Portrait of Its People
Reviewed by John Griffin
Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 26-27
Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948, by Clifford M. Kuhn, Harlon E. Joye, and E. Bernard West (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. 406 pp., photographs, notes.).
The “official” history of Atlanta, a three-volume work produced some years ago by the Atlanta Historical Society, was a painstakingly assembled work compiled from many sources and written by a historian and a journalist with extensive help from the Society’s staff.
Living Atlanta is a different but no less important book, a history edited and organized by two historians and a sociologist and published jointly with the Historical Society. Most of its raw material came not from traditional historical sources but from the memories of 173 men and women who lived in Atlanta at some time during the years
between 1914 and 1948.
There is the credibility question, of course, when the historian presents information gleaned from the memory of individuals who were “there” forty or more years ago. Nonetheless, social history based on the memories of participants and first-hand observers in yesterday’s events often makes for easier and even more enjoyable reading than do conventional histories.
Georgia State University historian Clifford Kuhn and associates Harlan Joye and Bernard West interviewed about 200 people who lived in Atlanta during the years from just before World War Ito just after World War II. Their taped interviews were first used as the basis for a series of fifty programs broadcast on an Atlanta radio station. The series was widely acclaimed; Studs Terkel described the programs as an important, exciting project–a truly human portrait of a city of people.” It is from this abundant material–6,000 pages when transcribed–that Kuhn and his associates have fashioned their social history of Atlanta during a pivotal 34-year period of its life.
So much is here in these pages: men and women in a variety of low-paying jobs; cotton mill workers in debt to the company store; the problems of policing the city during Prohibition; remembrances of working and riding on the railroads and the streetcars; life in the public housing projects. There is testimony, too, about the Depression and how it touched people in all walks of life, about the struggle for adequate medical care; about domestic work with its long hours and low pay. There are also quotes from people in professional fields, and some from the movers and shakers.
This history is not organized chronologically; the material is presented under eleven topics, such as World War I, Depression and New Deal, Leisure. Politics, and so on. The authors acknowledge that these are but a few of the topics that might have been explored. Nonetheless, their special purpose was, to reflect as much as possible all the city’s people, not just the “white elite.”
The central sub-theme that runs through the book is race relations in a segregated urban place. In pursuing this concern, the writers quote extensively blacks who endured second-class citizenship in most aspects of their lives. Only in the community of professional people and others around the Atlanta University Center and among the successful businessmen and women like those on Sweet Auburn Avenue could blacks escape from some degree of discrimination and harassment.
This very readable book written from the perspective of the people enlightens and enlivens the history of Atlanta. It deserves wide attention.
John A. Griffin, scholar, public servant, foundation executive, is and has been above all a leader over decades of “southern change.”