Contours of the Color Line
Reviewed by Cliff Kuhn
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 26-27
Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta by Gary M. Pomerantz. (Scribner’s, 1996, 550 pages).
Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta by Ronald H. Bayor. (University of North Carolina Press, 1996, 350 pages).
Despite Atlanta’s emergence as a major American city, until very recently the books treating its past in any sort of depth and complexity have been few and far between. There are various interrelated reasons for this historical neglect, most of them related to the city’s specific development. Ever since its rapid re-construction after the Civil War, Atlanta’s movers and shakers have stressed the city’s modernity, its newness, its departure from the outdated, traditional, old South. Closely associated with this striving has been a remarkable boosterism. Since Henry Grady, Atlanta has had a slew of highly capable city promoters and sloganeers, always mindful of the city’s image. In the 1920s, Atlanta became the first city in the United States to literally advertise itself in popular and business magazines. In more recent years, it has been promoted as “the city too busy to hate” and “the next international city,” slogans which often bore only a casual relationship to reality, to put it mildly. Such an overarching concern with image has served to blunt and limit any critical historical perspective. In addition, the near-mythic status of Gone with the Wind and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the tremendous influx in recent years of newcomers with little appreciation of the city’s traditions have contributed to the local historical amnesia.
Fortunately the situation is beginning to change. Ironically, the Olympics, Atlanta’s latest self-promotional striving, have helped launch a veritable cottage industry of new books on local history which promise to significantly enhance and challenge the received historical wisdom about the city’s past. Among the most important of these recent works are Gary Pomerantz’s Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn and Ronald Bayor’s Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta.
At first glance, these two books could hardly be more different. Atlanta Constitution reporter Pomerantz has crafted a beautifully written saga depicting five generations of the families of former mayors Ivan Allen and Maynard Jackson. Their personal stories are what propel the book, stories which inevitably intersect with the emergence of modern Atlanta. In contrast, personalities are decidedly in the background in Georgia Tech history professor Bayor’s study of race as a crucial and enduring component of all aspects of the city’s development.
Yet there are important similarities between the two works, too. Both authors came to their projects out of an awareness of the centrality of race in Atlanta to this day. Pomerantz refers to “the profound resonance of race” throughout Atlanta’s history (p. 623), while Bayor points to racially-based policy decisions which have had “long-range and often debilitating effects” on the city (p. 256). Both books are exhaustively researched, covering topics not heretofore addressed in the city’s historiography and often providing fresh insights into subjects previously treated by other historians. Unlike other, more chronologically confined works, they examine Atlanta history over the last hundred years, a long range perspective that fosters appreciation of both the continuities and discontinuities in the city’s past. Taken in tandem, the two books provide impressive insights into the contours of the color line in twentieth century Atlanta, and the relationship between the city’s rhetoric and its reality.
Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta attempts to determine the impact of race on the city’s institutional structure and physical development. After briefly describing the racial setting of turn-of-the-century Atlanta and providing an overview of race and electoral politics, Bayor applies his racial lens to a variety of public policy issues both before and after the emergence of black political power. In turn, he examines housing, jobs, recreation, health, the police and fire departments, mass
transit, and the schools.
This topical approach has considerable strengths and a few related weaknesses. It enables Bayor to treat each subject in considerable depth. For instance, the section on residential segregation covers racial zoning, the placement of Atlanta’s roads and highways, urban renewal, public housing, and annexation. On the other hand, each issue is to a large degree compartmentalized, without little sense of how it interrelates with other developments. As an example, some of the leaders in the 1946 voter registration drive (a signal moment in the making of modern Atlanta, incidentally) had cut their organizational teeth trying to get black workers hired at the Bell Bomber plant during World War II.
The cumulative effect of the book is sobering and depressing. Time after time, Bayor demonstrates how racially-based policy decisions made during the era of segregation have left a corrosive legacy in Atlanta, despite shifting power relations. While legal segregation has been toppled and African Americans have made political gains, deep racial divides, increasingly intertwined with class, continue to mark the city. The portrait he paints is a far cry from the one that local image makers have presented to the world.
Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn is a more triumphant book. The triumphs, large and small, are not only those of mayors Jackson and Allen and their kin, but of the city of Atlanta itself. After all, Pomerantz reminds us, Atlanta experienced a comparatively peaceful transition out of the Jim Crow era, did not burn like other cities in the 1960s, and, of course, is hosting the Olympics today.
This by no means implies that Pomerantz is a starry-eyed city booster. On the contrary, he takes great pains to depict the separate but unequal “gulf of geography and culture” that historically divided black and white Atlanta (p. 18). He does this via a chronological approach, alternating chapters on the Allens and Dobbses (Jackson’s family). Each of these families was prominent on their respective side of the color line for generations, yet tellingly they never actually met until 1962. This device works extremely well, not only portraying Atlanta’s racial divide, but linking members of the two families to larger historical currents, and presenting them in their complexity.
Of course, two of the principal characters are mayors Allen and Jackson. Allen is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man, whose pragmatic approach and flexibility served Atlanta extremely well during the 1960s. Pomerantz points to two defining moments in Allen’s career, and by extension in the history of Atlanta: Allen’s triumph over arch segregationist Lester Maddox in the 1961 mayoral election; and his 1963 testimony on behalf of the public accommodationsaccomodations [sic] section in President John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill. The defining moment for Maynard Jackson, elected in 1973 as the South’s first black mayor, was when he held firm on the issue of affirmative action in city jobs, despite experiencing tremendous pressure from the local business community.
The third dominant figure in the book is Jackson’s grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs. Alternately a railroad mail clerk, the head of the black Masons in Georgia, a pioneer in black voter registration, a devoted father of six talented daughters, and the unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue, black Atlanta’s foremost thoroughfare, Dobbs emerges in the book as a larger than life character. For instance, when he spotted Duke Ellington in an Auburn Avenue restaurant, Dobbs successfully invited the famed musician to play the piano in the Dobbs family living room. Pomerantz has performed a great service by resurrecting this colorful figure, who, while still well-known among black Atlantans over fifty, is all but forgotten by the vast majority of metropolitan Atlanta residents.
Neither Pomerantz nor Bayor speculate about what post-Olympics Atlanta might look like. There’s no doubt, however, that clues to this future development can be found in these two fine books, both of which belong on the still short but growing “must read” list on Atlanta history.
Cliff Kuhn is assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948, based on radio interviews which he co-edited with Harlan Joye and Bernard West, provides an-other chronicle of the city.