- Historic Sites
The Road To Modern Atlanta
THE VISITORS WHO COME HERE FOR THE OLYMPICS this summer won’t find Tara. What they will find is a city facing an unusual—and sometimes painful—past with clarity of vision and generosity of spirit.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
When the olympians fly into Atlanta, the first sign of the city they will see from the air is not the skyline of proud towers, shimmering in the humidity, but Stone Mountain, the immense dome of granite sixteen miles to the east. Even from a mile in the air they will be able to see clearly the three huge figures carved into the face of the rock: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
When the olympians fly into Atlanta, the first sign of the city they will see from the air is not the skyline of proud towers, shimmering in the humidity, but Stone Mountain, the immense dome of granite sixteen miles to the east. Even from a mile in the air they will be able to see clearly the three huge figures carved into the face of the rock: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Gazing out the cabin window, the athletes may not know who those carved figures are, but once they’re on the ground it won’t be long before they find out. History is definitely part of the Olympics extravaganza in Atlanta, and it is already providing a good deal of controversy.
The trouble starts with the state flag flying over Olympic events. In 1956, in the midst of the school desegregation crisis, the legislature voted to incorporate into the Georgia flag the old Confederate battle flag, the Stars and Bars you see coming at you on the grilles of the big semis on the interstate. After forty years the state flag now has some of the dust of tradition on it, but to many people, especially blacks, it is just the Rebel yell on a pole, a symbol of Georgia’s old defiance of integration and of the white supremacist yearnings that linger in some hearts.
A SURVEYOR CALLED ATLANTA good for a “tavern, a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, and nothing else.”
Stone Mountain is another problem. Last summer when I took the cable car to the top of the great granite dome, I could see the tennis complex going up several miles .away in preparation for the Games, and I could envision the cameras cutting away just before the commercials from heroes on the court to a long shot of the doughty heroes in stone. But Stone Mountain is more than a Confederate Mount Rushmore. This is where the Ku Klux Klan gathered in 1915 to celebrate its re-emergence in the twentieth century. There are Klan meetings here every fall, and some blacks say they look upon Stone Mountain with feelings of dread and loathing. The Los Angeles Times headlined an article about the Games MOUNTAIN OF RACIST HISTORY CASTS SHADOW ON OLYMPICS .
Atlantans have braced themselves for the role of “sitting duck for the world’s press,” as the Atlanta Journal/Constitution put it. “The South is an easy target,” says Darlene Roth, director of exhibitions and collections at the Atlanta History Center and one of the prime movers behind the historical presentations that will accompany the Olympics. “No place is free of controversy. There are legacies here in Atlanta that are very difficult to deal with, but the glue that holds the South together is the ability to be civil in the face of anything, to keep talking to each other.” The Olympics are providing Atlantans with an opportunity for a conversation about their past with the whole world listening in.
Atlanta had humble origins. the city WAS founded in 1837, when, in a move to develop the northwestern region of the state, the Georgia legislature chartered the Western & Atlantic Railroad to run from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the ridge east of the Chattahoochee River. The railroad’s surveyor, Stephen Harriman Long, did not think much of the area’s prospects. Given the option to buy half-ownership in what is now downtown Atlanta, Long remarked that the place “will be a good location for one tavern, a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, and nothing else.” The town’s original name, Terminus, was changed to Marthasville in honor of the former governor’s daughter and then to Atlanta, reflecting the hope that the city would connect the interior to the ocean. By 1852 four rail lines crossed at Atlanta, but the town had a population of only three thousand, including five hundred slaves. Still, its rail lines, mills, warehouses, and factories made Atlanta a great arsenal during the Civil War. Richmond, Virginia, may have been the political capital, but the strategic heart of the Confederacy was the Chattanooga-Atlanta axis, and that brought the city to the attention of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.
Defending the approach to the city, sixty thousand troops under Joseph E. Johnston managed to hold off Sherman’s hundred thousand men at Kennesaw Mountain in June and July 1864. The battlefield is preserved as a national park, about a half-hour drive northwest of Atlanta. Johnston’s victory was only temporary. When he decided to withdraw, Sherman surged toward Atlanta and began a bombardment of the city.