Sweet Auburn Avenue Atlanta, Georgia USA A History from 1880-1960

Sweet Auburn Avenue
Atlanta, Georgia USA
A History from 1880-1960

1940- Peachtree and Auburn Avenue

Sweet Auburn Avenue
Atlanta, Georgia USA
A History from 1880-1960

Prolog More financial institutions, professionals, educators, entertainers and politicians were on this one mile of street than any other African American street in theSouth. The street was "paved in gold" observed John Wesley Dobbs. Today the buildings on Auburn Avenue honor the determination and tenacity of Black Americans operating within the confines of extreme social and economic segregation between 1880 and 1965 to create a thriving community and six centers of higher education adjacent to this street.

John W. Dobbs Book Depository/APEX
 

The fully institutionalized racial intolerance represented by the inner ring around all these pages (if you don't see this you need (1) Flash 6.0 and (2) Shockwave 8.5 plug-ins) is a poignant reminder that racial discrimination has happened before in human history, most recently African Americans, people of the Jewish faith, and American Indians, and will happen again unless we as civilized beings are ever watchful for where the feelings of a few shape an entire cultural outlook to the detriment of a minority group. The outer 'sky' ring represents constructive life forces in the form of events, organizations and people that arose consistently and patiently to overcome and finally overpower the cultural oppression of the inner ring.

Atlanta Daily World- 1928

Althougheconomically governed by the restrictive Jim Crow Laws, from the 1920's through the 1940's Sweet Auburn Avenue was at the height of its social vigor and the present day buildings reflect this energy. After this golden era, the west side of Atlanta around the Atlanta University Center became a more fashionable area to locate an African American business or residence. Desegregration in the 1960's furthered an exodus of people and energy from the area, leaving the street somewhat depopulated as it is today.

A passage from Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz pages 123-124, describes Auburn Avenue between 1924 and 1938, through the viewpoint of "Mayor"John Wesley Dobbs (also called "The Grand"):
Dobbs believed there was magic in Auburn Avenue, especially in that two-block stretch between Piedmont Avenue and Butler Street (now Jesse Hill Street). When Blacks spoke of Auburn, that's what they meant: the churches, clubs, barbershops, shoeshines, small businesses, restaurants and banks between the Rucker Building and the Yates and Milton Drugstore. Once it had been called Wheat Street, but in 1893 white residents successfully petitioned the city council to change it to Auburn Avenue, convinced it had a more stylish sound. By the 1930s some called Auburn the "Black Peachtree," though, physically, that was a bit of a stretch since Peachtree wound north of the city and continued for many miles. In its entirety, Auburn Avenue ran little more than a mile and a half. Yet even as developer Hermon Perry triggered a housing boom for blacks on the west side, Auburn remained the spiritual center of black Atlanta. The three legged stool of black finance the Citizens Trust Bank (of which Dobbs was among the original directors), Mutual Federal Savings & Loan and Alonzo Herndon's Atlanta Life Insurance Company was located on Auburn. To walk the Avenue on any summer evening was to experience the vitality of black life in the city: the sounds of ragtime from the Top Hat, the smell of fried chicken from Ma Suttons and the constant hum of animated street chatter. It became the place for black dreamers. You knew you had arrived on the Avenue once you had your own pulpit or your own cornerstone. Henry Rucker, Alonzo Herndon and Benjamin J. Davis already had erected buildings on Auburn and soon Dobbs would have his.

The six daughters of John Wesley Dobbs
The Jackson Family c.1944
1959 Atlanta Public Library
Rennie, Maynard and wife at 1973 victory celebration
 
 
Irene "Renie" Dobbs Jackson
1908-1999

Irene Dobbs Jackson was born in 1908, the first of Irene and John Wesley Dobbs' six daughters. Growing up in the thriving atmosphere of Auburn Avenue she was also a gifted pianist and scholar. Irene, known as "Renie," was valedictorian of her high school and also her 1929 Spelman College class.

In 1932, a man called and asked her to play piano at a party. She agreed and thus met her husband-to-be, Maynard Jackson, Sr. After she completed a master's degree at the University of Toulouse in France, Renie returned to the States and they were married. They had six children.

Following her husband's death in 1956, Renie packed up her children and headed back to the University of Toulouse to earn her doctorate in French. She completed the three-year program in two years, and returned to Atlanta to assume a post as a professor at Spelman College.

In 1959, Renie walked into the Atlanta Public Library and asked to become a member. While she had studied in France, she had been free to join any library she wanted and check out any books. But in Atlanta, that was not then permitted for African-Americans. Blacks were permitted to read books, but only in the basement. That May, Renie became the first African American to receive a library card from the main branch of the Atlanta Public Library system.

Her eldest son, Maynard Jackson, Jr., became Atlanta's first African American mayor, serving three terms 1974-1982 and 1990-1994.


The above was researched and written by Lauren Keating, freelance writer.

 

Henry Rucker in his well lit office.
 
Building c.1960
 
Building September 2001
 
interactive shockwave model of building
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Rucker Building(dem.)
158-160 Auburn Avenue
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Atlanta, Georgia

Original Owner: Henry Rucker
Built: 1904
Cost: $5,000.00
Architectural Style:
Original Use: This building served as the first black owned office space for African Americans on Auburn Avenue.
Readaptive Use: The building had to be demolished in September of 2001 when a vehicle lost control and ran into the front support column causing the building to collapse. The building had been weakened by water entry.

Recorded dates:
1852- Nov 14. Henry Rucker is born a slave in Wilkins County, GA.

1866- Arrived in Atlanta with family and attended the first school for freedmen held in the Tabernacle Church Building on Armstrong Street (now Jenkins Street).

1880- Henry Rucker serves as a delegate from Georgia to the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

1887- Rucker purchases a home on Piedmont Avenue.

1897- Rucker is named by President William McKinley as collector of internal revenue, the only African American to ever hold this position.

1904- Rucker builds a 3-story office building on the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Auburn Ave as the first office building for African American's and owned by African Americans in Atlanta. It is constructed of red brick with retail space on the 1st floor and professional office space on the 2nd and 3rd floor.

2001- After the week-end proceeding 9/11 the building was demolished. There is an empty lot at the buildings original location at this time.


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"Sweet Auburn Avenue" is what the Grand began to call it, in honor of the timeless Oliver Goldsmith poem from 1770, "The Deserted Village.

Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain, Where health and plenty cheer'd the laboring swain…

Moneymade the Avenue sweet, Dobbs said, and through voter registration he would make it even sweeter.

Alonzo Herndon
Original employees
Managers in front of YMCA in 1920
Main building in 1930's after facade renovation
New building adjacent to old building
Sketch of main building -2002
Main building- 2002
Annex- 2002
Atlanta Life Insurance Co.
142-148 Auburn Avenue
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Atlanta, Georgia

1. Atlanta Life Insurance Company Main Building (the building to the right in elevation at top).
Original Owner: Alonzo Herndon
Built: pre-1892
Architectural style: Neo-classical faÇade added in 1927.
Contractor: A.H. Aiken
Original Use: Originally a residence, this structure housed the Atlanta Life Insurance Company from 1920-1980.
Re-adaptive Use: Waiting for renovation.

2. Atlanta Life Insurance Company Annex (the building to the left in elevation at top).
Original owner/builder:Alonzo Herndon
Built: 1936
Architectural style: Neo-classical
Original Use: This structure, along with the main building, housed the Atlanta Life Insurance Company from 1936-1980. In 1980 the company moved to the adjacent modern building in photo at left.
Re-adaptive Use: Waiting for renovation.

In 1905, after extrordinary success in barber shops and real estate, Alonzo Herndon was approached by two prominent black church pastors. One of them, Rev. Peter Bryant ofWheat Street Baptist Church, had recently formed the Atlanta Benevolent & Protective Association, and was in dire need of capital. Herndon agreed to buy the small benevolent association for $140 and, with the acquisition and reorganization of two other companies in September of that year, formed the Atlanta Mutual Insurance Association, later to be the Atlanta Life Insurance Company

Through one acquisition and merger after another, Atlanta Life grew. The clients of small, failing companies, who were in jeopardy of losing their policies, were given reprieves when taken over by Atlanta Life. Confidence in the company and in Herndon's ability and judgment grew. An editor of the Atlanta Independent newspaper, wrote, "When people buy a policy in Atlanta Life they are buying Alonzo Herndon."

In 1920, the company moved to 148 Auburn Avenue and in 1980 moved from these aging facilities to a new corporate structure next door.

Upon Mr. Herndon's death in 1927, his son, Norris B. Herndon, became president, leading the company to unprecedented growth following the Depression. The tradition of business excellenceand community service continued with Jesse Hill, Jr.(Butler Street was renamed after him in 2002), who succeeded to the presidency in 1973 and was sustained by Don Royster, Sr., who in 1992 became the company's fourth president. Charles Cornelius, becoming the fifth president and chief executive officer in June 1996, carries on the company's proud legacy.

Credit for several direct quotes within the above information (also the present day website of Atlanta Life Insurance Co.):http://www.atlantalife.com/ .


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Henry Rucker in his well lit office.
 
Building c.1960
 
Building September 2001
 
interactive shockwave model of building
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Rucker Building(dem.)
158-160 Auburn Avenue
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Atlanta, Georgia

Original Owner: Henry Rucker
Built: 1904
Cost: $5,000.00
Architectural Style:
Original Use: This building served as the first black owned office space for African Americans on Auburn Avenue.
Readaptive Use: The building had to be demolished in September of 2001 when a vehicle lost control and ran into the front support column causing the building to collapse. The building had been weakened by water entry.

Recorded dates:
1852- Nov 14. Henry Rucker is born a slave in Wilkins County, GA.

1866- Arrived in Atlanta with family and attended the first school for freedmen held in the Tabernacle Church Building on Armstrong Street (now Jenkins Street).

1880- Henry Rucker serves as a delegate from Georgia to the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

1887- Rucker purchases a home on Piedmont Avenue.

1897- Rucker is named by President William McKinley as collector of internal revenue, the only African American to ever hold this position.

1904- Rucker builds a 3-story office building on the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Auburn Ave as the first office building for African American's and owned by African Americans in Atlanta. It is constructed of red brick with retail space on the 1st floor and professional office space on the 2nd and 3rd floor.

2001- After the week-end proceeding 9/11 the building was demolished. There is an empty lot at the buildings original location at this time.


Use browser Back button to return to original page.

 

The Following is text from the audio narration Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
NARRATOR:
Segregated by Jim Crow laws, Atlanta's black population developed a network of independent businesses, churches, and community institutions, including a remarkable cluster of five black collegesaround Atlanta University. Former Atlanta mayor, Maynard Jackson...
MAYNARD JACKSON: Where else have you had since 1865 a pouring into a city of trained black humanity, influenced by positive principles and values, like you've had here in Atlanta? They come from all over the world, all over the USA, and all over the world.
Literally. It's almost like you can see a great hand reaching down and lifting Atlanta up, because of these colleges.
That made life a lot more bearable. It literally was a wheel within a wheel, a world within a world. Blacks could not go out to many white things, but whites came onto these campuses.

NARRATOR: While the colleges gave black Atlanta intellectual freedom, Auburn Avenue, the community's commercial hub, provided jobs dependent on black consumers, not white bosses. Together, commerce, schools, and churches forged a strong middle class in the black community. Bill Calloway--a pioneer in the insurance industry...
W. L. CALLOWAY: Auburn Avenue was considered the almost nucleus so far as black businesses throughout America was concerned. It had more financial institutions than any other city.
NARRATOR: NAACP leader, Jondelle Johnson...

JONDELLE JOHNSON: Atlanta was a business Mecca. We had everything here that anybody just about had white. We had every kind of business, every kind of store, I'm talking about first class.
W. L. CALLOWAY: And that's why John Wesley Dobbs, coined the phrase "Sweet Auburn" Avenue because it said it was more sugar in that one block than in anywhere else in America. More concentration of financing.

 

 

 

John Wesley Dobbs
Voter Registration-1946
Streetlights to Auburn Avenue-1949
Cornerstone with Rev. Emory Searcy c. 1956
John Wesley Dobbs six daughters, in order of youngest to oldest, in 1946. Matiwilda is in the cap and gown and Rennie is to the far right.
Family Home in 2002
Step
Sculpture from back; John Wesley Dobbs Plaza
Dobbs looking down Auburn Avenue

John Wesley Dobbs
Unofficial "Mayor" of Auburn Avenue
1882-1961

"Get the vote and the dollar and you'll walk in Jerusalem just like John".
"Bucks, ballots and books" are the key to African American freedom.
John Wesley Dobbs

Recorded dates:
1882- Born in Marietta, Georgia.
1897- Came to Atlanta, worked at Dr. James McDougals Drugstore at the corner of Piedmont and Houston Street and attendedAtlanta Baptist College (Morehouse College).
1903- Passed the US Postal Exam to become a postal clerk and assumed a highly respected position for a black man at the turn of the century.
1906- Marries Irene Ophelia Thompson.
1908
- Rene Dobbs is born.
1911- Initiated into the Prince HallMasons
1914- Becames Grand Warden of the Prince Hall Masons.
1925- Matiwilda Dobbs is born.
1932 until death in 1960- Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons.
1936- Feb. 12. Dobbs speaks for 2 hours at Big Bethal to awaken the political conscience of Atlanta's 90,000 blacks. He proposes that night to organize the Atlanta Civic and Political League to register 10,000 voters. Twenty-eight year old C.A. Scott at The Daily Worldbacks him up the next day in his newspaper.
1937- Completed the first phase of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge at 332-224 Auburn Avenue.
1946- Formation of the Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL) by Attorney A.T. Walden (Democrat) and John Wesley Dobbs (Republican). The All Citizens Registration Committee is formed simultaneously. These organizations gathered 18,000 votes in 51 days- enough votes to convince Hartsfield to hire 8 black policemen. The Butler Street YMCA is ANVILS meeting facility.
1948- April 3. Mayor Hartsfieldkeeps his promise to organized African-American voters - the City of Atlanta Police force is integrated with 8 black police officers. They are stationed in the basement of theButler Street YMCA and cannot arrest white citizens. John Wesley Dobbs is there with his grandsonMaynard Jackson when they first walk down the Avenue.
1949- Mayor Hartsfield keeps his promise to African-American voters and street lights are installed down Auburn Avenue.
1961- Died on the evening of the day the Atlanta School System was desegregated.
1994- Jan. 10. Houston Street is renamed John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.
1997- John Wesley Dobbs Plaza on Auburn Avenue is given the Award of Excellence by the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.

 

John Wesley Dobbs was known as the unofficial "mayor" of Sweet Auburn. He and his wife Irene raised six daughters (includingRennie Dobbs Jackson andMatiwilda Dobbs Janzon - allSpellman graduates) in a house purchased in 1909 at 540 Houston Street, now John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, a few blocks north of Sweet Auburn Avenue. For decades Dobbs worked for the U.S. Postal Service, but his true calling was as Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, a post he attained in 1932 that earned him the nickname "the Grand." Dobbs utilized this post, as well as his presidency of the Atlanta Civic and Political League and then his later involvement in ANVIL to increase black voter registration.

When Dobbs started his registration drives in 1936, less than 600 blacks were registered to vote in Atlanta. Dobbs goal was to register 10,000, firmly believing that the power of the ballot was key in overcoming segregation. In the following 10 years several state laws hobbling black voters were struck down as unconstitutional. After a record breaking 20,000 voters were registered, Mayor Hartsfield kept his promise and several of Dobbs goals were reached- in 1948 eight black police officers were hired by the city of Atlanta and in 1949 street lights were installed down his beloved Auburn Avenue. John Wesley Dobbs died on the evening of the day the Atlanta School System was desegregated.

Twelve years after John Wesley Dobbs passed away in 1961, his grandson, Maynard Jackson Jr., won election as Atlanta's first black mayor. One of Maynard Jackson Jr.'s last actions as mayor was to push for legislation to change the name of Houston Street to John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, and thus pay homage to his grandfather. Houston Street was the site of the Dobbs home, where all six Dobbs daughters grew up. The name change signified the role that John Wesley Dobbs played in registering black voters and nurturing black political power in Atlanta.

The John Wesley Dobbs Monument (at left and at the top of the page) called Through His Eyesby sculptor Ralph Helmick, was built during the 1996 Olympics. It is interactive; a participant can look through John Wesley Dobbs visionary eyes up Auburn Avenue to what was once the most active business area.

The following link is a radio speech John Wesley Dobbs gave on December 2, 1939 called "I saw the stars".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I'm just trying to make a way out of no way, for my people" -Modejeska Monteith Simpkins

 

AFRICAN AMERICA IS AT WAR

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON AFRICAN AMERICA

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON AFRICAN AMERICANS

THERE IS A RACE WAR ON BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA

AMERICA'S RACISTS HAVE INFILTRATED AMERICAN POLICE FORCES TO WAGE A RACE WAR AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA

THE BLACK RACE IS AT WAR

FIRST WORLD WAR:  THE APPROXIMATELY 6,000 YEAR WORLD WAR ON AFRICA AND THE BLACK RACE

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