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The Road To Modern Atlanta

June 2024
15min read

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.


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.


A panoramic scene from the desperate battle that followed is depicted at the Cyclorama, a 42-foot-high and 356-foot-long circular painting and diorama housed in an imposing stone edifice in Grant Park, south of downtown. It portrays the fighting that took place on the afternoon of July 22, 1864, when Confederate units under the command of Gen. John Bell Hood penetrated Sherman’s line, provoking a furious counterattack. Viewers sit on a revolving platform and watch the bloody panorama unfold before them with sound and light effects. The painting was completed in 1887 by a corps of artists working for the American Cyclorama Company of Milwaukee. Sent on tour around the country, it finally came to rest in Atlanta in 1893, but not until 1921 did the work receive its handsome Classical Revival enclosure. The WPA restored the painting in the 1930s, adding three-dimensional figures and landscaping to enhance the illusion of reality. With the exception of Kennesaw Mountain, the battlefields of this campaign have for the most part been built or bulldozed over, although earthworks survive at several places outside Atlanta. An outfit called Civil War Tours takes visitors on tours of battle sites in and around the city.

When general hood realized that the defense of the city was hopeless, he withdrew his troops and ordered the destruction of an arsenal and railcars loaded with munitions. The flames spread, causing the first wave of Atlanta’s destruction. Sherman entered the city on September 2, and stayed for six weeks. If his staff officers wondered what the commander had in mind for Atlanta, their doubts vanished when the general remarked, “Atlanta…I’ve been fighting Atlanta all this time.…All the guns and wagons we’ve captured along the way—all marked ‘Atlanta.’” Sherman was determined to leave nothing behind that would be of use to the Confederacy. However, it seems that he did not intend to level the city utterly. He ordered that the civilian population be evacuated from Atlanta, but he also gave orders that private homes and churches were not to be harmed. When the systematic destruction of the factories, railroads, warehouses, and other military targets began, though, fire spread to residential neighborhoods. Sherman personally directed the effort to douse the flames and save the houses, but to no avail. One of his staff officers described the scene: “bursts of smoke, dense black volumes, then tongues of flame, then huge waves of fire roll up into the sky.…sheets of roaring, blazing, furious flames…lurid, angry, dreadful to look upon.” Some Yankees danced with glee amidst the destruction; others felt deep shame.

WHEN CITY OFFICIALS COUNTED out the money they had for rebuilding, they came up with $1.64.

The departure of the Union column provided only a brief respite from the city’s misery. Looters from the countryside descended to scavenge through the things the Federals had overlooked. Somehow they managed to fill 250 wagons with their plunder. But the Atlantans straggled back in, got the post office and the bars running again, and wearily began work on the broken and blasted rail lines. They elected a new mayor and slate of officials, who opened the treasury and counted out the money they had to finance the reconstruction of the city. They came up with the grand total of $1.64.


Atlanta was born of the railroad, and the railroad saved it. Just a year after the war ended, Atlanta’s population was almost twice what it had been at the start of the war, as people flooded in from the countryside to get work. Having destroyed Atlanta, the Yankees played a small part in rebuilding it. They placed the regional headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau there, and the bureau built Atlanta University for the education of former slaves. (White Atlantans, who had no comparable institution, soon founded Georgia Tech.)

Much of the rebuilding was the work of a carpetbagger, a man named H. I. Kimball who descended on Atlanta from Chicago after the war, allied himself with the hated Republican state officeholders, and opened the spigots of government cash to rebuild the city and enrich himself along the way. One of his greatest achievements came early: In 1868 he helped persuade the legislature to move the capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta. In 1870 he finished work on the city’s opera house, part of which he leased to the state for its capitol. In the same year he built the Kimball House, a lavish hotel. When it burned to the ground in 1883, he replaced it with an even grander edifice: a 440-room brick-and-stone palace that was the largest hotel in the South. In 1881 he got the World’s Fair and Great International Cotton Exposition for Atlanta. Later on a grand jury was unable to pin anything illegal on Kimball, and the city was left to contemplate all his good works. If some corners had been cut, then so be it. Atlantans were inclined to look ahead, not back.


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.

The riots were an immense shock to the black community, proof that the vilest racial hatred lay just under the surface. One black leader of the community later wrote that the black men who had been shining examples of selfimprovement and self-sufficiency had been the first targets of the mobs, and that the roughest elements had rushed to take up arms and had beaten back the rioters. So to whom should blacks look in the future for leadership?

The immediate result was a tightened, self-imposed segregation by the black community. They withdrew their businesses and homes from downtown and established themselves along Auburn Avenue—“Sweet Auburn,” as it came to be called. Here black people could spend their whole lives in a black environment, rarely glimpsing a white face. Black institutions—churches, schools, businesses —grew strong, even if they lacked the resources of their white counterparts. Auburn was home to an economic cross section of people, from railroad porters to doctors, lawyers, college professors, and executives. Children, whether rich or poor, went to the same segregated schools. Today Sweet Auburn is preserved as a historic district, with a variety of commercial buildings and residences dating back to the nineteenth century, including the old headquarters of Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta Life Insurance Company—a classically inspired building fronted by imposing pilasters—and rows of turn-of-the-century houses in the gracious Queen Anne style. One of the anchors of the Auburn community was and is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where in the early 190Os the pastor was the Reverend A. D. Williams. In 1929, just down the street from the church, at 501 Auburn, his grandson Martin Luther King, Jr., was born. King now lies buried in a marble tomb between the church and his birthplace.


More than a million people a year visit the King Center, and even more are expected during the Olympics. Dr. King’s crypt stands in the midst of a long reflecting pool. The words etched on the side seem to shout, breaking the somber silence of the memorial: “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last.”

In a small museum adjacent to the pool, photographs and signs form a chronology of Dr. King’s life in the civil rights movement. Four cases display a few things he left behind: some clothing, his Nobel Peace Prize, the tape recorder Coretta Scott King used to take down his speeches in Montgomery, Alabama, the key to the hotel room where he was assassinated. At museums we are accustomed to poring over a trove of artifacts, the accumulated glory of a lifetime of achievement: swords and armor, sideboards aglitter with silver, battle relics, pearls of great price. There is none of that here, and that is the power of the place—the sense of a great invisible legacy that can’t be displayed or contained but that is all around us.

In 1935 an editor from the Macmillan publishing Company, Harold Latham, stopped briefly in Atlanta on a scouting tour for new Southern authors. At a luncheon he pestered a woman named Margaret Mitchell, a former newspaper writer, about a historical novel rumored to be in the works. Mitchell vehemently denied that the book existed. But that evening, just as Latham was about to leave his hotel, he received a call from Mitchell, who was waiting for him in the lobby. Latham found the author sitting on a couch, flanked and nearly dwarfed by two stacks of about seventy envelopes, containing the manuscript she had denied existed just a few hours earlier. “Take the damn thing,” she said to the startled editor, “before I change my mind.”

“TAKE THE DAMN THING,” Margaret Mitchell said to the startled editor, “before I change my mind.”

Change her mind she did, frantically cabling Latham the next day: SEND IT BACK . But it was too late. On the train out of Atlanta, Latham had already skimmed through part of the manuscript and realized that what he had in his hands was a masterpiece of popular fiction. The historian Henry Steele Commager, while acknowledging the book’s melodrama, sentimentality, and potboiler mechanics, concluded in a review: “it rises triumphantly over [its] material and becomes, if not a work of art, a dramatic reaction of life itself.” Indeed, for millions Gone With the Wind became the story of the South.


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.

I talked with Roth and Ambrose about how this exhibit came about. The key decision on the way to present the city’s history during the Olympics was actually made twelve years ago, when hosting the games was just a gleam of possibility. The Atlanta History Center (owned and operated by the Atlanta Historical Society) decided that it had to take a broad and inclusive view of the past. This approach was not foisted on an unwitting public by a multicultural cabal of curators; it was decided on by the board of trustees, which was drawn from and represented the views of the city’s economic and social elite—the people with the funds to support first-class programs at a first-class institution. Roth said that she took the trustees at their word and mounted “Metropolitan Frontiers.” If this is the face that Atlanta turns to the world, then the city will have no image problems during the Olympics. Atlanta will merely be continuing a conversation with itself about its past. The world can listen in, and learn.


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