ACROSS THE COUNTRY
In a ‘City Too Busy to Hate,’ New Attention to an Overlooked Race Massacre
Researchers say that mob violence against Black residents in 1906 played a role in Atlanta’s evolution, whether residents knew it or not.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Atlanta, known for its relentless pursuit of prosperity, there’s an effort to reclaim a horrifying and shameful chapter.
The Rev. Charles Hamilton stood on a narrow median in downtown Atlanta on a busy Monday morning, cars whooshing by just a few feet away on either side. With the modest help of a microphone, he was making a largely futile attempt to cut through the noise and bustle with a message for a city that never slows down.
“It is through acknowledging the past that we move forward with truth and power,” he told the small crowd that had gathered along with passers-by who might have caught some of what he said.
Pastor Hamilton, who leads a local Baptist congregation, and the others had assembled by a statue of a crusading newspaperman from the 1800s that had become a grim landmark. It was there, in 1906, that the bodies of slain Black men had been dumped in an outbreak of racial terror in Atlanta perpetrated by mobs of white people over several days.
It was a harrowing chapter in Atlanta’s story that long seemed abandoned by history. Pastor Hamilton said many residents knew little, if anything, about it. But his vigil this month, tied to the anniversary, was part of a broader effort to draw attention to the massacre and uncover more details, illuminating the many ways its consequences have been felt in Atlanta for generations.
“The truth of your sacrifice will make us free,” the crowd chanted each time Pastor Hamilton called out a victim’s name, working from an incomplete roster since the identities of many remain unknown.
Still, the list was longer than at last year’s vigil: Two more names had been added, a breakthrough that researchers had achieved through tedious work. To date, historians have confirmed that 25 Black people were killed in the violence, though the number could well be higher.
The aim of these efforts to reconstruct and amplify the story of the 1906 massacre has been to encourage Atlanta to recognize the ugliest parts of its history. In recent years, many cities have been reappraising their history and exploring ways of correcting it.
But Atlanta is a singular place in the South, crackling with energy and ambition, luring a relentless influx of newcomers with a sense of possibility that could feel elusive elsewhere. It has been defined in part by a collective embrace of being “the city too busy to hate,” a mantra adopted long ago by white and Black leaders to prioritize the pursuit of prosperity over everything else.
Making the massacre a more widely recognized part of the city’s past, historians and advocates said, was not meant to disprove that mantra, but to complicate it.
“Atlanta is seen as the place that always has it together,” said Darrin Sims, the director of the Truth and Transformation Initiative at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, which has driven much of the work to draw new attention to the massacre.
But for all its differences from much of the South, he said, it was not spared from the burdens of racism.
The conflict in 1906 erupted after incendiary headlines screamed across the pages of competing newspapers, which had published accounts of Black men assaulting white women that were exaggerated or entirely contrived. The articles called for a vigilante patrol.
Their portrayal of Black residents was vicious, describing them with “any kind of horrifying name they could come up with,” said Sylvia M. Johnson, a researcher with the Metro Atlanta chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
“Everywhere they lived was a slum,” she said, “and everywhere they went was rundown, and everything they did was half-witted. And it wasn’t.”
In many ways, the opposite was true: In areas like Brownsville, south of downtown, Black people of that era owned homes, had access to quality higher education, started businesses and established careers.
“This has always been a city of Black progress,” Ms. Johnson said. “There’s a reason there are so many Black colleges in this town — because Black people wanted to progress and they knew they could do it here.”
But that advancement stoked resentment among many white people.
On Sept. 22, 1906, hordes numbering in the thousands converged in downtown Atlanta, according to accounts compiled by historians and researchers, including from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The violence started with an attack on a Black bicycle messenger, and the mobs then went after anyone with dark skin, pulling people off streetcars and stabbing them and dragging them out of businesses and into the street.
The rampage continued for four days. Then, on the final night, a group of armed white men charged into Brownsville.
In the aftermath, homes and businesses had been gutted. Many residents fled. Atlanta was rattled and shrouded in shame as word of the massacre spread.
But soon, discussions of the violence were avoided and suppressed. For decades, there was no mention of it in the Atlanta public schools curriculum. There was limited scholarship surrounding what had been labeled until recently as a race riot.
The result was a void in a city that is typically anything but ignorant of its history, wrapping itself in pride as the home base for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Yet the massacre still silently had a role in shaping Atlanta’s evolution.
Its residue can still be found in the neighborhoods that were ravaged by the violence — in the chronic poverty and unevenness in quality of life and access to education and health care.
It is evident, Ms. Johnson said, in “why Brownsville isn’t a thriving community as we speak.” Parts of the city once embodying Black advancement now represent the distance between its aspirations and reality.
“They were perfectly fine,” she said of Brownsville’s turn-of-the-century residents, “before everybody marched themselves two-and-a-half miles south into that neighborhood,” she said.
Change will require confronting that history. Mr. Sims summed up his mission with a line from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Community events, like the anniversary vigil, have aimed to help the city face the horrible truth of the massacre. A campaign by historians and activists also nudged people to refer to the violence as a massacre instead of a riot, arguing the old terminology did not capture the widespread and merciless bloodshed. A similar effort was mounted in Tulsa, Okla., where a massacre in 1921 killed hundreds and destroyed one of the country’s most prosperous Black neighborhoods.
“I’ve heard it described as we live in a time of truth decay,” said Jill Savitt, the center’s president. “For us, it is very important to tell an accurate version of history.”
The work has also involved trying to learn about the lives that were lost, as even their names have been a mystery. To find them, researchers, including from the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, pored over old death records, looking for any indication a person might have been caught in the violence.
Recently, researchers uncovered two faded “return of death” forms with similar notations. “Riot,” the labels said. The names on the documents: Stinson Ferguson, 25, and Marshall Carter, 13, listed as a “schoolboy.”
At South-View Cemetery, the breadth of the African American experience in Atlanta unfolds across 100 acres and 90,000 graves. Hank Aaron and John Lewis are buried there. So are generation after generation of families that did not have fame but still claimed their piece of Atlanta’s promise. Two victims of the massacre lie in marked graves.
Down a slope from the manicured plots and engraved stone markers is a spread that rarely gets visited and is slowly being covered by vegetation, hidden away from the rush of the city.
Researchers believe Marshall and Mr. Ferguson are there, somewhere, in unmarked graves holding decades of Atlanta’s poor. That is almost certainly where they will remain, slightly less anonymous after all this time.