For Ramika Gourdine and Sarah Beth McKay -- Atlanta natives and seniors at Grady High, one black and one white -- the subject didn't exist until last year. Then their teacher took them on an eye-opening walking tour of downtown Atlanta, showing them the landmarks of a race riot that had shattered the city a century earlier.
"It was so weird learning that such horrible things happened so close," Gourdine says. "I grew up here, this is part of my history, but I never had any idea about all of this."
McKay adds, "It hit me hard. This city was torn apart, and I had known nothing about it."
That trip led the two students to take on a class project to research the riots. They mapped out the major incidents of the riot, and published a history of the event in the school magazine, Nexus.
"When I first learned about the riot, and walked through the places where it happened, it turned a two-dimensional city into a place with history," McKay says. "One of the most important discoveries was that the way downtown is now set up, how it's segregated with black businesses on Auburn and Decatur, is a direct result of the riot."
For Pat Walker Bearden, a retired Chicago schoolteacher with roots in Atlanta, learning about the riot was a more personal revelation. She had no idea it had happened, or the role of her ancestors, until she took a genealogy class in 1992 and discovered that her grandfather, Alexander Walker, had spent four years in a Georgia prison.
"That prompted me to sit down with my father, who was 81 at the time," Bearden says. "He told me how his father was in a race riot in 1906. When the rioters, led by the police, came into Brownsville (then a small town two miles south of downtown), my grandfather had a gun. Brownsville was upper- and middle-class, but still the rioters came. One officer, his name was Jim Heard, threw open the door, and my grandfather shot and killed him."
Officials charged 60 blacks with Heard's murder. Although most of the cases were dismissed, Walker was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment -- but a sharp white lawyer got him released after four years. Walker moved to his native Birmingham, Ala., and then, in 1920, to Chicago.
"I know the Atlanta Race Riot changed the course of my people's lives," Bearden says. "[Chicago] is where we live today because of those events."
The riot first grabbed the attention of Emory professor Mark Bauerlein in 1997 as he strolled around Inman Park and saw depiction of a "massacre" on an old building's wall. Bauerlein was so moved by what he learned he authored Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906. "I was astounded that no one knew of the riot," he says. "There's not even anything about it at the Martin Luther King Center."
If there's one thing that's certain about the tumultuous events of Sept. 22-24, 1906, it's that, as Bauerlein says, city leaders "made a concerted and successful effort to suppress any memory of the riot." That "great forgetting" began within days of the violence, as the city's newspapers squelched reflective reporting and resumed their mission to promote Atlanta as the South's progressive capital.
But prior to that -- especially during the steamy summer of 1906 -- Atlanta's newspapers interspersed image-building with screeching fear and hatred:
The Atlanta Constitution, Aug. 25: "ANOTHER GIRL ASSAULTED" and "NEGRO TAKEN PAST MOB."
The Atlanta Journal, Aug. 2: "BLACK FIEND SURROUNDED BY POSSE."
The Atlanta Georgian, Aug. 21, in an article titled "The Reign of Terror for Southern Women," happily declared, "Every rapist that has been caught has been shot or hanged without hesitation and without remorse."
And then on Sept. 21, the day before the riot, from the Atlanta Journal: "NEGRO DIVES AND CLUBS ARE THE CAUSE OF FREQUENT ASSAULTS" and "HALF CLAD NEGRO TRIES TO BREAK INTO HOUSE."
No assaults were ever proven. Most allegations were pure fantasy. Several lynchings before the riot targeted men who could not possibly have committed the attacks and rapes ascribed to them.
The only truth was that the drumbeat of white fear replaced reality and stirred up hysteria. "Don't look for facts to justify what happened," Bauerlein says.
Beginning with Reconstruction, Atlanta had an emerging black elite -- and burgeoning black population, about 35,000 of the city's 89,000 residents in 1900. The elite had tried to align itself with the white business leadership, citing bonds of affluence and education. Indeed, much of the city -- especially commercial areas such as along Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue -- had a checkerboard array of black- and white-owned businesses.
This was a pointed contrast to such cities as Wilmington, N.C., which in 1898 witnessed a white supremacist insurrection that overthrew the black leadership of the city -- a unique event in American history.
Atlanta's distinction as a haven of peaceful race relations -- albeit one in which blacks accepted inferior status -- would end in the summer of 1906.
There is dispute among historians over the causes of the riot. Some think it was fostered by the city's white leadership. "White elites sought to establish controls not simply over 'disorderly' blacks but also over the city's rapidly growing white working-class population, which was widely blamed for the eruption of the riot," wrote David Godshalk in the 2005 book, Veiled Visions, an analysis of the cataclysmic events in Atlanta. "White decision makers who were driven by political and economic considerations consciously steered white southerners away from more racially progressive alternatives into a wasteland of reflexive racist prejudices and hatreds."
Others disagree. "The city leaders, political and business, none of them wanted a riot to happen," Bauerline says. "It would destroy the city's image. After the riot, they lost a lot of money."
What is clear is that many agendas were at work. Gun sales had been banned in black areas for months before the riot, leading to speculation that mob violence was not an accident. Prohibitionists seized on the imagery of black drunkenness and debauchery to argue for closing taverns and halting liquor sales.
Also stoking the fires of racial unrest was a steamy governor's race that pitted Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Journal, against Constitution Editor Clark Howell.
Smith had the backing of Tom Watson, famed as a Populist who had reversed course in favor of virulent racism. "The two rabble-rousers stumped the state screaming, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger!'" wrote Walter White, who at age 13 witnessed the riot and who later would become head of the NAACP.
Adding to what would prove an incendiary mix, bars, gambling houses and brothels along Decatur Street catered to the black working class and unemployed. Stories -- largely fables -- of black licentious behavior, salacious murals at bars and assaults on white women became the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey media fixations of the day.
On Friday, Sept. 21, the press was calling for "action," a clear incitement to riot. That Saturday morning, the Ku Klux Klan posted a notice of an "action" the next day. Newspapers printed extra editions with explosive allegations of a wave of black assaults on white women.
Crowds began to gather Saturday morning with blood as the goal. Atlanta's most prominent black businessman, Alonzo Herndon, owned a barbershop on Peachtree. As a symbol of black ascendancy, it was an early target, its windows smashed by rocks. Other stores were pillaged. In what would become a hallmark of the rioting, terrorists attacked trolley cars, pulling black riders out through broken windows, beating and murdering without restraint.
Walter White recalled in his 1948 memoirs: "We saw a lame Negro bootblack ... pathetically trying to outrun a mob of whites. Less than a hundred yards from us the chase ended. We saw clubs and fists descending to the accompaniment of savage shouting and cursing. Suddenly a voice cried, 'There goes another nigger!' Its work done, the mob went after new prey. The body with the withered foot lay dead in a pool of blood on the street."
Mobs -- and eventually the police and militia -- invaded black neighborhoods. Blacks courageously defended their communities -- when one heavily armed group assembled in Brownsville, cops raided the gathering. It was during that melee that Pat Bearden's grandfather killed Officer Beard, one of only two whites to die in the riot. It took three companies of militia to subdue Brownsville, and mass arrests of blacks followed.
The coroner recorded 10 black fatalities. Realistic estimates from eyewitness accounts put the actual number between 25 and 40 during a three-day period.
"The riot made racial violence a solution, one that was accepted by respectable members of the community," says Cliff Kuhn, a Georgia State University historian.
Atlanta suffers from a form of municipal selective amnesia. Some memories are vivid and have become the stuff of mythology. Every minor skirmish during the Civil War, for example, has a street marker attesting to the event, no matter how insignificant.
Meanwhile, other events that should be seared into civic consciousness because of the lessons they teach are all but forgotten. Neither the Atlanta Race Riot nor the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 have been deemed worthy of a historical marker -- despite the events' eloquent testimony about racism and anti-Semitism.
"Atlanta's not very good at memory," Emory's Bauerlein says. "We have no historical depth. But the riot, it's all around us. This is where it happened."
The Atlanta Race Riot
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