In downtown Atlanta, a handful of streets intersect, forming what locals call Five Points. Today, a park, a university, high-rise buildings and crowds of motorists and pedestrians make it a bustling neighborhood, believing its bloody history. In 1906, Five Points became the epicenter of the Atlanta 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, accusations of rape and resentment of African Americans with greater access to voting rights and opportunities. economic.
Atlanta Offers Opportunity During Reconstruction
During Reconstruction, many African Americans left rural areas for Atlanta to seek employment opportunities. An industrial, financial, and railroad center, Atlanta was widely regarded as the capital of the New South, but the city was also plagued by race and class conflict.
READ MORE: Reconstruction: A Timeline of the Post-Civil War Era
The race for governor of 1906 only exacerbated these tensions. The race featured a neck-and-neck race between Clark Howell, the publisher of The Atlanta Constitution, and Hoke Smith, the former editor of The Atlanta Journal. Democratic candidates Both men tried to gain voter support by emphasizing their plans to deny black men the right to vote.
“They were very clear,” says Clarissa Myrick-Harris, professor of Africana studies and chair of the humanities division at Morehouse College. “We cannot have black domination. We have to stop them. We must prevent them from voting. They are getting too arrogant. They take over.
In addition to the right to vote, many white residents wanted to close bars on Decatur Street, one of the arteries that made up Five Points. They argued that these establishments attracted African-American criminals. More than crime, however, critics have opposed interracial socialization between black men and white women in saloons. Others resented the success of black-owned businesses that propelled African Americans into Atlanta’s middle and upper classes.
“What is remarkable about this period is that despite all of these things done to suppress, suppress, discriminate, terrorize, slaughter, kill and destroy black people in black communities, black people not only survived. but, in many cases, have also thrived, ”says Myrick-Harris, who co-hosted an Atlanta Race Riot exhibit to commemorate its centennial in 2006.
“In 1906, many black businesses were located in the Peachtree Street neighborhood of downtown Atlanta. They were competitors of white business leaders, and they [the white entrepreneurs] didn’t like it.
Newspapers print sensationalist stories
The local press capitalized on Atlanta’s growing racial conflicts with sensationalist articles. At the end of the summer, a series of articles began to appear, including in newspapers affiliated with the dueling gubernatorial candidates, featuring white supremacist groups and lynchings, as well as a alleged fictitious wave of sexual assault of white women by African-American men. .
“In a few cases, white women have said, ‘No, that’s not true. It didn’t happen to me, ”says Myrick-Harris. “But it didn’t matter. you had the Georgian Atlanta newspaper publishes a three-part editorial series on the reign of terror for seven women. Seven white women became a pawn in the plan to essentially destroy the black community and black men in particular. There was a fear of black domination.
On the evening of September 22, 1906, thousands of armed white crowds descended on Five Points and terrorized all the black men, women and children they encountered on the streets or on the streetcars. The mob destroyed black-owned businesses and homes and targeted historically black colleges and universities in the area. A barber shop owned by Alonzo Herndon, one of the country’s first African-American millionaires, has been vandalized, Myrick-Harris said.
After days of violence, the state militia called off the riot, arresting around 250 African Americans. No arrests were reported among the thousands of white Atlantians who beat and even killed black residents. Allison Bantimba, liaison officer for the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition, says many black Atlantans have been arrested simply for arming themselves to protect their families and neighborhoods. The coalition has learned the names of 14 people killed in the Atlanta race riot and aims to identify the remaining 11, although Bantimba estimates as many as 100 African Americans were killed in the massacre rather than the reported figure. from 25.
Myrick-Harris says those responsible for violence challenge stereotypes. “They weren’t all illiterate, lower-class, working-class whites who were part of that crowd,” she says. “They were the honest white citizens of the city. They ran the gamut of the lower class, working class, middle class, upper class, law enforcement, lawyers, doctors. They were all part of this raging crowd.
Reports of the massacre spread throughout the United States and Europe, but much of the coverage was inaccurate because Atlanta officials downplayed the degree of death and destruction that occurred to spare reputation of the city and protect its business interests.
“The newspapers reported things like ‘Everything is calm now in the city. The violence is over. The city has become itself again, ”says Bantimba. “So it was kind of like it was some kind of blip in Atlanta history and not who Atlanta is or what Atlanta is.”
After the massacre, groups work to prevent further violence
To prevent another race riot from occurring, prominent figures from Atlanta’s black and white communities met regularly to discuss the circumstances that led to the violence. The Atlanta Evening News, known for his yellow journalism which exacerbated racial tensions in the city, has stopped publishing. And city leaders abandoned black churches to reassure members that safeguards would be instituted to stop future episodes of collective violence.
The activism that took place after the massacre paved the way for the mid-20th century civil rights movement. At just 13 when the Atlanta running massacre broke out, Walter White saw a white mob kill a black child. The memory never left him and contributed to his decision to pursue a career in civil rights. He eventually headed the NAACP, which was formed in 1909.
The massacre also left its mark on the black academic and activist WEB DuBois, who wrote about it in his essay “A Litany of Atlanta”.
“Atlanta became that incubator, more broadly, for national leadership, for the creation of national organizations and institutions that would have a national impact in the wake of that Atlanta race riot of 1906,” Myrick-Harris said. .
Despite this horrific episode of violence, black people in Atlanta banded together and bounced back as best they could. Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Avenue neighborhood continued to develop and prosper. In the mid-1950s, it was therefore called “the richest black street in the world” by Fortune magazine. As Myrick-Harris says, “They’ve rebuilt their businesses. They rebuilt their homes.