The Road To Modern Atlanta

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The original title of the book was The Road to Tara , and a museum of that name will soon pay tribute to Mitchell and her work. The house on Peachtree Street where Mitchell wrote the novel was a decaying, burned-out wreck until the Mercedes-Benz company volunteered to finance its restoration. Scheduled to open in June, the site will feature a reconstruction of the basement apartment (which Mitchell called “The Dump”) where the book was born. Memorabilia gathered from around the world—posters and stills from the movie, reproductions of the movie costumes, and a hundred GWTW dolls—will show the international impact of GWTW . What should have been the prime exhibit—the actual manuscript of the book—is gone. After Mitchell’s death her husband destroyed nearly all of it at her specific request, saving only a few pages as evidence of authorship. Those precious sheets reside permanently in an Atlanta bank vault.

 

Although it may seem hard to believe, Margaret Mitchell was something of a revisionist. She went beyond the moonbeams and magnolias view of the South to portray a tough-minded heroine locked in a desperate struggle for survival. In her book the South was not a stage for posturing cavaliers but an arena for the clashes of hard-handed, greedy men, who sometimes just didn’t give a damn.

Every year thousands of visitors descend on Atlanta expecting to find Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation, Tara. It never existed. Margaret Mitchell described Tara as “a clumsy, sprawling building … built according to no architectural plan whatever.” This, of course, was insufficiently grand for Hollywood’s version of the story. The producer David O. Selznick ordained that a magnificent multicolumned palace be erected to house Scarlett, and it is this mythical house that visitors expect to see. They won’t find it in Atlanta itself, which never had grand plantation mansions, but they will find it just outside the city, in Marietta and Roswell. Walking tours are available in both towns, and in Roswell two grand mansions are open to visitors. Stone Mountain’s collection of pre-Civil War houses, barns, and outbuildings—moved from various places in Georgia and called The Antebellum Plantation at Stone Mountain Park—in no way resembles a working plantation, although the individual buildings are fascinating.

The place most like the Tara Mitchell envisioned in her book is at the Atlanta History Center, just north of the city on West Paces Ferry Road, a short drive from the governor’s mansion. The Tullie Smith Farm, consisting of a house, a kitchen, a barn, and other outbuildings, was moved to the grounds of the center from just five miles away. Built around 1845, it is a modest place, furnished simply and full of implements showing that life back then was not all bourbon and horse races; it was work—carding, spinning, weaving, cooking, and tending the animals. This is the reality of the plantation, without the overlay of myth.

 

Inside the main museum building the emphasis is also on reality. The history center, under the direction of Darlene Roth and Andy Ambrose, has put together a magnificent exhibit called “Metropolitan Frontiers,” which will be the cornerstone of Atlanta’s presentation of its history during the Olympics. Combining photography, video, audio recordings, and a huge number of artifacts, the exhibit takes the visitor on a chronological walk through the city’s history.

“Metropolitan Frontiers” shamelessly sings the city’s praises, depicting its resurgence from the Civil War and its eminence as a capital of the New South. Here are Atlanta’s old clothing, telephones, touring cars, Coke bottles, an entire shotgun house from the 189Os, and a tribute to the great golfer Bobby Jones. But the exhibit shrinks from nothing: The 1906 race riot and the murder of the Jewish factory owner Leo Frank are presented forthrightly, without an ounce of political correctness or confrontation for its own sake.

Drawn by the voice of Clark Gable, I wandered over to a kiosk showing newsreel clips of the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind . A display of Rhett and Scarlett memorabilia flanked the screen. Next to it I was startled to find a mannequin behind glass in full KKK regalia. He was surrounded by signs from the Jim Crow era: WHITES ONLY, COLORED ONLY, COLORED WAITING ROOM . Nearby, concealed under a black veil and labeled with a warning notice that the image might be too strong for some people, was a photograph of a lynching.