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June 11, 2001

Bauerlein throws book at 1906 Atlanta race riot

By Michael Terrazas


When Mark Bauerlein moved to Inman Park during the 1996 Olympics, he quickly realized there was more to Atlanta than strip malls and freeways. And one day, while walking up historic Auburn Avenue toward downtown, he began to learn just how much more.

“I came across a construction area that had the plywood siding set up, and I spotted on one of them a reproduction of a French newspaper in full color,” he said. “I read the caption: ‘The Massacre of Negroes!’ And I thought What is this?”

It was the front page of Le Petit Parisien from October 1906, reporting on events that transpired in Atlanta two weeks previous, from the evening of Saturday, Sept. 22, until the morning of Monday, Sept. 24, and depicted in a full-page illustration: crowds of black Atlantans running for their lives away from mobs of angry whites. It was the Atlanta race riot, and Bauerlein never knew it had even happened.

“I began to get more and more into this and realized there was a remarkable event that took place—a lot of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, some extraordinarily bad things and a few extraordinarily good things,” Bauerlein said. “There was something of a watershed moment that took place here in U.S. history.”

Indeed, an event significant and intriguing enough to prompt an English professor who specializes in 19th century American literature to research and write a book of local history. Bauerlein’s Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906, which details the riot and the events and social conditions that led up to it, was published last month by Encounter Books of San Francisco.

Written as a chronological narrative that often takes on the nuances of a novel, the book traces the eponymic social condition that gradually took hold of the city in the months leading up to the riot—which officially claimed 12 lives, though Bauerlein believes the actual toll to be much higher, especially black deaths.

Throughout its history, Atlanta has prided itself on being the kind of city where bustling commerce trumps the sort of social ills that befall other Southern towns. But 1906 witnessed a bitter battle between Clark Howell and Hoke Smith for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (in the post-Reconstruction South, the Democratic primary essentially was the election). Smith’s race-baiting prompted Howell, who previously had been as racially “moderate” as any Southern politician of the day, to inject more and more venom into his racial policies. By voting day, both men were explicitly calling for Negro disenfranchisement.

As summer turned into fall, a rash of so-called “assaults” by black men upon white women—this was an era in which simply making eye contact with a white woman could land a black man in prison—combined with the racially charged political campaign to foment an atmosphere of out-and-out Negrophobia, and any random encounter could provide enough of a spark to light the powder keg of riot.

“The level of blood lust of the rioters in some cases was surprising,” Bauerlein said. “When rioters start carving their initials in the backs of their victims with knives, that’s surprising. Even with a lynching, you at least have a target who is alleged to have committed some crime, so there is some sense of community ‘justice,’ however twisted and maniacal it is.”

Bauerlein also turned up some individuals largely forgotten in the pages of history, including Max Barber, a young black journalist who edited the strikingly avant-garde The Voice of the Negro, a monthly magazine that was publishing the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope before the NAACP was even founded.

“You can set the table of contents for The Voice along those of the other leading monthlies like Harper’s or the North American Review, and it holds up pretty well,” Bauerlein said. “This is a part of Atlanta’s past that has just disappeared. So this book is trying to bring back not only the racism and the violence and the catastrophe of the riot, but this municipal world that was an intellectual center for white and black, where you had a form of intellectual diversity that the riot destroyed for the most part.”

Readers might also carry away some lessons for the present, since race riots are far from being a relic of history, as evidenced by the recent riot in Cincinnati, touched off by the killing of a black youth by a white policeman.

“Riots don’t occur spontaneously—they take time to build up, sometimes years,” Bauerlein said. “You have years of social tensions, community memories built up. If a few variables come together—a white police officer shoots a black youth—depending on the setting, that can either be a regrettable incident that leads to a city examining its policies or that officer’s conduct, or it can be a setting where’s there’s only one solution—and that’s riot.”


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