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Atlanta History


Shanet Clark
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In his book "Race and the Shaping of 20th Century Atlanta,"

Ronald H. Bayor investigates the planned segregation of blacks from whites in Atlanta. The book shows that residential zoning and planning decisions were made by a combination of bankers, developers, white Atlanta City Planners and federal highway and mortgage officials. The white Atlanta civic planning councils never seriously considered providing decent housing for blacks, except on occasion in reaction to black expansion. The official reaction was a segregated housing policy strategy, a racist attempt at limiting legitimate black family aspirations to home ownership.

The intensity of Georgia’s Jim Crow apartheid movement, as documented in Anderson’s “Eugene Talmadge: Wild Man of Sugar Creek” and Brattain’s “Politics of Whiteness,” is shown here to be the critical factor in the spatial, political, educational, health, commerce and residential shaping of Georgia’s largest urban agglomerate, greater metropolitan Atlanta. These changes occurred through the mid twentieth century period, contemporaneous with the rise of the automotive age. Bayor’s evaluation of regional planning and city zoning supports the apartheid theory.

We will look at the various forces of white reaction that Bayor exposes in this interpretive narrative of Atlanta urban history. The story begins with blacks streaming into the city during the Civil War and Reconstruction era from 1861 to 1876, when refugees of slavery and war, economically desperate blacks, concentrated onto the industrial fringes of downtown Atlanta on unclaimed bottomland and were scattered throughout white Atlanta in servants’ quarters and shanties.

Zoning was the structural framework of the city segregation policies towards black housing needs in the 20th century. Proper and appropriate zoning should limit industrial expansion to selected areas, identify and unite greenspaces, enforce the status quo as far as dwelling densities, etc. Atlanta’s government zoning bastardized this process to serve a Jim Crow apartheid vision and strategy. By 1913 (just thirty seven years after the end of Radical Reconstruction) segregation and racial zoning laws affecting access to services and residential choices were on the books in Atlanta. Bayor records the twenty-year legal struggle between the Atlanta civil planners’ intransigence and their repeated judicial reversals. Elected city officials with their paid planners and planning commissions brought about the series of race-based Atlanta zoning laws of 1913-1931 and judges did not always uphold the city’s growing body of segregation codicils.

Racial segregation, or apartheid continued into the late 20th century under myriad forms and artifices. Road placement and conscious abandonment were two main levers of the white native-born Protestant reaction to the growth of African American Atlanta. Black residential expansion was directed towards existing black enclaves, often unsuccessfully. Heavy-handed tactics such as leaving north/south streets unfinished were often used to limit Black housing growth, by turning services against blacks. Atlanta attracted national opprobrium for its Peyton Road ‘Wall,’ an actual barrier between the white and Black ends of the public right of way, Peyton Road. Bayor carefully reconstructs the repeated attempts to build racially inspired expressways and fenced parkways, by the Atlanta civic boards. Although many of these projects failed to be built, many other road decisions like the I-20 West placement, did permanent and irretrievable damage to white, black and co-existing communities. A white man who grew up in the West End has told me that the neighborhood was much more vibrant, cohesive and flourishing before Interstate 20 truncated its matrix. He indicated that race and class tensions were raised and the quality of life declined after the freeway was built through the West End. Grant Park and East Atlanta suffered similar declines due to the placement of I-20, which Baylor shows to be typical of the racial barrier road placement strategy of white Atlanta city planners. These expensive and counter-economic strategies failed, of course, as I-20 did not keep Blacks out of the southern West End.

What technological innovation triggered the property struggle that Bayor documents? By World War One, the automobile replaced streetcar and horse conveyances, technologies of the late 19th century. This change is essential for the evolution of today’s American cities and it impacted Atlanta in various important ways. First, the auto culture allowed Black and white middle class workers and professionals to venture farther afield to work on a daily basis -- it allowed them to commute. (We can assume that the working class in this period is limited to pedestrian and public transportation.) White middle class and professional workers preferred to move north into the garden suburbs of Morningside and Druid Hills and into the desirable Buckhead and Sandy Springs areas north of the city. “White Flight” is the usual term for this northern and northeastern migration of moneyed white elites from Atlanta. Blacks in the middle class also tended to expand outward from the crowded south central and Auburn city districts, moving into the West End where Heman Perry had built the first black automotive suburb. Bayor makes clear, with graphic evidence and documentation that black homeownership and Black economic equity did not stand still for these systematic restrictions. Large swaths of “white” Atlanta were lost to the newly automotive blacks’ aspirations and purchasing power.

Bayors use of contemporary documentation to prove the systemic apartheid strategy is impressive. Only the Lochner Report itself matches the 1922-zoning map in importance. A logical reaction to a close study of the official 1922 Atlanta Zone Map would be to ask, “just where exactly are the blacks supposed to live?” White family residential areas are generously drawn, both spacious and contiguous to each other. Black potential housing areas are circumscribed, isolated and in less desirable areas. The critical category in the map’s legend is neither the black nor the white residential areas, but the overly generous land allowance to non-residential industrial areas. These lower cost tracts, directly adjacent to existing black housing, are reserved and off-limits to all residential development. Without the opportunity to purchase, improve and dwell within these nearby zones, black housing was limited to a few painful choices, and crowded urban tenement slums were a direct result of industrial and white residential zoning reservations. Nevertheless, many black middle class homebuyers were able to leapfrog and penetrate into the white-owned neighborhoods to the southwest and southeast of the central business district.

Comprehensive city planning -- as distinct from zoning -- impacted on black communities, and on Atlanta in general, for the worse. The racial aspect of Atlanta’s road placement strategy, as well as the building of expensive walls, fences and the consciously counter-productive abandonment of roads has been outlined above. The influx of federal urban renewal funds to white segregationists in city government caused wholesale obliteration of black housing in Atlanta. Slums, often the most neglected part of the urban services system, and the areas ‘red-lined’ by white bankers for generations, were bulldozed and destroyed under a system of comprehensive city planning. Federal ‘urban renewal’ spending brought wholesale destruction to many U.S. cities, as did the placement of Federal highways of the post-war era, and Atlanta is typical of these serious dislocations. With poor Blacks concentrated in the south central ghetto, this area was an immediate target of the federal urban renewal process and bloc grant federal spending programs. The Atlanta Civic Center (UGA Alumni Hall) and Fulton Stadium areas were cleared with no good faith attempt to replace the destroyed black residences. Comprehensive city planning was definitely prejudicial to African American Atlanta and this corrosion of black housing stock continued into the late 1990’s with blacks disproportionately displaced for the new Olympic facilities. Comprehensive urban planning was also harmonious with segregation strategies when it came to annexation and expansion of the city’s jurisdiction. Mayor Hartsfield was successful in engrossing Druid Hills and Buckhead into Atlanta, forestalling a black electoral majority for a few years. Subsequent attempts at expansion of the civic borders into the northeast were failures -- and the attempt polarized the city, activating the black voting bloc so feared by the pre-1974 white city officials.

In the 20th century blacks faced a hostile Atlanta dominated by white elites. Parks, schools and public attractions were denied to them or only offered in separate and unequal facilities. Roads would end, fences and physical assaults would be endured, bank loans were denied and opportunities for black Atlantans were generally squashed or diminished. Bayor’s careful and exhaustive quantitative and qualitative investigation into many primary documents and contemporary secondary sources allows us to clearly see an issue that was regularly clouded by denial, silence and misunderstandings at the time. Race and the Shaping of 20th Century Atlanta is a companion piece to Thomas J. Sugrue’s 1998 Bancroft Award winning The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue identifies many of the same policies as Bayor and makes it clear that “redlining” was a federally sponsored policy: “Like every other black section of Detroit, the West Side was marked “D” or “Red” on the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation appraisal maps of Detroit, flagging the area as unsuitable for Federal loans or subsidies (Sugrue, page 38).” I quote this because it shows ‘red-lining’ to be not a private business decision, but a public policy supported by federal offices in the post-war era. When one compares Bayor’s analysis of Atlanta with Sugrue’s analysis of events in Detroit, it becomes hard to resist the conclusion that the non-violent political leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King almost single-handedly prevented massive urban rioting in Atlanta over these many grievances.

The attempted apartheid of Atlanta was a product of local elected officials, state, federal and city urban planners and financial elites. Bayor’s incisive and exhaustive research clearly shows the importance of race to the spatial shaping of the city of Atlanta as it appears today, with a 90% statistical correlation of segregation in residential housing. Atlanta is now more strictly segregated by race than it was in 1940. Whites and Blacks experienced and enjoyed wholly different Atlanta’s in the 20th century, and as lunch counters became legally integrated, housing, in general, did not.

Shanet Clark, GSU ATLANTA

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