Credit: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Used by Permission.
Anniversary of Atlanta's 1906 race massacre sparks new conversations
Thousands of Atlantans plan to mark the anniversary of the Atlanta Race Massacre this Sunday.
The aim is to bring 5000 people together at 500 tables across the city with the theme of "Better Me, Better We, Better World" as part of the Equitable Dinners Atlanta initiative.
Participants will be encouraged to engage in conversations about systemic racism and ways to move forward as they pay remembrance to a 116-year-old event that many chose to forget.
Learning from history
As GPB's Political Rewind remembered in a special show last year, a white mob began a four-day rampage through Black communities in Atlanta on Sept. 22, 1906. Twenty-five Black residents were murdered, hundreds more were terrorized, and buildings and businesses were destroyed. The mob's anger was stoked by segregationist politicians and sensationalist reporting from the city's two major newspapers at the time, The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal.
Despite its lasting damage, the Atlanta Race Massacre was largely ignored by city officials and many historians. It was not until 2006 that the city publicly recognized the event. The massacre was added to the Georgia's social studies curriculum in 2007.
Then and now
Documentary filmmaker, journalist and author King Williams not only writes about the tragic nights in September of 1906, he takes college students, community leaders and others on a tour of the nondescript places where the events took place in downtown Atlanta.
Peachtree Street looks nothing like it did back then.
But at an address across from a shady park today, there once stood a prominent Black-owned business.
“The Crystal Palace was the nicest barbershop in Atlanta, with four floors and crystal chandeliers,” Williams said. “All of the barbers wore all white and it was just meant to service an elite clientele.”
It was the barbershop of Alonzo Herndon, a formerly enslaved man whose post-slavery entrepreneurship made him one of the wealthiest Black citizens of Atlanta.
Then in September 1906 a series of newspaper lies about attacks on white women whipped the city’s white men into a frenzy and three nights of terror began.
Everyone who moves through downtown Atlanta today passes by the places where Black men were chased through streets and beaten to death.
“You see, all of a sudden, a mob of people just showing up,” Williams said. “You see torches. You hear gun shots. You hear people screaming.”
Herndon’s barbershop windows were smashed but he survived.
Others weren’t so lucky.
The killings and destruction of Black-owned businesses and homes throughout the downtown area had a purpose, Williams says.
He believes the intent was to hinder the economic success of Blacks like Herndon and thwart Black voting power amid a racist election campaign.
But the massacre was buried in a pall of silence.
“A lot of Black leaders wanted to move past the event and not talk about it anymore,” Williams said. “So, for the next century or so you have this version of Atlanta that people don’t really know about.”
Challenging past narratives
Williams says the 1906 Race Massacre doesn’t fit neatly into Atlanta’s narrative as a progressive city and the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement.
That’s why Adria Kitchens of Out of Hand Theater is working with a coalition of groups to restore the massacre and its legacy to the city’s public memory.
“A part of being able to do this is to really name the full history,” Kitchens said. “For us to be able to look at it collectively, look at it together and say, ‘What are the things that we are going to do differently, now?’”
On Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, groups large and small will gather, simultaneously, in homes, social halls, restaurants and other locations as part of an Equitable Dinners event. Actors will perform short, one-person plays about race and justice at the events, followed by the dinner and moderated discussions.
Out of Hand Theater founder and artistic director Ariel Fristoe says they’ve done this format before for different issues over the last few years and it works because it’s direct and personal. This will be the theater’s largest such performance, dinner and discussion yet.
“It does something wonderful to have it be that no guest at the dinner has to take on the burden of sharing something painful that has happened to them to start the conversation,” Fristoe said. “Instead, we have a story that’s entertaining and vivid and emotionally engaging and makes it so that these conversations can go much deeper much more quickly than they would otherwise.”