Auburn Avenue – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Stretching less than two miles east of Peachtree Street, Auburn Avenue was the commercial, cultural, and spiritual center of African-American life in Atlanta before the Civil Rights Movement. “Sweet Auburn” boasted a concentration of black-owned businesses, entertainment venues and churches that was unmatched anywhere else in the South. Its bustling retail and wealthy business owners have earned the street a national reputation for African-American finance and entrepreneurial zeal. In 1956 Fortune The magazine memorably described Auburn Avenue as “the richest Negro street in the world.”
The Golden Age of Sweet Auburn
Originally called Wheat Street, the road was renamed in 1893 at the behest of white petitioners who thought Auburn Avenue had a more cosmopolitan sound. Over the next two decades, as restrictive Jim Crow legislation was codified into law, the city’s African-American population was confined to the area between downtown and Atlanta University and to the neighborhoods on the east side of the city, known today as the Old Fourth Ward. It was during this period that Auburn Avenue first established itself as a commercial corridor and became home to the city’s emerging black middle class.
Although comprised mostly of small businesses, Auburn Avenue was also home to what historian Gary Pomerantz describes as Atlanta’s “three-legged stool of black finance.” The first of these institutions was founded by Alonzo Herndon, a freedman who became the city’s first black millionaire. After earning a modest fortune as the owner of a barbershop on Peachtree Street, Herndon founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. Six years later, an enterprising Texan named Heman Perry formed a second insurance company black, Standard Life. Citizens Trust Bank formed the third leg of the city’s black financial stool, extending credit to black homeowners and entrepreneurs who were underserved by the city’s white lending institutions. Because the financial institutions of Auburn Avenue amounted to a unique consolidation of African-American wealth for the time, Black Atlantans called the street “Sweet Auburn”. Coined by John Wesley Dobbs, a civic leader and the neighborhood’s unofficial “mayor”, the name reflected the avenue’s importance as a national center of black commerce.
But Auburn Avenue was not just a place to do business. Black Atlantans worshiped at Auburn’s many churches, including Ebenezer Baptist Church, where three generations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family ministered, and Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church; dined at legendary Ma Sutton’s; and spent late nights listening to ragtime at the famed Top Hat Club (later the Royal Peacock). The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and the National Urban League maintained offices on Auburn Avenue, which was also home to the first successful black-owned daily, the Atlanta Daily World. Whether for work or play, Auburn Avenue was the center of African American life in Atlanta.
The Civil Rights Era and Beyond
Ironically, Auburn’s civic activism led to its downfall. As the NAACP and local voting rights organizations from their offices in Sweet Auburn lobbied state and local governments to end the segregation, and as the son of the country, Martin Luther King Jr., born at 501 Auburn Avenue, led the crusade for civil rights before a national audience, the street began its steep decline. After legal hurdles to integration were removed, many Auburn merchants moved their businesses to other areas of the city, and residents began to migrate to Atlanta’s West Side. At the same time, the street was bisected by the construction of the Downtown Connector. Once vital and vibrant, the fabric of the community began to tear apart when Sweet Auburn fell victim to divestment and neglect. “It has turned into a decaying memorial of a bygone era”, observes Gary Pomerantz, “a necessary but regrettable price for freedom”.
Despite repeated attempts at renewal, Auburn Avenue remains a model of urban blight. A revitalization plan undertaken by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson in the 1970s failed to stem the neighborhood’s decline, and his successors failed to make a sustained commitment to the neighborhood’s well-being. Auburn’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in the 1980s encouraged hopes that the neighborhood could be revitalized , but those expectations have gone unmet. While these sites are among the city’s biggest attractions, few of the more than 600,000 annual visitors (as of 2005) have ventured further into the block for food or entertainment.
Despite past failures, residents and advocates have not given up on Sweet Auburn. In 1984, civil rights leader Hosea Williams founded the Sweet Auburn Heritage Festival, which features entertainment, food, art and children’s activities along Auburn Avenue each year. In 2006, a $45 million redevelopment plan to create thousands of square feet of retail space and hundreds of condominiums, spearheaded by the historic Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, suggests the community is about to be renewed. Additionally, the area has been designated a “Tax Allocation District”, meaning that potential developments would receive municipal financial support. While Sweet Auburn’s future remains uncertain, his supporters believe he is ready to return to his former glory.