In a ‘city too busy to hate,’ new attention to an overlooked race massacre

ATLANTA — 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 passersby who might have caught some of what he said.

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. Hamilton said many residents knew little, if anything, about it. But his vigil this past 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 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, although 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 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 such as 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,” 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, 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.

Community events such as 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, Oklahoma, 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.”

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