History lost and found: Atlanta’s 1906 race riot and the Coalition to Remember
06 February 2020 – Jennifer Dickey
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts from members of the Local Arrangements Committee for the NCPH 2020 annual meeting which will take place from March 18 through March 21 in Atlanta, Georgia.
“A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires pointed silently to Thee,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in the wake of one of Atlanta’s darkest moments—the 1906 Race Riot.”
The event, precipitated by a series of unfounded accusations of sexual assault by black men on white women, took place between September 22 and 24. Perhaps as many as forty African Americans were killed in the ensuing mob violence. White mobs piled three black bodies at the base of the Henry Grady statue on Marietta Street, giving lie to the New South prophet’s claim of the “close and cordial” relations between the races in the South.
With Grady as its spokesman, Atlanta had risen from the ashes of the Civil War to become the capital, not only of Georgia, but of the “New South” during Reconstruction. A center of trade and transportation, Atlanta was also home to a number of important institutions of higher education, including the Georgia School of Technology (now Georgia Institute of Technology) and the group of schools established during the Reconstruction era that would later become the Atlanta University Center, the nation’s largest consortia of African American institutions of higher education. With a population of almost 90,000 at the turn of the century, almost forty percent of which was black, Atlanta was a city segregated by race and class. Leading black businessman Alonzo Herndon, who owned several successful barbershops in the city, catered to white customers only. His barbershop at 66 Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, known as the Crystal Palace, was the most luxurious barbershop in town. Herndon’s shop was destroyed in the 1906 Race Riot and one of his employees was beaten to death by a white mob.
The mob rampaged on and off for three days before city officials and business leaders, with the assistance of the state militia, were able to establish a truce. Afterward, efforts by white civic leaders to establish a dialogue with black elites created, to outsiders, the appearance of biracial cooperation. However, interracial cooperation further exacerbated existing class divisions within the African American community, and Atlanta evolved into one of the most racially segregated and socially stratified cities in the country.
W. E. B. Du Bois was not the only notable eyewitness to history in 1906. Thirteen-year-old Walter White, who would later become secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had accompanied his father, a mail collector, on his rounds in downtown Atlanta. White recalled that he had become immune to the inflammatory accounts of alleged rapes committed by black men that were printed in the newspapers almost daily. However, an uptick in the frequency and length of such stories, combined with heightened tensions surrounding a bitter, racially charged gubernatorial campaign and a dramatization of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman in Atlanta created a perfect storm for the violence that erupted in September 1906. White witnessed the murder of Herndon’s employee by the white mob and that evening helped his father defend their home. He later wrote, “I became much older during the next thirty-six hours, under circumstances which I now recognize as the inevitable outcome of what had preceded.”
The riot hardened the lines of segregation in the city. Many black business owners relocated from the downtown business district to Auburn Avenue, which formed the foundation of what Fortune magazine would later call “the richest Negro street in the world.” By Thursday, September 27, the Atlanta Constitution reported that “With all her manufacturing plants running, every store in town full of busy shoppers, and the streets crowded with women and children, Atlanta presented a picture yesterday which was anything but that of the riot ridden city.” While the memory of the riot remained palpable in the African American community for years to come, white civic leaders suppressed the story, which disappeared from official histories of the city.
Almost 100 years later, a group of historians, social justice activists, and religious and community leaders gathered to begin planning how to commemorate this mostly forgotten piece of Atlanta’s past. Calling themselves the Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, the group orchestrated a series of programs, including exhibitions, a walking tour, and a vigil in remembrance of what historian Cliff Kuhn described as a “white riot.” Kuhn, an associate professor at Georgia State University, took the lead on the walking tour. The tour, which explored the causes and outcomes of the riot against the backdrop of the places where much of the violence happened, became the most enduring aspect of the commemorative program.
Kuhn led at least one walking tour a month through downtown Atlanta over the next nine years. His knowledge of Georgia history was encyclopedic, and he was a frequent contributor to Georgia Public Broadcasting, especially on topics related to Atlanta history. He was the most public of public historians and his sudden death in 2015 left a tremendous void in Atlanta’s public history community. While his contributions to our collective memory took many forms, from the recording of oral histories to his many radio reports, his 1906 Race Riot Walking Tour had, perhaps, the greatest impact. As historian Todd Moye noted at Kuhn’s memorial service, “Cliff had Atlantans from every walk of life puzzling over the meanings of the riot and wondering why they had never heard of it before 2006 . . . . The walking tour was his opus.” Thanks to Cliff and other members of the Coalition to Remember The 1906 Race Riot, this once-forgotten event is now part of Atlanta’s remembered history. For continuing discussion of remembrance projects in the Atlanta area, see “Interview with Kayla Duncan of the Fulton Remembrance Coalition.”
~Jennifer Dickey is an associate professor and the coordinator of the Public History Program at Kennesaw State University.
For further reading:
Bauerlein, Mark. Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906 (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001).
Case, Sarah. “1906 Race Riot Tour,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (December 2014): 880-882.
Crowe, Charles. “Racial Massacre in Atlanta, September 22, 1906,” Journal of Negro History 54, no. 2 (April 1969): 150-173.
Dorsey, Allison. To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).
Godshalk, David F. Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Mixon, Gregory and Clifford Kuhn. “Atlanta Race Riot of 1906,” New Georgia Encyclopedia (September 23, 2005).
Mixon, Gregory. The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New South City (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).