The Other U.S. Race Massacres History Didn’t Tell You About: Part I Atlanta

This is part-one of a four-part series.

Cover of “Le Petit Journal”, 7 October, 1906. Depicting the race riots in Atlanta, Georgia. “The Lynchings in the United States: The Massacre of Negroes in Atlanta.”

Atlanta’s Reconstruction

The story begins post-Civil War. Post-war poverty struck the South hard after its defeat in the Civil War. But efforts to rebuild the city during a period known as the Reconstruction era started generating wealth for the city. Atlanta’s population exploded from an estimated 65,000 to 110,000 from 1900 to 1910.

After Emancipation, the [Black] freedmen and their descendants were able to work for wages and thus compete with White people in the job sector though the former were restricted to lower wages and didn’t work in city and county governments, nor financial institutions. Fire and police departments also remained exclusively White.

Friction and animosity from White people grew towards Black people who were now free and working for wages.

African-Americans were still oppressed thanks to the efforts of Jim Crow segregation which affected residential neighborhoods and public transportation.

African-Americans, however, were still making great strides during the reconstruction of Atlanta.

There were a group of Black elites who were distinguished from the Black working class such as African-American entrepreneur, Alonzo Herndon, who operated a refined barbershop which served prominent White men.

Politics, racism, and voter suppression

White politicians were not happy with the efforts to involve more African-Americans in politics, and they exploited the fears of the working-class White people who had not been given the preferential treatment they were used to.

Through state requirements from 1877, the Black vote was limited via poll taxing, record keeping, and other devious methods. The elite African-Americans could still vote, however.

M. Hoke Smith and Clark Howell, who were campaigning for the gubernatorial election of 1906, realized this would be a problem.

They decided to use their influence in to incite fears among White voters. Smith was a former publisher of the Atlanta Journal and Howell was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

Both publications would spread [false] rumors of saloons and bars known as “dives” having nude pictures of women. Reports also alleged of assaults on White women were publicized by the Atlanta Georgian and the Atlanta News. Other petty crime would be rumored to stoke more tension and fear.

Their political propaganda worked; entertainment also helped facilitate a renewed sense of White pride and a fierce belief in the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Clansman play, based on the fictional novel by Thomas Dixon Jr., was reported to be a contributing factor as thousands of White people watched the play in Savannah.

The story Dixon told romanticized the original KKK as protectors with the takeaway from viewers that the South would rise again. The Clansman’s imagery featured Latin cross-burning. This was adopted after the KKK reformed thanks to Dixon’s 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation. Dixon had Scottish ancestry and the Scottish tradition called Crann Tara was used. The burning of the cross was a call to clan members to arms. Dixon also invented the white robe. He protested their appropriation of the livery he created.

The Atlanta Massacre of 1906

On September 22 1906, Atlanta newspapers would ignite the fire which led to the beginning of attacks and killings of African-Americans.

The newspapers reported four women were sexually assaulted. Two Black men would later be captured and indicted by a grand jury for the rape of Ethel Lawrence and her aunt.

Initially, mobs of White men were reported to be only about several dozens. They attacked, beat, stabbed and shot Black people.

This was, unfortunately, just the beginning.

Additional papers were printed by midnight and an estimated mob of 10,000–15,000 White people formed.

They destroyed Black property and chased down any African-Americans in site. By 10:00 PM the following day, three Black people were reportedly killed with dozens more treated at the hospital; five would later die. Three of them were women.

Streetcars were immobilized in the hopes it would deter mobs from continuing their reign of terror. And Governor Joseph M. Terrell called out eight companies of the Fifth Infantry and one battery of light artillery.

By September 24 2:30 am — 25 to 30 Black people were reportedly killed with property damage to Black-owned buildings including Herndon’s barbershop. Two White people were confirmed dead including a woman who died o a heart attack after seeing a White mob outside of her home.

In the end, no White people were arrested. Black people, however, were either jailed, dead, injured and many more displaced after fleeing for their lives. Even the Georgia National Guard were accused of beating Black people instead of aiding them.

Atlanta buried this history for a century and it wasn’t until 2006, exactly a century later, that the event was publicly marked.

A year later, it was finally included in the public school curriculum.

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