On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults, none of which were ever substantiated, upon local white women. Extra editions of these accounts, sensationalized with lurid details and inflammatory language intended to inspire fear if not revenge, circulated, and soon thousands of white men and boys gathered in downtown Atlanta. City leaders, including Mayor James G. Woodward, sought to calm the increasingly indignant crowds but failed to do so. By early evening, the crowd had become a mob; from then until after midnight, they surged down Decatur Street, Pryor Street, Central Avenue, and throughout the central business district, assaulting hundreds of blacks. The mob attacked black-owned businesses, smashing the windows of black leader Alonzo Herndon’s barbershop. Although Herndon had closed down early and was already at home when his shop was damaged, another barbershop across the street was raided by the rioters—and the barbers were killed. The crowd also attacked streetcars, entering trolley cars and beating black men and women; at least three men were beaten to death.
Finally, the militia was summoned around midnight, and streetcar service was suspended. The mob showed no signs of letting up, however, and the crowd was dispersed only once a heavy rain began to fall around 2 a.m. Atlanta was under the control of the state militia.
On Sunday, September 23, the Atlanta newspapers reported that the state militia had been mustered to control the mob; they also reported that blacks were no longer a problem for whites because Saturday night’s violence had driven them off public streets. While the police, armed with rifles, and militia patrolled the streets and key landmarks and guarded white property, blacks secretly obtained weapons to arm themselves against the mob, fearing its return. Despite the presence of law enforcement, white vigilante groups invaded some black neighborhoods. In some areas African Americans defended their homes and were able to turn away the incursions into their communities. (One person who described such activity was Walter White, who experienced the riot as a young boy. The incident was a defining moment for White, who went on to become secretary of the NAACP, and he later described the event in his 1948 memoir A Man Called White.)
On Monday, September 24, a group of African Americans held a meeting in Brownsville, a community located about two miles south of downtown Atlanta and home to the historically black Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University) and Gammon Theological Seminary. The blacks were heavily armed. When Fulton County police learned of the gathering, they feared a counterattack and launched a raid on Brownsville. A shootout ensued and an officer was killed. In response, three companies of heavily armed militia were sent to Brownsville, where they seized weapons and arrested more than 250 African American men. Meanwhile, sporadic fighting continued throughout the day.
Atlanta had become the hub of the regional economy, and the city’s overall population soared from 89,000 in 1900 to 150,000 in 1910; the black population was approximately 9,000 in 1880 and 35,000 by 1900. Such growth put pressure on municipal services, increased job competition among black and white workers, heightened class distinctions, and led the city’s white leadership to respond with restrictions intended to control the daily behavior of the growing working class, with mixed success. Such conditions caused concern among elite whites, who feared the social intermingling of the races, and led to an expansion of Jim Crow segregation, particularly in the separation of white and black neighborhoods and separate seating areas for public transportation.
The emergence during this time of a black elite in Atlanta also contributed to racial tensions in the city. During Reconstruction (1867-76), black men were given the right to vote, and as blacks became more involved in the Atlanta Saloon political realm, they began to establish businesses, create social networks, and build communities. As this black elite acquired wealth, education, and prestige, its members attempted to distance themselves from an affiliation with the black working class, and especially from the unemployed black men who frequented the saloons on Atlanta’s Decatur Street. Many whites, while uncomfortable with the advances of the black elite, also disapproved of these saloons, which were said to be decorated with depictions of nude women. Concern over such establishments fueled prohibition advocates in the city, and many whites began to blame black saloon-goers for rising crime rates in the growing city, and particularly for threats of black sexual violence against white women.
[Blog Editor’s Note: There an almost forgotten part of liquor sales to blacks during this time period by White Jewish Liquor businessman who reportedly targeted black salons and black men in the South with chemically altered liquor, some called “Nigger Gin,” that had the secret goal of making black men more aggressive and heightening criminal tendencies. Some of this liquor was marketed to black men to plant thoughts of sexual attraction to white women. Not all drinkers acted out on this artificial urge, but some did. And the White Jewish newspapers of the South would then deliberately rouse the anger of whites against blacks].
How can we avoid repeating our past mistakes? One of the best ways is to understand what happened and why it happened so we can avoid doing the same thing in the future. One such event in Georgia’s past was the race riot of 1906. As economic conditions worsened after the Civil War, poor whites joined blacks moving to Atlanta where both groups competed for work. Historian Cliff Kuhn describes the increasing segregation of the races through Jim Crow laws that applied to streetcars, trains, cemeteries, and even Bibles in the courtroom. In 1906, Hoke Smith ran for governor and inflamed racial tensions when he accused blacks of committing crimes against white women. Newspaper articles, using flimsy facts and sensationalized events, heightened tensions. In mid-September, a riot started in Atlanta when violent mobs of whites began randomly attacking black men, beating and killing them. According to Carole Merritt, director of Herndon Home, part of the reason for the anger directed at blacks was their economic accomplishments. When black men began fighting back, the mob lost its courage. The militia was called in by the governor. The riot ended after three days of fighting that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. When it was over, whites wanted to forget and return to normal but black Atlantans could not. Why not? Because those same divisions continued and exist today, dividing society. It is important to recall what occurred and understand it so we do not allow history to repeat itself.