- 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
Little survives of Atlanta’s nineteenth-century railroad past except an 187Os freight depot, which has been converted to a conference center. It can be found near Underground Atlanta, a subterranean complex of shops and restaurants south of the downtown business district (see “Underground Atlanta,” page 91). Aboveground there is a block of restored commercial buildings and Atlanta Heritage Row: The Museum at Underground, with a series of walk-through exhibits tracing the city’s history. One of the most effective is a dark, claustrophobic reproduction of a bomb shelter built to withstand Sherman’s siege. A short stroll brings you to the World of Coca-Cola, a museum paying homage to the beverage that is Atlanta’s gift to the world. In 1886 Dr. John Styth Pemberton set up a laboratory in his back yard to concoct a good-tasting cure for headaches. Mixing caffeine, cola nuts, and coca leaves, he came up with a brew that—who knows?—may have been the secret fuel of Atlanta’s resurgence.
One of the leaders of the city’s revival was a young newspaperman named Henry Grady, who was invited up to New York in 1886 to address a group of Yankee businessmen. His remarks made it plain that the South was ready for reconciliation, but not on its knees. Grady said he was glad that the Union was saved and that slavery was wiped from America, but he continued: “The South has nothing for which to apologize…. The South has nothing to take back.” Oddly enough, the next speaker of the evening was none other than William T. Sherman. Grady made sure the general knew that bygones were bygones and that Sherman was well regarded in Georgia, “though some people think he is kind of careless about fire.” He went on to inform the general that “from the ashes he left us in 1864 we have raised a brave and beautiful city.” He called his section of the country the New South. What had happened in Atlanta was happening elsewhere in the region, but Atlanta led the way. It had the South’s first skyscraper, the Equitable Building, put up in 1892. The Equitable was demolished in 1971, but another early skyscraper, the Flatiron Building, survives at 84 Peachtree Street.
THE WORDS BREAK THE SOMBER silence of the memorial: “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last.”
The Flatiron and several other venerable commercial buildings are stops on the tours offered by the Atlanta Preservation Center. Indeed the center offers such a rich menu of architectural and historical tours that callers to its information line are advised to have a pencil and a large sheet of paper at hand. Its walking tours include the exotic Fox Theater, an Egyptian and Moorish fantasy erected in the 1920s; the Victorianera West End district, which includes a stop at Wren’s Nest, the home of Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote down the African-American Uncle Remus tales; the Druid Hills district, laid out in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmsted and the setting for the film Driving Miss Daisy ; the architecturally exuberant Ansley Park and Inman Park districts; and Atlanta University Center, where several 186Os school buildings survive. Near the university is the Herndon Home, the elegant 1910 Beaux Arts mansion of the founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Alonzo Herndon, who may have been the richest black man in the United States.
The center also offers tours of Piedmont Park, the site of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. Unfortunately, no buildings survive from the exposition, which put Atlanta on the map as the premier New South city. The purpose of the exposition was to open new markets for Southern manufactured goods and find new sources of investment capital. Atlanta also wanted to show that it had no racial problems and that blacks would provide their share of a stable work force. Accordingly there was a Negro Pavilion, and Booker T Washington was invited to make one of the speeches at the opening of the fair. He responded with the famous “Atlanta Compromise”—a speech accepting social and political segregation in exchange for allowing blacks to make economic progress within a well-defined sphere. Washington’s compromise was bitterly and zealously opposed by W. E. B. Du Bois, the great writer, scholar, editor, and anthropologist, who taught for a while at Atlanta University. It was Du Bois who wrote, prophetically, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line.
For the white community, however, Washington’s words were exactly what they wanted to hear. Businessmen from around the world were coming to the fair to assess investment possibilities in the region. Crucial to Atlanta’s attractiveness was the appearance of racial harmony. But just a decade later that seeming harmony was brutally shattered by the race riot of 1906. Stirred up by highly exaggerated accounts of assaults on white women by black men and by the supposed discovery of white pornography in black brothels, white mobs surged through the city beating and shooting blacks. Public officials tried to stop the riots, even turning fire hoses on the whites, but the violence continued for several days, leaving about twenty-five blacks and one white dead.