The city of Atlanta, GA is a city of unique neighborhoods. Prior to Reconstruction, the African American population was small and very different from what it is today. With the growth of the city came the growth of the African American population and with it the creation and expansion of African American neighborhoods. As Atlanta continued to grow and expand, so did the Black neighborhoods of the city. However, not all are the same or even still exist as they did back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Prior to the 1906 race riot, it was possible to find Black households throughout the city and within what were seen as white neighborhoods. As a result of the 1906 race riot, the dispersion of Black residents was much less apparent. The riot caused Black businesses to be forced out of the central business area of Atlanta. During the early 20th century, a thriving Black business district was formed on Auburn Ave and became known as “Sweet Auburn.” However, real estate brokers blocked Black residential expansion along the periphery of the Auburn Ave businesses. This caused the relocation of Black residents to neighborhoods in the West and South of Atlanta. The Black residents of Atlanta lived separately and unequally from whites with inadequate health care, employment, and schools.
Neighborhood organizations were formed, such as the Neighborhood Union, to combat the disparities experienced in Black neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Union was founded in 1908 by Lugenia Burns Hope. It was the first, female-led Black social work organization in Atlanta. The organization served the Black communities in Atlanta through the 1970s through various methods of education, social programs, and activism. To learn more about Neighborhood Union, check out the exhibit “Women Who Changed Atlanta and the World.”
Prior to World War II, Atlanta, similar to other major southern cities, became progressively differentiated along race lines. The Black community of the city became much more geographically segregated from the white community. “It was a widely held tenet of planning in the 1920s that controlled growth of black neighborhoods was necessary to produce a socially better city.” The development of Atlanta relied on racial zoning, slum-clearance, and public housing programs.
Even with such systematic forms of oppression upheld by the local and federal government, African Americans have continued to develop sustainable neighborhoods. These efforts include University Homes, the first federally subsidized housing project for black residents in the United States. Built between 1935 and 1938, University Homes was located in the former Beaver Slide slums near Atlanta University. It was the African American counterpart to Techwood Homes, the first federal housing project built near what is the present-day campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Housing projects like University Homes were built in the 1930s as a way to provide affordable housing to low-income families by erasing slums from the city. These slums were mostly home to African Americans living in Atlanta, impoverished by Jim Crow laws and segregation.
By the 1940s, Atlanta had solidified into a spatially separate city for Black residents. Black leaders saw the neighborhoods and communities in the city as something they could build on, improve, and conserve. “The black community in southern cities in the early 1940s was a product of more than one century of development under the powerful influence of slavery, Reconstruction, Redemption, and the peculiar institution of the New South, Jim Crowism.”
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 caused a change in African American neighborhoods in Atlanta. The act outlawed discrimination in housing. By the 1970s, African Americans had started to shift from the city to the suburbs of Atlanta. This shift caused a rise in abandoned properties in historically Black neighborhoods. In the 1980s and 1990s, Black neighborhoods experienced attempts at revitalization and urban renewal. Some neighborhoods were able to experience renewed prosperity. Others experienced decline and several were demolished during the city’s quest for expansion.
Black Neighborhoods and the Creation of Black Atlanta explores the history of Black neighborhoods in Atlanta. It provides an overview of several of these neighborhoods: Summerhill, Vine City, West End, Lightning, and Johnsontown. The exhibit highlights archival collections held in the Archives Research Center at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. Collections include the Maynard Jackson Mayoral Administrative records, the Atlanta Urban League papers, the Atlanta Community Relations Commission collection, the Grace Towns Hamilton papers, the Neighborhood Union collection, the John H. Calhoun, Jr. papers, the Samuel W. Williams papers, the Atlanta Neighborhood Planning vertical file, the Johnsontown Neighborhood collection, and the Vivian W. Henderson papers.
Exhibit created by Brittany Newberry.
Information from this section of the exhibit was obtained from the following sources:
- The Separate City Black Communities in the Urban South, 1940-1968 by Christopher Silver and John V. Moeser
- To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 by Allison Dorsey
- "How well do you know Atlanta's historically black neighborhoods?" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
- "Segregation's New Geography: The Atlanta Metro Region, Race, and the Declining Prospects for Upward Mobility" Southern Spaces