Negligence killed what Jim Crow could not

June 03, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

ATLANTA'S AUBURN Avenue starts in the city's downtown and goes eastward. Walk it today and you'll pass a research library specializing in African-American history, the now-abandoned offices of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Go a couple of blocks past the church -- where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, "Daddy" King Sr., preached -- and you'll find the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which comprises a museum, gift shop, visitor center and administrative offices. On the grounds is a shimmering pool where the water is a soothing sky blue on sunny days. In the middle of the pool lies the crypt that holds the earthly remains of Martin Luther King Jr.

Just east of the center is a firehouse that's now a bookstore selling works on African-American history. Nearby is King's boyhood home. You have to schedule a tour at the visitors center if you want to go through it.

But Auburn Avenue is more to black Atlantans than the site of the King center and childhood home. It was once the economic and social hub, where black Atlantans shopped, ate, socialized, celebrated and worshiped. It was a thriving business district for blacks where, in spite of Jim Crow laws and virulent racism that made Georgia second only to Mississippi in the number of blacks lynched, former slaves showed their mettle and resilience.

An ugly race riot occurred in this city in 1906. Whipped into a frenzy by newspaper reports alleging black men had attacked white women, young white men ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 in number rampaged through Atlanta, lynching 12 black men and wounding hundreds of others.

It was similar to what would happen in Tulsa, Okla., 15 years later. When armed black men tried to protect a young African-American man accused of assaulting a white woman from lynching, a riot started. The thriving and prosperous black business district known as "Black Wall Street" was burned to the ground. Three hundred blacks were killed.

But Auburn Avenue and Black Wall Street rebounded from the disasters to become prosperous again. They didn't decline until the advent of the civil rights movement, which held high the banner of integration. Blacks stopped patronizing their own businesses to support white ones, turning their backs on a proud history of entrepreneurial achievement.

Walk west along Auburn Avenue from the King Center and you come to Piedmont Avenue. There stands the three-story, red brick building that used to house the offices of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. It was founded in 1905 by Alonzo Herndon, an ex-slave who also owned what were considered the country's classiest barbershops.

The building is abandoned now, the windows boarded shut. A barbed wire fence runs around it. But just behind that fence, the city of Atlanta has erected a tribute to the old Auburn Avenue black business community. It takes the form of a written and photographic exhibit mounted on large wooden placards. The quotes and history should serve as a lesson for today's African-Americans.

Visitors learn of Mary Combs, who bought some land near the corner of Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue and then sold it to buy her husband's freedom. They also learn about Herndon and his three barbershops, the largest of which had 25 chairs and 20 baths. There's even a quote from Herndon about how he got started:

"I had in mind going into business for myself, so I (ELLIPSIS) hired myself to a barber for six dollars a month and learned the barber's trade."

James Tate was another ex-slave who prospered after starting his own business.

"I commenced selling goods with $16 capital," Tate wrote, "and I have been aided by white men in Atlanta. I paid them back and am now doing a good business." A.J. Delbridge and Roderick D. Badger also were former slaves with stories similar to Tate and Herndon's.

"Yes, I was a slave in Alabama," Delbridge wrote, "and came to Atlanta in 1865 and went to work in a livery stable without a penny. Shoemaking was my trade, and I soon went back to it. I made money and saved it."

Badger's bootstrap story went like this:

"My slave master taught me dentistry, and I came to Atlanta in 1865 to practice. I didn't have any money and had to work on Sundays to pay for my instruments, but I soon got a start and have made and saved money since that time."

Today's blacks complain about the lack of African-American business development by blaming white-owned banks for "red-lining" us and not coming forth with loans. But during an era when blacks were lynched repeatedly, no excuses were forthcoming. They just achieved in a horrendously hostile environment and against seemingly insurmountable odds.

African-Americans in the year 2000 should also ponder this: No amount of red-lining negates the truth that black business districts like Auburn Avenue died because of our negligence.

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