Atlanta Race Riot 1906

Reply Wed 28 Dec, 2011 07:39 pm
I covered alot of two sided race riots between whites and blacks now I'll get to ones that were one sided or massacres. On a warm and sultry Saturday, on Sept. 22, 1906, thousands of whites in Atlanta joined together in the downtown area and began attacking and killing blacks in the city. The violence continued for four days. By the official count, 12 blacks and two whites were killed. Although many historians say dozens were murdered, the 1906 race riot has not been commemorated or taught in schools until now.

The riot broke out in the Five Points area of Atlanta, the heart of the city. Today, Five Points is the center of a bustling downtown area, with high-rise office buildings and banks. Even then, Atlanta was considered the capital of the New South. People came from farms in search of better jobs and a better life. Many were poor and many were black, adding to racial and class tensions.

A Pressure Cooker of Anxieties

"There was a great deal of concern about the city itself, and the decaying morals associated with an urban environment," says Cliff Kuhn, a history professor at Georgia State University. That anxiety, he says, extended to debates about the proper role of women and of race.

The 1906 governor's campaign fueled the racial fire. Clark Howell and Hoke Smith, rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, spent much of the time debating how they could get rid of black men at the polls. The newspapers printed stories of local lynchings and of the need for a new Klan organization to control blacks. Saloons — known as dives — were targeted along Decatur Street. Prohibitionists called them havens for black criminals.

Then came a barrage of headlines of alleged attacks on white women. Four such alleged attacks were reported in the papers in rapid succession.

Kuhn tells the story: "Newsboys are hawking these editions: 'Extra! Extra! Read all about it!' And at the corner of Pryor and Decatur Street, a man gets up on a soapbox and waves one of these newspaper headlines and says, 'Are we going to let them do this to our white women? Come on, boys!' And the mob surges down Decatur Street."

Mayhem and Murder on the Streets

Thousands of whites congregated downtown, armed with any kind of weapon they could find: pitch forks, guns and knives. Kuhn says the riot began about 10 o'clock. It was, he says, "a pitched battle in the heart of downtown Atlanta, involving as many as 10,000 white men and hundreds of black men and women, who were unfortunate enough to be there on the street."

One of those who witnessed the riot was 13-year-old Walter White, the son of a letter carrier. He was black, although he didn't look it, with blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. His niece, Rose Martin Palmer, recalls White's story.

"When they got up to Peachtree, towards the Herndon barber shop, he saw the mob," Palmer says. "And this little boy with this withered foot ran out of the barber shop. And [Walter] saw him clubbed to death by the mob. And this is what stirred in him the feeling of understanding of what hatred was all about — race hatred."

This was the defining moment for Walter White, who went on to devote much of his life to improving race relations; he would eventually became the executive secretary of the NAACP.

Others recall stories of the 1906 race riot that remained with them all their lives.

Evelyn Witherspoon, a white woman who was 10 years old at the time, was interviewed in 1980 for a documentary that aired on WRFG in Atlanta.

"I woke somewhere around midnight and could feel tension in the room," she told WRFG. "My mother and her sister were kneeling in front of the window, looking out into the street. I got up and said, 'What is it?' They said, 'Go back to bed.' But I knew something was going on, and I came to the window and knelt down between them. And there I saw a man strung up to the light pole. Men and boys on the street below were shooting at him, until they riddled his body with bullets. He was kicking, flailing his legs, when I looked out." Black man that witnessed the riot
Late in the afternoon friends of my fatherÌs came to warn of more trouble that night. They told us that plans had been perfected for a mob to form on Peachtree Street just after nightfall to march down Houston Street to what the white people called “Darktown,” three blocks or so below our house, to “clean out the niggers.” There had never been a firearm in our house before that day. Father was reluctant even in those circumstances to violate the law, but he at last gave in at MotherÌs insistence.

We turned out the lights early, as did all our neighbors. No one removed his clothes or thought of sleep. Apprehension was tangible. We could almost touch its cold and clammy surface. Toward midnight the unnatural quiet was broken by a roar that grew steadily in volume. Even today I grow tense in remembering it.

Father told Mother to take my sisters, the youngest of them only six, to the rear of the house, which offered more protection from stones and bullets. My brother George was away, so Father and I, the only males in the house, took our places at the front windows of the parlor. The windows opened on a porch along the front side of the house, which in turn gave onto a narrow lawn that sloped down to the street and a picket fence. There was a crash as Negroes smashed the street lamp at the corner of Houston and Piedmont Avenue down the street. In a very few minutes the vanguard of the mob, some of them bearing torches, appeared. A voice which we recognized as that of the son of the grocer with whom we had traded for many years yelled, “ThatÌs where that nigger mail carrier lives! LetÌs burn it down! ItÌs too nice for a nigger to live in!” In the eerie light Father turned his drawn face toward me. In a voice as quiet as though he were asking me to pass him the sugar at the breakfast table, he said, “Son, don't shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then—don't you miss!”

The mob moved toward the lawn. I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man. Suddenly there was a volley of shots. The mob hesitated, stopped. Some friends of my fatherÌs had barricaded themselves in a two-story brick building just below our house. It was they who had fired. Some of the mobsmen, still bloodthirsty, shouted, “LetÌs go get the nigger.” Others, afraid now for their safety, held back. Our friends, noting the hesitation, fired another volley. The mob broke and retreated up Houston Street.

In the quiet that followed I put my gun aside and tried to relax. But a tension different from anything I had ever known possessed me. I was gripped by the knowledge of my identity, and in the depths of my soul I was vaguely aware that I was glad of it. I was sick with loathing for the hatred which had flared before me that night and come so close to making me a killer; but I was glad I was not one of those who hated; I was glad I was not one of those made sick and murderous by pride.

A City Engulfed in Chaos

As the chaos continued, barber shops and other black businesses were attacked, along with street cars. Both races used street cars for transportation — whites sitting in the front and blacks in the rear. Black men and women were pulled off street cars, beaten and killed.

The riot continued for days. The governor called out the militia. More than 250 blacks were arrested in Brownsville, south of Atlanta, after a white policeman was killed there as the community tried to defend itself. Clarissa Myrick Harris, a history professor and co-curator of an exhibit about the Atlanta riot, says the number of victims was much greater than the official records show.

"Bodies disappeared," Harris says. "Families did not want it known that their loved ones died during the riot, because they feared further retribution. They feared that someone would come attack them."

Atlanta officials, she says, also did not want the true death toll reported, because "that would further damage the reputation of the city."

An Opening for Interracial Dialogue

The Atlanta riot was reported in most major newspapers across the country and in the foreign press, including papers in England, France and Italy. Local leaders covered up the extent of the crimes, hoping to preserve Atlanta's reputation as a progressive place to live and do business.

Others wanted to make sure a riot didn't happen again. Elite white and black leaders in Atlanta began meeting. Andy Ambrose, another curator of the riot exhibit, says the meetings marked the beginning of interracial cooperation in the city.

"It's not a coming together of equals," Ambrose says of those hesitant first efforts at interracial dialogue. "But it is an important coming together of black and white leaders, to some extent, to try to address some of the issues that contributed to the riot."

The modern-day civil-rights movement grew out of the biracial coalitions that were established at that time. Many current leaders will gather this weekend for a series of events commemorating the 1906 race riot, including a memorial service, walking tours and an exhibit called "Red Was the Midnight," at the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site.

"What we hope people will understand is that problems cannot be ignored," says exhibit co-curator Harris. "Negative things that have occurred in the city's history cannot be ignored, and current conditions that are not beneficial to people in the community cannot be ignored. We have to address them."

To make sure Atlanta children grow up knowing this part of their history, a group has developed a curriculum to teach the 1906 race riot in middle and high schools. They're also working to establish memorial markers to identify the bloodiest spots downtown where so many African-Americans were murdered.
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Lustig Andrei
Reply Wed 28 Dec, 2011 08:04 pm
Thank you, indeed, for posting that, kobereal. I must admit total ignorance of this event prior to today. We've been fed a lot of bs about Sherman's march to the sea and the burning of Atlanta. But that was war. This was racism of the most virulent sort.

We've also been fed some semi-accurate pap about how, during the civil rights disturbances of the 1960s, Atlanta escaped any serious racial confrontations (unlike Montgomery and Selma, Ala.). From that, one gets the idea that here the races have always lived more or less peacefully together. The story of the 1906 riot is an eye-opener.
Reply Wed 28 Dec, 2011 08:13 pm
There was a similar race riot in Wilmington, N.C. a few years earlier.

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Reply Wed 28 Dec, 2011 09:04 pm
@Lustig Andrei,
You could have similar ideas about Denver and Tulsa, if you didn't know better.
Lustig Andrei
Reply Wed 28 Dec, 2011 09:08 pm
Tulsa,not so much, but, yes, I always thought of Denver as quite well integrated.
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