THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, long before Atlanta
was described as the city too busy too hate, it
was a haven for African-American thinkers and home to a dynamic
black community that included writers, editors, ministers, and
was known for its paternalism, its progressive tolerance of
blacks, says Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein. If
you were a black intellectual, it was the most tolerant place
to be in the South.
So it was all the more unbelievable when, on September 22, 1906,
mobs of angry white citizens took to the streets around downtown
Atlantas Five Points, attacking and even killing black
people at random with guns, knives, clubs, and bricks.
riot was shocking to people, Bauerlein says. They
thought, this is a thriving model of New South cooperationviolence
does not happen here, and racism certainly does not express
itself through anything like a race riot.
the disturbing level of violence, this ugly chapter in Atlantas
history faded to a few lines in some Southern history books.
But Bauerleins recently published Negrophobia: A Race
Riot in Atlanta, 1906, attempts to restore this missing piece
of the past.
think [Negrophobia] is the only attempt to give a full account
of what happened, and Im surprised there havent
been more, Bauerlein says. This was a moment in
the life of the city that was absolutely bizarre and incredibly
intense. A lot of very important people were involved and it
brought together a lot of issues.
interest in the 1906 riot sprung from curiosity about the history
of his own neighborhood, Inman Park. On a walk down Auburn Avenue
some five years ago, he was struck by something he read on an
African-American history display mounted along the side of an
empty building: The Massacre of Negroes! A graphic
color illustration showed black Atlantans frantically fleeing
a crowd of threatening whites. The picture and caption turned
out to be a reproduction of the local French newspaper Le Petit
Journal from 1906, depicting the violent events that rocked
Atlanta that autumn.
did some digging, and the more he learned, the more absorbed
he became. From local archives, city and state records, and
news accounts, he gradually was able to piece together the circumstances
and incidents that led to the deaths of at least sixteen black
Atlantans and possibly many more.
is not a good preservation city, says Bauerlein. It
tears down and erases the past and puts up strip malls instead.
I was really trying to investigate the past, to give more historical
meaning to the streets I drive along each day.
Bauerlein worked to assemble a more complete picture of Atlanta
as it was in the summer and fall of 1906, he came to understand
that the sudden eruption of violence was not so surprising.
Beneath a veneer of civility, social and political tensions
were simmering dangerously in the months leading up to the riot.
close and contentious fight for the Democratic gubernatorial
nomination led candidates Clark Howell and Hoke Smith to abandon
any pretense of racial tolerance and resort to race-baiting.
Meanwhile, controversy brewed between the militant black movement
led by W.E.B. DuBois, whose base was Atlanta, and the more moderate
camp of Booker T. Washington.
the riot, the publication The Voice of the Negro (which matched
for intelligence and wit anything being published in America
at the time, Bauerlein says) was able to strike a militant
stance without any apparent objection from whites. After the
riot, its editor, black intellectual Max Barber, was run out
of town and his offices destroyed. Barber was one of a cadre
of militant black thinkers who coined the term negrophobia
to describe a particular mindset among white Southerners who
looked upon blacks as savage, lazy, degenerate, and ultimately
rapacious. It was often contrasted with paternalism, a more
affectionate, condescending view of blacks as inferior but not
African-American leaders grew in number and influence, blacks
were increasingly perceived by whites as a threat to established
social and political structures, to white supremacy and racial
purity, and perhaps most damning, to white women. The image
of the chaste white Southern woman was one of the most powerful
icons of the time, Bauerlein says; even the slightest hint of
an overture by a black man was enough to whip whites into a
frenzy. On the day the riot broke out, there were four reported
cases of sexual assault by black men against white women. Throughout
the day, the Atlanta Journal released extras with screaming
headlines: Two Assaults, Third Assault.
Though he has called these reports ridiculous, Bauerlein
believes most women were genuinely fearful of African-American
men and probably overreacted in their presence. These allegations,
largely unfounded, were the catalyst that so incensed the white
truth is, riots are never caused by a single event like this,
he says. It takes time and an atmosphere created over
months or years. People feel they have been continuously discriminated
against, attacked, and social and political solutions have been
inadequate. It reaches a point where all you need is for a trigger
event to happen.
the night of September 22, 1906, crowds of whites, mostly men
and boys, stormed the streets of Five Points, intent on harming
or killing any blacks in their path. In just one of dozens of
incidents recounted by Bauerlein in Negrophobia, a horde smashed
the front windows of a barbershop without warning and gunned
down two black barbers (who had been attending to white customers),
then ripped off their clothes and paraded their bleeding bodies
through the streets. Another mob swarmed a streetcar, beating
the black passengers, and clinging on when the car began to
move and police officers desperately tried to push them off.
Pawn shops and hardware stores stayed open all night to unload
their entire inventory of firearms.
the evening wore on and the chaos escalated, uniformed police
officers began to turn their backs on the violence or join the
whites. Five-year-old Margaret Mitchell, ensconced in her familys
home on Peachtree Street, retrieved a sword kept in the house
and, tiptoeing to her father in her nightgown, handed it to
him so that he could better protect the family, according to
Negrophobia. Bauerlein quotes the Evening News: Meanwhile,
strange as it may seem, Negro news boys darted in and out of
the crowd, shouting their extras while members of their race
were slaughtered all around them.
was the wealth of intriguing, if gruesome, anecdotes that led
Bauerlein, a professor of nineteenth century literature, to
write a historical narrative in the first place. What
made me pursue the story was that I kept coming across these
fascinating episodes of individuals trying to cope with or foment
a bizarre chain of eventsit was completely captivating,
groundswell of interest in the book has put Bauerlein in the
news, on C-SPAN, and on more than a dozen radio shows. Negrophobia
has drawn praise from African-American leaders including Atlanta
Mayor Bill Campbell and Congressman John Lewis. Lewis, a longtime
civil rights activist, called the book a story that is
part of our past and needs to be told. . . . Negrophobia takes
us to a place where we must go before we can build a community
at peace with itself.P.P.P.