Atlanta’s Black Heritage

Our reputation certainly precedes us; and it is said that Atlanta is the Black Mecca.  I heard through the grape vine that Tom Joyner has been quoted saying, “Don’t no more Black people go to Atlanta.  They’ve got enough.  Go to Charlotte (NC).”

Atlanta’s Black population has seen amazing growth.  Within the city limits in 1970, according to the US census, the African American population was 255,051 (at 51.3%); the population rose to 282,911 in 1980 (at 66.6%); and in 1990, even though the number slipped down to 264,262, the percentage of the total population was 67%.   Folk say if you are Black and you have a salable skill and some “get up and go” you can make it in Atlanta.  We have become the promise land for upwardly mobile Black people.  Those who have retired from decent jobs up north are moving here to get the house for $250,000 and live in the suburbs.  Students come to study in the Atlanta University Center, catch the dogwood fever, and never leave.   Unfortunately, too many of these influxes of new Atlanta Black citizens have not taken the time to study the legacy of the “real” Black Atlanta housewives.  They know almost nothing about the Black Heritage of this city – the capitol of the south.

Where would our heritage be were it not for institutions like Friendship Baptist Church and the colleges and universities in the Atlanta University Center.   “Friendship Baptist Church, sharing a box car with Atlanta University, was founded in 1862,” said Billye Aaron, the former vice president for the Southern Region of the United Negro College Fund; former wife of Reverend Dr. Samuel Williams, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church from 1954 to 1970; and the wife of Henry Aaron, baseball’s legend. “I don’t want to be partial, but Friendship could be called the birthplace of Atlanta’s heritage when one recognizes the astonishing history of this church. Morehouse College, founded in 1867 in Augusta, move to Atlanta in 1879 and into the basement of Friendship for its classes.  Spelman College was born in the basement of the church in 1881,” she added.

“I serve one of the original colleges within the Atlanta University Center – Morris Brown College,” said Dr. Stanley Pritchett, president of Morris Brown. “This institution has a matchless legacy of being the only college founded by Blacks for the purpose of educating Blacks.  We educated thousands of African American teachers who serve throughout Georgia. We struggle daily to hold on to this heritage.  We are maintaining this legacy by the Grace of God and some dedicated alumni, teachers, staff, and friends,” stated Pritchett.

Where is our heritage taking us?  Ralph Long, a third generation Atlantan and a former Georgia State Representative, says “our heritage is in a bit of trouble because the old leaders are not listening to the new leaders.”  Long says, “Old people talk about the past and young people talk about the future.”   Ralph is the grandson of Ralph A. Long Sr, the principal who brought the middle school system to Atlanta; and the nephew of Carolyn Long Banks, a former leader of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, a former Atlanta City Councilperson, and the former president of the National League of Cities.  “The legacy of the Long family is to stand by the people.  We were and still are a family of reformers,” he added.  Ralph Long is “working on spending more time with his son – the fourth generation in the Long heritage.”  Good for you Ralph.

The Black Church has been the foundation for African American communities throughout this country for many years.  We started on our knees asking for God’s salvation and blessings.  It is through the Black Church that we have been able to grasp the vision of what a legacy is all about. We can focus on our heritage and institutionalize this vision for our young people.   “The Black Church remains the cornerstone of our lives; and if you really think about it, the Black Church is one of the few things, if not the only thing, that Black people really own,” said Reverend Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconinum Baptist Church and the former president of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta.   “Here in Atlanta, we own successful businesses that count on contracts from white folks for survival; we have African American institutions of higher learning, but we depend on majority dollars and government grants to keep our schools in the black; but the Black church . . .  how sweet it is.  Atlanta is full of Black churches; but what we have not yet learned to do is to connect the dots between our churches and our businesses in order to keep our financial resources flowing throughout our communities,” he added.

The heritage of Black people is visible for the world to see and Atlantans are proud of these accomplishments.  Once we had access to education and understood our culture, we were a force to be reckoned with.  But somewhere along the way, our reputation as a Black Mecca was misinterpreted; and educated, successful Black people in Atlanta were accused of being “bourgeois” and “cliquish.”  The Atlanta cliques, as you will, came out of the necessity to stick together as a race.  This is why Hunter Street thrived and Auburn Avenue was known as “the richest street of Black business in the world.”  Black people were segregated into cliques.  The schools in the Atlanta University Center provided education and with education came culture.  It was the culture of our people that was mislabeled as bourgeois.  “Where culture goes, there goes critical thinking” says Nell Irvin Painter, in her book The History of White People.   

Because Black Atlanta had three newspapers beginning in 1928 with the Atlanta Daily World, there was a means by which to communicate to the masses of our people.  Of course, the churches, civic clubs and social organizations that sprang up in the Black community, created a “grape vine” for spreading news.  This must have been where Gladys Knight and the Pips, who grew up in Atlanta, got their award-winning song title. The Atlanta Daily World, The Atlanta Inquirer, and The Atlanta Voice  were, and continue to be, a reliable source of news,  giving an accurate reporting about the civil rights movement and the affairs of Black Atlanta.  John Smith Sr, publisher of The Inquirer, speaks about Atlanta’s heritage, “The city’s distinctive African American Heritage is legendary either by its levels of education from within the A U Center complex or by way of fulfilling spiritual enrichment through our houses of worship.  As the “City too busy to hate,” this legacy continues to grow.  Whether from yesteryear or from the new millennium, Atlanta strives to be a city of inclusion and brotherhood.”   Alexis Scott’s family published the Atlanta Daily World and she had this to say, “Atlanta’s Black heritage has been significant in shaping the city and this region into what it is today primarily because of the Atlanta University Center institutions which have for a long time produced and continue to attract a strong Black middle class and an intellectual group of thinkers and visionaries to the city.  These people continue to push the region forward.”

Jerome Russell, president of Russell New Urban Real Estate Development for H. J. Russell & Co., and son of Herman J. Russell, founder and chairman of the board of H. J. Russell & Company, has had front row seats to Black Atlanta.  Russell says, “Sometimes this legacy that many Black Atlantans from my generation have inherited can be a blessing or a curse. Yes, it opens doors.  However, it is critical that we, those who have been blessed with this heritage, maintain a sense of purpose and define what we really are about.  Much is expected of us, and there are preconceived notions that may not be accurate; but if we don’t lose the values that our heritage teaches us, and leverage the positive, we will prevail.” Finally Russell added, “We must grow this legacy.  We can do this if we find our own rhythm, the rhythm of this new generation, and adapt to meet the changes of today’s world and today’s Atlanta.”  The other heirs to the Russell heritage include Michael Russell, the CEO of H. J. Russell & Co., and Donata Russell Ross, CEO of Concessions International (another enterprise founded by H. J. Russell).

“I come from a third generation of Atlantans – and there are many of us here.  We were born and raised here; educated and live here.  Sometimes we are accused of being “privileged.”  We are exceedingly proud of what our families have accomplished and we don’t feel it necessary to apologize for our birthright.  Some of us third generational Atlantans have the spill of blood in our legacy, the bull whips and water hoses are also a part of our heritage,” said Brooke Jackson Edmond, daughter of Maynard H. Jackson, Atlanta’s first African American Mayor, granddaughter of Reverend Maynard H. Jackson Sr, former pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, and the great granddaughter of John Wesley Dobbs, best known as the Mayor of Sweet Auburn Avenue. “My generation is working hard to make Atlanta a better place – just as we saw our parents do; and, more importantly, to keep Atlanta safe and vibrant for our children’s children.   We know that the culture and the legacy of the Dobbs’ and the Jackson’s, the Scott’s, and the Young’s, the King’s and the Abernathy’s, the Holmes’ and the Borders’, the Edmond’s, the Alexander’s and the thousands of other Atlanta families that are the proud off-springs of a brilliant heritage of Black Atlantans must be remembered and continued—generation after generation.  This heritage will be safe in our hands. There is one bit of advice that comes from my father which we try to live by – Just do the right thing.” she added.  Brooke Edmond is one of the founders of Jackmont Hospitality, Inc.

Successful Black business in Atlanta is also a major part of our legacy. This is a heritage straight from the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 that drove Black people to cluster together for their own survival.   “The development and growth of African American business is definitely a part of our heritage – the tradition of businesses such as Paschal Brothers and their restaurant; Yates & Milton drug stores, T. M. Alexander’s Insurance Agency, and hundreds more,” said George Andrews, former president and founder of Capitol City Bank & Trust Company, an African American owned bank which was founded in 1982.  “Atlanta received its notable reputation of Black successful capitalism in business because founders of businesses such as these led the way to entrepreneurial excellence – and Black people in Atlanta demanded excellence!”  When asked who his mentor was when he started in banking, Andrews quickly responded, “It was Maynard Jackson.  I was impressed with the man.  As the mayor of the city, he gave white bankers the ultimatum to support the African American community by recognizing our economic impact in this city.  He requested, no he insisted, that white banks put Black people on their boards and increase their “give back” to the Black community or else — he would withdraw city dollars from white banking institutions and put these funds into Citizens Trust Bank (a Black bank).  Maynard understood the concept of economic empowerment for Black people and he was doing something about it.  That action, by Jackson, has a profound impact on me.”

There is a saying, often used by many – you can read it in a 2003 issue of Black Enterprise.  It says that “Maynard Jackson helped develop a bevy of BE100’s companies and created more Black millionaires than any other public figure.”  But in Atlanta, we feel that through the efforts of his administration, more Black people enjoy a new wealth.  “There is difference between being wealthy and being rich,” continued Mr. Andrews. “Wealth is the achieved accumulation of resources and experiences that places one in a position of empowerment.  You can hit the lottery and become rich and lose your riches quickly; but once you become wealthy, you will never be poor again.  Wealth is measured in terms of empowerment.”

This reaction relative to the position that Mayor Maynard Jackson took toward developing and sustaining African American businesses earned him a place in history and made him legendary in Atlanta’s heritage. He beat the bushes around the USA in the name of the empowerment of Black business.  In his travels he was known to invite promising young people to come to Atlanta and do business. He was branded as the father of affirmative action and other cities patterned their programs after Atlanta.  One of his famous quotes is, “If you don’t like affirmative action, what is your plan to guarantee a level playing field of opportunity?”

A legendry member of Atlanta’s clergy team, Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley, recently retiring from his twenty-five year pastorate of Providence Baptist Church, is a prime example of Atlanta’s present-day legacy.  The Muslim Journal calls Dr. Durley a “warrior minister who transcended his Christian faith and has embraced and encouraged an entire generation of Atlanta’s unique brand of civil rights and human rights leaders.”  This is another example of the heritage that continues to be nurtured within Atlanta’s Black citizenry.  Durley says, “I am committed to a cause.  I did not retire, I just refocused.”  There are many committed people who live and work in this city.  The Black heritage is something that catches on once one has experienced what the city and its people have to offer.

Atlanta continues to grow; and we recognize that now, in this 21st Century, there are many Black faces all over Atlanta.  We are no longer settlers on the west side of the city.   Black Atlanta is everywhereold and young – old school and new school, tech savvy and not, those who love the city and those who want to leave.  The Black population in the city of Atlanta is beginning to move in the opposite direction of growth.  In 2000 Atlanta’s Black population was 255,689; however, 2010 census figures show a drop to 226,894

Just out of graduate school at North Carolina Central University (Durham, NC), I moved to Atlanta in

1965.  I can recall looking for a Chinese restaurant that would serve Black people and could not find one.  I took a job at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) which Vernon Jordan arranged for me.  At Clark, I was able to take advantage of most of the activities held within the AU Center – the museums, the concerts, the lectures – which gave me a profound appreciation of Black Atlanta’s culture and its heritage.  Through my association with the Bonds, the Paschal brothers, and many others, I was involved with those Black people who shaped Atlanta.  This was during the days of the Lyndon Johnson administration/the Economic Opportunity ACT and the “anti-poverty programs” that were being implemented in Atlanta; and I had a job with EOA.  With the help of John Calhoun, we crisscrossed this city building grassroots programs; the learning curb for me was astronomical and I saw Black power in action.  Witnessing a majority Black city council and board of education, Black fire chief and public safety commissioner, and more, I saw the legacy grow and the heritage reach a peak.  Back in the day, when I served the city as its “first lady,” there was no other place in the world like Black Atlanta.  Don’t take my word for it – read the history books.

I had a conversation with a new comer of seven years in the ATL.  He said, “This city is wearing me out.  I am too tempted to compete; and I long for a quieter life.  Where should I go?”  I told him “Charlotte,” but keep your Georgia driver’s license because most likely you will change your mind.

Didn’t know what was going to be next. This was the night of the big election. – Mattiwilda Dobbs, Dr. Irene Dobbs Jackson, (MHJ’s mom), MHJ, Bunnie Jackson, Elizabeth Jackson (our oldest daughter), lots of cousins in the background (I see the Clements). Must say that I was dressed to the “T” – Alligator purse and matching shoe (color wine), Turquoise Dior suit with wine stripes. Wine leather gloves with matching Hermes scarf.

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6 thoughts on “Atlanta’s Black Heritage

    1. Try the History Makers. This is a major organization with lots of information about Black History Makers. They did a piece on me several years ago.

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