In the heart of the south, near the turn of the 20th century, more than 10,000 people stormed through the city's downtown — the beginning of a four-day melee that left dozens of residents dead.
It became known as the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, putting U.S. racial tensions on an international stage with coverage in French, Italian and English publications, including a brutal image of whites attacking blacks in Le Petit Journal of Paris.
A century later, historians are working to educate this city that labels itself "too busy to hate" about a dark chapter from its past that many living here today have never heard of.
On Thursday, a preview of "Red Was the Midnight: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot," an exhibit of photographs, documents and illustrations recalling the riot, will open at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site — not far from where the violence unfolded 100 years ago.
Atlanta was at the center of change in the South in 1906, home to six historically black colleges that helped give rise to a critical mass of affluent and educated black people seen by whites as a threat.
‘Black crime wave’ alleged
By late July, local newspapers were publishing sensational accounts of a "black crime wave" against white women that further outraged whites. The climate led to a sense of tension in the weeks preceding the riot, erupting on the night of Saturday, Sept. 22, 1906, Georgia State University professor Clifford Kuhn said.
"Any black people on the street were fair game," Kuhn said.
Streetcars — the place where whites and blacks literally rubbed elbows on a daily basis — were full of captive targets. More than 20 streetcars were smashed, derailed or attacked. Black people jumped from the old Forsyth Street bridge to the railroad tracks below to escape lynch mobs. Others were thrown over.
Barber shops, a symbol of black prosperity and independence, were also destroyed. One barber and a shoeshine boy were among three people killed. Their bodies were put at the foot of a statue of former Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady, who was regarded as the leading architect of a harmonious New South. The statue still stands today in the middle of Marietta Street, near the Five Points business district of downtown Atlanta.
For many, a forgotten story
Blacks who passed down the story of the race riot to younger generations did so as either a cautionary tale or to galvanize others into action. In the white community, the story was largely minimized or forgotten.
"The city fathers wanted to sweep it under the rug," Kuhn said. "The vast majority of people have never heard about it."
One hundred years later, piecing together accounts of the riot has been difficult for historians. Most, if not all, of the witnesses are assumed dead, and their descendants remain in obscurity. Traumatized by what they had seen, many victims and others fled Atlanta for fear of reprisals in the aftermath.
The preview exhibit focuses on short- and long-term reactions to the riot. Few photographs or other visual depictions of the riot are available today, said Clarissa Myrick-Harris, a history professor at Clark Atlanta University and co-curator of the exhibit.
"The challenge has been, 'How do we tell the story in a way that will be compelling?'" she said.
Letters and photographs
The exhibit uses photographs to illustrate the face of early 20th century black Atlanta and shares correspondence from those in Atlanta assuring distant relatives of their safety, and describing the horrors of what they witnessed.
The recollections are from prominent black leaders including former Morehouse College President John Hope, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Walter White — who was 13 at the time and pointed to the race riot as the watershed moment of his life — and renowned black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote a poem entitled "A Litany of Atlanta" to address his feelings about the riot.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary, local historians have been conducting hourlong tours of sites involved in the riot on the second Sunday of each month. Kuhn said the centennial presents an opportunity for the city to learn and heal from this atrocity.
"There has been a veil of silence," Kuhn said. "To continue to sweep it under the rug is dishonest."