Atlanta—When he was a boy, Farrow Allen Jr. heard stories about the Atlanta race riot of 1906 from his mother, whose father was hustled out of town to safety at the height of the four-day melee in which 10,000 blacks and whites clashed in the streets.
Allen said he recalls little of the stories about his grandfather, Luther Price, a black postmaster who ran a general store in a black neighborhood, but he remembers being scared by the stories.
“I thought the South was the most horrible place in the world,” said Allen, 64, whose family moved to New England after the riot.
“I didn’t want anything to do with the South. I thought it was primitive, backward,” said Allen, who now lives in Asheville, N.C.
The riot had lasting effects on the city that can be seen and felt 100 years later. Although Atlanta boasts one of the country’s most affluent black populations, the poverty gap between blacks and whites persists, and the city remains largely separated.
Organizers see the observations of the centennial over the coming weeks as an opportunity for enlightenment, healing and honesty about the city’s racial tensions—joining other Southern communities such as Tulsa, Okla., and Rosewood, Fla., that have atoned in recent years for segregation-era racial atrocities.
“Atlanta’s prosperity has muted that kind of conversation,” said Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb, noting that the city has yet to pay respects to or memorialize the unknown number of people killed in the riot.
“That’s a stain on history that has to be admitted and recognized before it can be transcended,” Cobb said.
In the first decade of the last century, Atlanta was the home of a growing number of affluent and educated blacks, empowered by the right to vote.
Their newfound middle class status made many whites nervous, and city leaders tightened Jim Crow restrictions. The gubernatorial race of 1906 also contributed to the tension, as politics dictated an agenda that kept blacks subordinate.
During months of hostility, the black underclass was frequently targeted in local newspapers as uncouth and predatory toward white women, with huge headlines of unsubstantiated claims. By late July 1906, papers were publishing sensationalized accounts of a “black crime wave” against white women in Atlanta.
On the night of Saturday, Sept. 22, racial tensions exploded in downtown Atlanta after four reports of assaults on white women ran large in the city’s competing newspapers. None of the reports was ever proved true.
Streetcars, where blacks and whites were daily forced to stand shoulder to shoulder, were frequently targeted; more than 20 streetcars were smashed, derailed or attacked. Barber shops lining Peachtree Street, a symbol of bustling black business on the city’s main thoroughfare, were destroyed.
Some blacks were thrown from the old Forsyth Street bridge to the railroad tracks below, near what is now the main hub of the city’s rail transit system. Others jumped to escape lynch mobs.
The riot had a profound effect on Atlanta, shattering the city’s growing image as the racially harmonious model of the New South, prospering and progressing only a few decades separated from slavery.
The ugly chapter in the city’s history was largely forgotten. Some black families fled north. Black businesses largely retreated to Auburn Avenue and remained there for generations.
On the Net:
Coalition to Remember the Riot: http://www.1906atlantaraceriot.org/