ATLANTA RACE RIOT OF 1906 Problems of race, gender, political parties and media abuse (in the form of newspapers controlled by opposing politicians and to a lessor degree an anti-black play by Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman) came to a full boil in Atlanta during late September 1906, culminating into a violent city wide race riot. After this event African Americans began moving into the Auburn Avenue area for personal security as whites left for other parts of the city. Racial segregation became more formalized.
Pages 72-77 from Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz describe the forces behind this event and its long lasting impact:
a racial conflict brewed in Atlanta, a product of
an acrimonious gubernatorial race in which the candidates attempted to
use Negrophobia in Georgia to their favor.
The leading gubernatorial candidates were Hoke Smith and Clark Howell, two of Atlanta's most prosperous citizens. Howell published The Atlanta Constitution; his father, Evan P Howell, once a Confederate infantry captain under Gen. Joseph Johnston and later Atlanta's mayor, was one of the city's most admired men. Smith, a lawyer, had sold his interest in The Atlanta Journal in 1900 for a handsome profit. In his journal columns, he had advocated the presidential bid of Grover Cleveland; Cleveland rewarded Smith by naming him secretary of the interior. Both Smith and Howell were champions of white supremacy.
During the campaign, the Journal fell in stride with Smith,
mocking Howell by suggesting he "appears to be unable to understand
why it is that we wish the legal disfranchisement of the 223,000 male
negroes of voting age in Georgia.... Because we are the superior race
and do not intend to be ruled by our semi barbaric inferiors." As
Howell's mouthpiece, the Constitution charged Smith with appointing blacks
to federal positions while a member of Cleveland's cabinet, an accusation
he denied. Smith lobbied intensely for the support of Tom Watson, the
south Georgia demagogue, support he later earned. With a fear of black
domination sweeping the southern states, Watson wrote in Tom Watson's
Magazine, "What does Civilization owe to the negro? Nothing! Nothing!
Viewing Smith's inevitable victory with resignation, Negro
leader Benjamin J. Davis, owner-builder of the Odd
Fellows Building, a Republican National Committee member, publisher
of The Atlanta Independent, a black weekly, wrote, "It matters
not with him whether his scheme of disfranchisement disfranchises every
decent and helpful negro citizen and enfranchises every venal and vicious
white thug."In August, Hoke Smith easily defeated Howell and several
others in the Democratic primary en route to the governorship.
Into this hostile environment one month later came the
Atlanta newspapers had been publishing highly sensationalized
accounts of black "vice" for a week. (It sold newspapers, just like sensationalism still does today). One day earlier it had reported that Atlanta police had
swept "dives" frequented by blacks along Decatur Street and removed photographs
of nude white women from the walls of one parlor. The Georgian Newpaper suggested
that eleven assaults had been made by blacks against white women during
the past seven weeks alone. The accounts were lurid and dramatic, including
one in The Evening News: "With his yellow lips forming insulting
phrases, Luther Frazier ' a young negro, attacked Miss Orrie Bryan, the
pretty 18 year old daughter of Thomas L. Bryan, in her home." The
Evening News sent out an emotional call in that same edition: "Men
of Fulton, what will you do to stop these outrages against the women?
... Shall these black devils be permitted to assault and almost kill our
women, and go unpunished?"
Four more assaults against white women reportedly had been made that afternoon. Liquored up on a Saturday night, a mob of whites gathered in the city's streets. A colored bootblack from Alonzo Herndons barbershop at 66 Peachtree was chased down and beaten to death with fists and clubs. A voice then cried out, "There goes another nigger!" The mob set off in a new direction. By nine o'clock, frenzied whites near Decatur Street shouted, "Save our women!" "Kill the Niggers!" Wild rumors of an impending black uprising spread across the city. In black communities, horrifying tales were told of widespread lynchings. Mayor James Woodward tried to calm the whites: "The honor of Atlanta before the world is in your hands tonight." But he and James English, head of the police commission, were met with cries of "Nigger lover!" A black messenger was assaulted. Gunshots rang out. An occasional rebel yell was heard. Woodward called for police and fire units. Fire hoses were turned on the white mob, with little effect. Several hundred blacks, seeking strength in numbers, congregated near Decatur Street and they, too, faced the fire hoses. What followed was a scene of terror: several thousand white men, with an assortment of weapons, attacked the group of blacks. The blacks attempted to fight back, fists against clubs, but quickly turned and ran. Sketches of this scene were displayed in newspapers across the world, beneath the headline: "Race Riot in Atlanta."
Soon the white mobs ruled the streets of Atlanta. Policemen
did little to stop the carnage; in several instances they aided the rioters,
who stalked blacks past midnight. Streetcar lines were cut and several
blacks were dragged from the cars on Peachtree and clubbed to death. A
black woman was said to have "fought like a wildcat," using
her umbrella as both lance and shield. The mobs moved past Ivan Allen's
(future Mayor Ivan Allen is his
son) office supplies store at 61 Peachtree, a few doors down from
Herndons. Along Decatur Street, the mob shattered plate glass windows
of black restaurants, clubs and dives. In the darkness, black maids, draymen
and messengers fled the city. Presidents of Clark University and the Gammon
Theological Seminary for blacks collected frightened black women and children
and gave them refuge on campus. Reacting with patrician instincts, many
white families in the city offered shelter to their colored servants.
The Aragon Hotel and Silvermans restaurant locked up their black workers
overnight to keep them from harm.
On the street, a black tailor was beaten with iron bars. Another black man was trapped by two large mobs and murdered with hatchets and knives; souvenir hunters are said to have sliced off his toes and fingers and paraded through the streets, holding high the blood smeared digits. A couple of black bodies were dropped on Marietta Street at the foot of the Henry Grady monument, a symbolic punctuation mark to his New South credo. Frank Smith, a black messenger for Western Union, made it to the Forsyth Street Bridge but not a step beyond. "A mob of poor white crackers caught our friend Frank Smith ... and stoned him to death," a grieving friend, J. L. Black, wrote the following week in a letter published in The Atlanta Independent. "It was said in one of the white papers that he was a self important colored gentleman' meaning he thought more of himself than anyone thought of him, but it was only a mistake.... We do not know a single person who would or could say Frank ever did them harm."
Sporadic violence broke out in the city over the next
three nights. Because of the sensationalized reports, a precise count
of casualties remains difficult to discern, though several whites and
about two dozen blacks are believed to have been killed while hundreds
more were injured. "Some times I doubt if there is any spot in this
country where one with Negro blood can plant a home free from prejudice
and scorn & molestation," Adrienne
McNeil Herndon, the wife of Alonzo Herndon, latter wrote to Booker
T Washington. After the riot, Mrs. Herndon left the city for several
months, taking her son Norris to a school in Philadelphia. She added,
"I should like to hide from the eyes of the white man, or any rate
the Southern white man the things I, as a Negro woman hold most sacred
for fear they pause & look to jeer and ridicule."
The future author Margaret Mitchell was only five years old and spent that night with her father, Eugene, at their home on Jackson Street, about a mile east of Five Points. She would recall hearing neighbor John Slaton, the future governor, warned everyone to ready their guns. Since he did not own a gun, Eugene Mitchell stood inside his front door, holding an ax and an iron water key. To young Margaret, "No sight has ever been so sweet to these eyes," as the appearance of the state militia marching up the street.
Hearing the news of the riot, Dubois rushed home to Atlanta by train from Alabama, where he was on a research assignment. He armed himself with a shotgun and sat on the steps of South Hall at Atlanta University, protecting his wife and daughter. Walter White had a similar experience. The future executive secretary of the NAACP, White, then thirteen years old, was handed a gun by his father, a postal carrier, as a white mob approached the family home on Houston Street. "Son, don't shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then-don't you miss!" A black neighbor fired first, though, causing the mob to scatter. A member of First Congregational, Walter White was affected profoundly by the experience: I knew then who I was."
Several blocks away, John
Wesley Dobbs sat, in a fright, inside the bolted front door of 446
Auburn Avenue, gripping his Colt revolver. His ammunition was set neatly
on the floor next to him. Dobbs often practiced his marksmanship at a
local shooting range, as was the custom among railway mail clerks. He
had been issued the gun to protect the U.S. mail, though now he would
not hesitate to use it to protect his family.
In black Atlanta, the scars were deep. In the days that followed the riot, more than three thousand white families were without black servants too fearful to return. More than one thousand blacks are said to have left the city, not to come back. Atlanta's streets emptied for several days. Business at the Herndon barbershop on Peachtree, which averaged about $30 per day, plummeted to $4.75 on the Monday that followed the not. Blacks gained small solace when white leaders admitted later that newspaper reports of black assaults on women had been exaggerated three or fourfold.
Booker T Washington,
who participated in the negotiations between the races after the riot
(along with Reverend Proctor
and Alonzo Herndon), maintained
that never before had he seen the leading white men of a city gathered
"at the mourner's bench to the extent that these people are."
The riot prompted many small black owned businesses to relocate from the
central business district to the security of their own race on Auburn
Over time, memories in Atlanta would prove segregated,
too. The unspeakable horror of the 1906 race riot lurked in the recesses
of black families in Atlanta for generations, passed on, as in the Dobbs
family, with a spellbinding definition that time could not reduce. If
white families in the city retained any memories of the riot and few seemed
to, it typically centered on how some paternalistic whites had saved black
servants from the mob, or how the riot had prompted a new cooperation
between the races. "There has been no more hopeful or courageous
movement in the South since the war," Ray Starmard Baker wrote in
American Magazine in April 1907, "than this effort of the good men
of Atlanta to get hold of the monumentally complex negro problem in a
new way." His optimistic conclusion was unwarranted.
The lingering fear in black Atlanta was reflected in a proposal by the city editor of the Independent, who, shortly after the riot, called for a city ordinance to prohibit whites from riding on elevators designated for blacks. (Oftentimes, whites who were too impatient to wait for crowded elevators designated for whites instead boarded black elevators.) "Suppose, accidentally some colored man should stumble and fall against some white lady while getting on or off the car, what would be the outcome?" the editor wrote. In the Independent, Benjamin J. Davis asked "the proud Caucasian for a square deal and such opportunities under the law as a child race just verging from slavery deserves and ought to have in the light of Christianity".
"What is the ultimate end?" John Temple Graves
of The Georgian asked, rhetorically.
Further reading: Negrophobia: a race riot in Atlanta, 1906 (Encounter Books, 2001) by Mark Bauerlien.