national impact in the wake of that 1906 Atlanta Race Riot,” Myrick-Harris says.
Despite this horrific episode of violence, Black Atlantans regrouped and rebounded as best they could. Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Avenue neighborhood continued to develop and flourish, so by the mid-1950s, it was labeled ‘the richest Negro street in the world' by Fortune magazine. As Myrick-Harris says, “They rebuilt their businesses. They rebuilt their homes.”