September 21, 1998
Volume 51, No. 5
White paints balanced pictures of Atlanta history
Ask Dana White if he considers himself a Southerner (or an Atlantan--not the same thing to many people), and he will laugh. White, a professor of urban history who specializes in Atlanta's past, grew up in New York but has been living here and writing about the city since 1970.
"I consider myself an Atlantan, in a way," White said. "My wife [Patricia] and I joke about this because she's from Georgia. We were over in Augusta at a party, and she overheard someone going on about how terrible the Yankees were. Patricia has sort of a devilish sense of humor, and she turned to this person and said, 'Well, Dana's a Yankee.' And the person said, 'Oh no, he's too nice to be a Yankee.'"
White's friends may think so, but not everyone in town does. In a city that has prided itself on, well, itself since it was founded, White is guilty of telling history as it actually is--not how Atlanta's boosters want it to be. "I don't feel any responsibility for putting a good spin on this city or any other," he said.
"My response is, I'm a professional scholar. If you go to an eye doctor, you want the eye doctor to help correct your vision; you don't want him to tell you you have pretty eyes. And that's how I feel about history. If the story is less than flattering, to me that's the history of the human race."
His detractors aside, White must be doing something right because his name is attached to many of the highest-profile local projects delving into Atlanta history. He consulted on design for both the Atlanta History Center's "Metropolitan Frontiers" exhibit and the Ivan Allen Jr. Braves Museum and Hall of Fame at Turner Field. He co-wrote the award-winning "Making of Modern Atlanta" television series from 1991-93, and almost 20 years ago White served as historical consultant for the 50-episode radio documentary, "Living Atlanta: An Oral History from World War I thru World War II."
Currently White and film studies Professor Matthew Bernstein are collaborating on an NEH-funded project that examines segregated theatergoing in Atlanta from 1895 up to and beyond desegregation in 1962. Of the many interesting nuggets of history they've unearthed so far, one is the presence of an official city "film censor," who screened--and sometimes pulled--films for Atlanta movie houses.
"Most of movie censorship nationally had to do with sex--you couldn't have people in bed, even if they were married," White said. "But in Atlanta it was three things: sex or risqué films, films having to do with race and films having to do with the South."
One censor, who served from 1925 to 1944, had a problem with films showing too many African Americans at all, much less any in interracial social settings. Such blatant racism in the "City Too Busy to Hate" is nothing new to White, who served his first 12 years at Emory on a joint appointment with Atlanta University. Though he didn't anticipate studying racial history before coming South, White saw that Atlanta's struggles with race were perhaps unique.
"The black middle class in this city has been different from many other cities; what became the Atlanta University Center, with the schools being established here after the Civil War, that's made a difference," he explained. "We tend to overlook this, but when Emory came here in 1915, AU was already established. There were faculty members in that early Atlanta University setting, really until the 1920s or '30s, who far eclipsed anyone who was on this campus."
Thus the large number of well-educated blacks coming out of the AU center created a black middle class much larger in comparison to that of most cities. But while life may have been easier for them, for lower-class blacks Atlanta was not much different from other Southern cities--and might have been worse.
"Atlanta was a very regressive city in terms of race for much of the 20th century; it's just been papered over. The Negro Digest of 1948-49 picked Atlanta as one of the 10 worst cities for blacks in the United States," White said. "The middle-class blacks could escape a large part of the negative consequences of segregation. But the city was pretty bad in many ways. Atlanta to a large extent has rewritten much of its history, and that's understandable. Much urban history is celebratory--much history is."
One might think that White would be ready for another subject, having concentrated on Atlanta for so long. But on the contrary--the more he learns about Atlanta history, the more the same names keep popping up at different points throughout the years, and the more fascinated White becomes.
"I'd read about Leo Frank 20 years ago, but now I've got him involved as part of this [film] project," White said, referring to the infamous case of 1915 in which a Jewish man (Frank) was wrongly convicted and then lynched for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Frank has been the subject of several books and movies, and Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry's musical based on the case is due to premiere this fall.
"The Leo Frank case was unique because it had such a long-term impact," White said. "One of the films [Bernstein and I are] looking at is called, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; it's a film based on a book called, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang. The author was arrested here, escaped and rebuilt his life in Chicago. He went to Marietta to catch the train up north, and as he's sitting there, he thinks, 'This is where Leo Frank was lynched.' That was in his mind."
Interestingly enough, that film, released in 1932, was not censored in Atlanta, as had been two other films about Leo Frank. It seems the powers-that-be at the time thought the local residents could stand to see the bad of their city alongside the good. Just like Dana White does now.