June 11, 2001
Bauerlein throws book at 1906 Atlanta race riot
By Michael Terrazas email@example.com
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 placea 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. Bauerleins 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 riotwhich
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). Smiths 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 womenthis was an era in which simply making
eye contact with a white woman could land a black man in prisoncombined
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, thats 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 Harpers or the North American
Review, and it holds up pretty well, Bauerlein said. This
is a part of Atlantas 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
Riots dont occur spontaneouslythey take time to build up, sometimes years, Bauerlein said. You have years of social tensions, community memories built up. If a few variables come togethera white police officer shoots a black youthdepending on the setting, that can either be a regrettable incident that leads to a city examining its policies or that officers conduct, or it can be a setting wheres theres only one solutionand thats riot.