Before the rising sun clears the buildings to heat up Atlanta, Auburn Avenue is silent, but awake. Past Piedmont, where weary students head to class, a ghost town sits. A dusty man sits on a bench in John Calhoun Park, wearing a coat, hat and threadbare jeans in the humidity. Further east a couple of aged women sit on the steps of the Big Bethel AME Church. One, in a thin dress with the straps hanging off her shoulders, stares at her hands. The other, with a leathery, dark- skinned face wears dingy socks in place of shoes. Her milky eyes watch thrashers make a nest in the “A” of the blue “JESUS SAVES” sign mounted on the steeple.
This is John Wesley Dobb’s Sweet Auburn: “the richest Negro street in the world.”
Georgia State’s ‘opportunity’
“More recently, over the summer, the National Trust came out with a new list of endangered places and the Sweet Auburn District was one of those places listed, ” said Richard Laub, director of the Heritage Preservation Program at Georgia State.
The National Trust came to Auburn Avenue to personally relay the alarming news.
After the news, the Sweet Auburn Stakeholders, including Laub, was formed. Created by the National Trust and the Historic District Development Cooperation (HDDC), the Sweet Auburn Stakeholders include Councilman Kwanza Hall, Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Preservation Center, Fulton County Commission and the Atlanta History Center.
Laub was the only person from Georgia State that was a member.
“I’m not representing the university so much as representing that place,” Laub said. “I’m not privy to the university’s design decisions or what they’re going to be doing.”
The situation intensified when news of Georgia State’s purchase of the Atlanta Life building reached the stakeholders.
After the meeting, Laub reached out to Georgia State administrators. Laub and Mtamanika Youngblood, former president of the HDDC and the chairman of its board, met with Jerry Radcliff, the vice president of finance for Georgia State.
“Jerry was very reassuring in terms of what the intentions were in regards to Georgia State,” Laub said. “He said if Georgia State goes into the Sweet Auburn historic district they are looking to rehabilitate buildings or to build buildings on empty sites that would be compatible with architecture of the area. Just saying that was a big relief for a lot of people in the stakeholder’s meeting.”
Georgia State’s move into Sweet Auburn includes 100 Auburn Avenue and the building at 60 Piedmont.
Between the two Georgia State buildings sits the historic Atlanta Life structure. The HDDC is currently protecting the properties, hoping they can be purchased by an organization with the power to revive it.
“Georgia State University has a great opportunity here,” Youngblood said. “Those two buildings are in a dangerous place.”
The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 caused black business owners to migrate to the area surrounding Wheat Street. Wheat Street soon became Auburn Avenue—the Mecca for African- American prosperity. Home to the black elite, Atlanta’s African-American middle and upper class thrived on Auburn Avenue. The Atlanta Daily World, founded in 1928 by Morehouse graduate William Alexander Scott II, was the first black daily in the US. Nightclubs, a hotel, grocery stores and churches lined the street. Atlanta blacks did not need to leave the corridor of cosmopolitan Auburn Avenue to find all the comforts of big city life.
Sweet Auburn’s most powerful success story may belong to Alonzo Herndon. Herndon was born in 1858 as a slave in Walton County. Emancipated at age seven, Herndon became a sharecropper in Social Circle.
With $11 in his pocket, Herndon opened a successful barbershop in Clayton County. His business savvy led him to Sweet Auburn, where he started Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Catering to the black community of Atlanta, Herndon’s multi-million-dollar company made him Atlanta’s first black millionaire.
His success can still be seen on the corner of Courtland Street and Auburn Avenue. The impressive Atlanta Life building, with its unique stone façade and striking glass walls, was just purchased by Georgia State this summer.
The original Atlanta Life Insurance buildings, only footsteps away from Georgia State’s latest acquisition, are all but forgotten. Slats of particleboard keep the sun out of places where windows and doors used to be. Vines and weeds grow over cracked plaster on the walls. A dirty rain-soaked blanket, alongside empty vodka bottles, rests in one of the original entry ways. A makeshift bed for one of the city’s homeless is all the building is used for now.
What went wrong?
“Probably what was the biggest detriment to Auburn Avenue was the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Laub said.
“It’s a little ironic that with more freedom it became a less popular place to go because African-Americans basically had freedom to go anywhere they wanted to,” Laub said.
As African-Americans enjoyed commerce and socializing anywhere in the city, Sweet Auburn lost its usefulness.
“When it was a segregated neighborhood basically all African-Americans had to shop there.” Laub said.
The churches, hair salons and shops of Auburn Avenue were the focal point of African-American life. The YMCA was a cornerstone of the community and politics.
“But once the Civil Rights act was passed then African-Americans could go anywhere. There was a big disinvestment in Sweet Auburn and in the Auburn Avenue corridor,” Laud said. “That’s where you would mark the beginning of the decline of that business district.”
Laub started working on the Auburn Avenue effort in the 80s.
More than a decade ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put Sweet Auburn on the endangered historic neighborhood list for the first time. It was number 11 in the country.
Laub, with the HDDC and other concerned groups, focused on the King Center and the southern tip of the Old Fourth Ward that contains Dr. King’s birth home to keep the neighborhood from loosing its historic status.
“Through the 90s there was a lot of work that was done on [the residential] end of Auburn Avenue,” Laud said.
For more than 30 years, the HDDC helped revitalize the Auburn Avenue residential district near Dr. King’s birth home. As it revitalized, the commercial district of Sweet Auburn continued to experience trouble.
“I have been here to see, frankly it’s been over time, but the dramatic change. The good news is that it is for the better, which doesn’t always happen in neighborhoods,” Youngblood said. She had lived on Auburn Avenue for more than 27 years.
The success of the residential revival has not been enough to spark new business interest in the dilapidated commercial district of Sweet Auburn.
“It’s time to turn our attention back to Auburn Avenue,” Youngblood said.
More than History
There aren’t many historic buildings left on the street.
“These two buildings,” Laub said, “are probably some of the key buildings on Auburn Avenue, and across the street at the Atlanta Daily World.”
The Atlanta Daily World was almost demolished, but Youngblood said it “galvanized” neighborhood leaders to save the street.
“We really can’t afford to lose any more of our historic fabric, and there is a real reason for that,” Youngblood said. “In addition to the more emotional, psychological and economic one the reality is that with the demolition of the block that is currently Renaissance Walk we were told by the Historic Preservation Commission…that we were on the presuppose of losing our landmark status.”
Youngblood fears that losing one more building will render the street no longer historic in the eyes of the government.
Although the Atlanta Trust and other organizations care for Sweet Auburn, Youngblood said that leadership within the neighborhood is the only way real action and change can happen.
“To get folks to move, that’s leadership,” Youngblood said.
Aside from the historic value of the neighborhood, Youngblood said there is a lot to move for; people travel from all over the world to come see Sweet Auburn.
“It’s a literal gold mine, and we haven’t mined it,” Youngblood said.
“They come because they recognize that Dr. King was a unique world citizen and they want to see what birthed him,” Youngblood said. “What kind of place was the cradle and Genesis for his work and the cradle and Genesis for the Civil Rights movement.”
Many cities have tall buildings, aquariums, theme parks and big universities to attract tourists.
“That’s really all we have that’s unique,” Youngblood said of Sweet Auburn.
Youngblood is perplexed at why the economic opportunities alone do not provide enough motivation for people to invest in Auburn Avenue. After all, tourists bring money.
“It’s money we’ve left on the street—we’ve left on the ground,” Youngblood said. “So even if you don’t get the historic significance, or if you get it you don’t care, because some people don’t really care about it, which is another story. Even if you don’t get that part, I don’t see how you don’t get the money part.”
“Schools like Georgia State, because of its location, and the historically black colleges and universities, because of the their historic development relationships as a result of Auburn Avenue finances, should put effort into the revitalization and awareness of Auburn’s impact on life in Atlanta,” said Georgia State alum Sheena Williams.
Williams is a graduate of the African- American studies program. Most of her studies included Auburn Avenue.
“With a prominent business area and an emphasis on its remarkable history, Georgia State can definitely utilize this to and to the schools charisma and diversity,” Williams said.
Youngblood was saddened by Atlanta Life’s decision to sell its current building, but said that Georgia State buying the space did create an opportunity.
“Georgia State has always been here, but not with the force, frankly, that it’s here now,” Youngblood said. “It has the resources and it brings with it students and faculty, and opportunity to help us as we try and figure out how Auburn Avenue can be the really special place that it should be.”
Youngblood believes it takes a community—a community Georgia State is a key member of. Georgia State has students, teachers and parents that have a lot to learn from Sweet Auburn.
“There’s a lesson, there’s something there that we should be mining not just economically but intellectually as well,” Youngblood said. “We are in a position, I think, to really rally all of the stakeholders, to see and view Auburn Avenue for the opportunity it provides. We’re not just stuck in time.”