city of decatur

Georgia Tech, Midtown Atlanta.

College campuses like Georgia Tech have some of the best pedestrian walkways you’ll find. Some day when we can reduce the number of cars on Atlanta’s streets dramatically – thus rendering “level of service” for them less of a concern for street design – we can put great pedestrian spaces like this all around the city.

Can we scale down car trips even as population grows? It’s absolutely possible (statistics show that the City of Decatur did it, in fact). It requires a shared vision that’s supported at the top and worked into policies. Let’s do that.

The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906

On September 26, 1906, an angry mob of white men armed with clubs, stones, and sticks descended onto Decatur street in downtown Atlanta, just a few blocks from Alonzo Herndon’s barbershop. Rumors, which later proved to be untrue, of three isolated incidents in which white women were sexually assaulted by black men spurred the mob’s frenzy, and they set out that night determined to “clean those Black devils out […] and teach them a lesson.” No African American in the city of Atlanta was safe.

                Decatur Street c. 1900

Soon, the small mob of angry white Atlanta citizens grew into a crowd of thousands, drawing men from nearby suburbs of the city. With his shop located in the center of the downtown commercial district, and the crowd of white men growing ever more fierce, Herndon made a life-saving decision and closed his shop down early that day, urging his all black staff to go directly home. Unfortunately, not everybody in his employ would find safety that night.

George White, a 13 year old boy whose extremely light skin granted him safety that night, witnessed the murder of Fred Walton, a bootblack who worked in Herndon’s shop:

“We saw a lame Negro bootblack from Herndon’s barbershop pathetically trying to outrun the 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!’ It’s work done, the mob went after new prey. The body with the withered foot lay dead in a pool of blood of the street.”

 

          George White, a man who would later become the Executive Secretary of Atlanta’s division of the NAACP and a leading Civil Rights advocate. 

Fred Walton’s only crime was that he happened to be in the wrong place, at the very wrong time. Decatur street was the clear choice for the mob to begin their rampage since the area was a well known black community of boarding houses, barbershops, restaurants, and saloons, some of which sheltered interracial prostitution. When the residents and patrons of Decatur street heard of the oncoming mob, most of them escaped to other areas around city. Fred Walton, having been sent home from Herndon’s shop early,  may have received the memo tragically late.

Despite pleas from the mayor of Atlanta urging the crowd to disperse, the mob continue to grow to 10,000 by ten o’clock that night. For the most part, the police did nothing to ensure the safety of the black targets, choosing either to join the mob or stand aside and watch.

As the mob of thousands of white men ran unchecked throughout black communities of Atlanta, now armed with pistols, revolvers, and rifles looted from pawnshops and hardware stores, they destroyed countless black owned businesses, primarily barbershops. Herndon’s shop escaped the riot with only broken windows, but another black owned barbershop located on Marietta Street fared much worse. Two barbers were still working when the mob fell on Marietta, and both were shot dead. The Atlanta Sunday News reported of the incident:

“The mob rushed into the barbershop, leaving the place a mass of ruins. The bodies of both barbers were first kicked and then dragged from the place. [The mob grabbed] at their clothing, [which] was soon torn from [the barbers], many of the crowd taking these rags of shirts and clothing home as souvenirs or waving them above their heads to invite further riot. When dragged into the street, [the bodies of] both barbers [showed faces that] were terribly mutilated, while the floor of the shop was [wet] with puddles of blood.”

          The Atlanta Riot of 1906 was known around the world for its brutality. Here a French weekly depicts the riot on the first page. 

With black targets becoming fewer as the night went on, the white mob took to shooting incoming trolley cars from the suburbs full of unsuspecting blacks. “Take them off. Kill them. Lynch them!” the mob cried as the trolley bound for Grant Park arrived at Marrietta and Peachtree streets. After twelve more similar attacks, the trolley cars finally stopped running.

Bands of black men mobilized for what little protection and retaliation they could offer with few firearms, but many were soon arrested while the white mob raged on. Other blacks kept guard inside their homes for the duration of the night, armed with rifles.

Finally, at two o’clock on Sunday morning the state militia arrived to disperse the mob. The militia, paired with a sudden hard burst of rain, urged the mob to go home. Still bloodthirsty, the white mob reconvened later Sunday afternoon, and the riot would continue in the city of Atlanta for the next four days, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 more African Americans.

           The state militia standing guard on Marietta Street