September 22, 1906 changed the course of many lives of people in Atlanta and ultimately changed the landscape of Black businesses in Atlanta and the advocacy for civil rights nationally.
In 1906, Alonzo Herndon had a successful barbershop on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta that was bringing in $30 a day. W.E.B. DuBois was a professor at Atlanta University. Walter White was 13 years old Black boy in Atlanta. John Wesley Dobbs was a railway and mail clerk. Booker T. Washington was a well-known and he had a massive following. The Atlanta Race Riot/Massacre was a defining moment for all of them.
What started the riot/massacre?
The short answer is: a lot of things. In 1902, a historian wrote: “There has never been a race riot in Atlanta. The white man and the negro have lived together in this city more peacefully and in better spirit than in any other city, in either the North or South.” But that really wasn’t true. Ill-will had been festering for a while.
Black Advancement & The Right to Vote. Atlanta was booming and advancement for Black people in Atlanta was phenomenal. Atlanta was filled with churches and colleges. It was a HBCU hub, with six Black colleges. The schools and churches made Atlanta an intellectual space with a strong Black community and leadership. The women’s clubs were vibrant and worked to help the poor. The men’s organizations were in full force and helped to establish strong fraternal bonds that translated into working to build and lift the community. Among the successful black businessmen was Alonzo Herndon, who owned and operated a large, refined barber shop that served prominent white men in downtown Atlanta. And all of this was part of the problem. There was too much advancement and white people were beginning to believe that Black people were taking or would end up taking their jobs. Competition was not welcome. Additionally, freedmen and their descendants had gained the right to vote during Reconstruction, and whites increasingly feared and resented their exercise of political power.
The Clansmen Stage Play. The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan is a novel published in 1905. It was the second work in the KKK trilogy and portrayed the Klan heroically. It was a precursor to Birth of a Nation. This play caused so much damage in Atlanta that the police and military were on guard when it opened in Savannah. Authorities in Macon asked that the play not come there. It didn’t.
The Gubernatorial Race From Hell. Both major candidates played on racial tensions during their campaigning for the gubernatorial election of 1906, in which M. Hoke Smith and Clark Howell competed for the Democratic primary nomination. Smith had explicitly “campaigned on a platform to disenfranchise black voters in Georgia.” Howell was also looking to exclude Black people from politics. Smith was a former publisher of The Atlanta Journal and Howell was the editor of The Atlanta Constitution. Both candidates used their influence to incite white voters and help spread the fear that whites may not be able to maintain the current social order.
Racist and Lying Newspapers. In an already heated and tense environment, the local newspapers engaged in sensational (and false) storytelling to sell papers. Rival newspapers were competing and feeding the racial tension in the city. On the afternoon of September 22, 1906, the headlines read like this:
“Extra! Third Assault on White Woman by a Negro Brute!”
“Extra! Bold Negro Kisses White Girl’s Hand!”
‘Extra! Bright Mulatto Insults White Girls!”
The Riot. The white people of Atlanta wasted no time. By Saturday night, the riot erupted, mobs of whites roamed the city’s downtown streets, destroying black property, beating and shooting Black people, and even pulling them off streetcars to do so. On Sunday morning, the state militia arrived and restored order, though white mobs continued to terrorize parts of the city for days. The riot lasted for FOUR days. Walter White was 13 years old and watched the horror from his downtown home. His father gave him a gun as the mob approached their home. Walter White never forgot that experience and said, “I knew then who I was.” W.E.B. DuBois was a professor at Atlanta University at the time, but he was in Alabama working on an assignment. Upon hearing the news, he rushed back to his wife and home in Atlanta. On the train ride home, he wrote a poem entitled, “A Litany of Atlanta.” And then he did something totally out of character – he armed himself with a shotgun and sat on the steps of South Hall at Atlanta University, protecting his wife and daughter. John Wesley Dobbs had a gun that he had been issued to protect the U.S. mail, but he used it to protect his family at his home on Auburn Avenue. He waited but the mob turned before reaching his house. He would stay in the same spot for several nights just in case the mob returned. On the Monday after the riots, Alonzo Herndon’s once lucrative barbershop only brought in $4.75.
After the Riot. Things would never be the same after The Atlanta Riot/Massacre of 1906. An unknown and disputed number of African Americans were killed in the conflict. Officially, 25 Blacks and one white died. Unofficially, over 100 may have died. News of the riot made national and international papers.
Only 3 years later, DuBois would help establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The riot may have been a motivating factor. Walter White grew up and attended Atlanta University. In 1918, the NAACP recruited him. In 1929, he became the secretary of the NAACP and hired Thurgood Marshall to join the legal staff. White and Marshall created the strategy that led to Brown v. Board of Education. In 1906, Booker T. Washington was the most popular Black man in America. He (along with Alonzo Herndon) helped negotiate between the races after the riot. However, after the riots, he lost some of his following among Black people. His theory wasn’t militant enough for Black people any more. The conflict set the stage for an ongoing public debate with Booker T. Washington, who urged the black community to practice restraint during the outbreak. Du Bois, on the other hand, began to place a new emphasis on radical justice.
After the riot, Black businesses moved to safe and segregated parts of town around The Atlanta University Center and to Auburn Avenue in the Fourth Ward east of downtown. “Sweet” Auburn Avenue became home to Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta Mutual Insurance, the city’s first black-owned life insurance company, and to a celebrated concentration of black businesses, newspapers, churches, and nightclubs. In 1956, Fortune magazine called Sweet Auburn “the richest Negro street in the world”, a phrase originally coined by civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs. Sweet Auburn and Atlanta’s HBCUs formed the nexus of a prosperous black middle class and upper class which arose despite enormous social and legal obstacles. John Wesley Dobbs would later be named the unofficial “Mayor” of Auburn Avenue” and was a civil and political leader in the community. The riot set the stage for race relations in Atlanta for the next fifty years.
Why Don’t We Know About The Atlanta Riot/Massacre?
The riot was not covered in local histories and was ignored for decades. In 2006, on its 100th anniversary, the city and citizen groups marked the event with discussions, forums and related events such as “walking tours, public art, memorial services, numerous articles and three new books.” The next year, it was made part of the state’s social studies curriculum for public schools.