How One Atlanta Neighborhood Endured a Century of Systemic Racism

published Jun 25, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Gill Copeland/

Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district was once the commercial and spiritual center of African-American life in the city. The area was settled when, in the early 1900s,  systemic racism forced Black residents to create their own businesses and communities separate from whites. It crumbled for the same reason, thanks to deliberate (and legal) discrimination, as urban renewal and economic divestment decimated the district in the 1970s. This historic mile-and-a-half stretch along Auburn Avenue is one of many historically Black communities destroyed by white supremacy across the country. Here’s how Sweet Auburn came to be. 

In the post-reconstruction South, many Black business owners were beginning to prosper. In Atlanta, a new group of Black elites was forming, inflaming racial tensions in the city. In 1906, gubernatorial candidate (and future governor) Hoke Smith insisted that Black disenfranchisement was integral to ensuring Black people were “kept in their place.” This fueled anti-Black sentiment at the time, leading to the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. White mobs destroyed many Black businesses in the city’s downtown area, including the barber shop of Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first black millionaire. The riots forced these businesses to retreat to Auburn Avenue, where business owners began to set up shop once again.

This new area was aptly dubbed “Sweet Auburn” Avenue by civic and political leader John Wesley Dobbs in the 1930s. Herndon and Dobbs were integral in the development of the district and attracted numerous new businesses that were a lightning rod for investors, entertainers, and activists alike. The Royal Peacock Club would become an elegant backdrop to the changing styles in Black music of the time, hosting acts like B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Atlanta’s own Gladys Knight, and more.

It didn’t take long for Sweet Auburn to thrive. The street eventually became home to the highest concentration of Black-owned businesses, entertainment venues, and churches in the South. It is the street where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929. And in 1956, Forbes deemed it the “Richest Negro Street in the World,” as it was home to one of Atlanta’s oldest banks, Citizen’s Trust, which is one of the largest Black-owned banks in the country today.

At the same time, Jim Crow laws—which allowed for further institutionalized disenfranchisement of Black people and their businesses—drew a thicker line between white Atlanta and Black Atlanta. And like many other majority Black communities, Sweet Auburn’s fate was all but doomed. 

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration would be developed to further segregation efforts, refusing to issue mortgages to Black families near predominantly Black communities—a policy now known as red-lining. The FHA was also subsidizing contracts for white-owned builders to mass-produce subdivisions, and incentivized them to not sell to African Americans. Many of these prospective buyers were business leaders from Sweet Auburn, and saw their chance at owning businesses and building homes for their families start to dwindle.

These same Black families that were prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs in the 1940s, ’50s, and even into the ’60s, gained none of the equity appreciation that white families gained. The Housing Act of 1949 allowed cities to use federal subsidies and the powers of eminent domain to “revitalize” American cities, thus destroying communities of color. Then came the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a 10-year project that strategically wiped out poor, racially segregated neighborhoods to build roads. I-75/85, one of Atlanta’s new thoroughfares, split Auburn Avenue in half.

Billions of dollars were funneled into projects that destroyed inner city communities in the name of revitalization. (This is a process known as “urban renewal.”) While Sweet Auburn would continue to operate at capacity for a few more years, the end of segregation and continued economic divestment in the area due to I-75/85 would put the nail in the coffin. By 1974, over 2,100 urban renewal projects had been completed across the country.

Sweet Auburn Avenue was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized that it was one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” Restoration efforts have improved since then, and today the neighborhood honors its history with a revitalized commercial district, rehabilitated single-family homes, and numerous affordable housing opportunities. While the district’s timeline is not unique for Black communities across the country, shedding light on the histories of places like Sweet Auburn is more important than ever.

Note: An earlier version of this story said the construction of I-20 interrupted Auburn Avenue. It is I-75/85. We regret the error.