Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Story of Atlanta, in Black and White

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Story of Atlanta, in Black and White

Article excerpt


The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta

By Gary M. Pomerantz

656 pages, Scribner, $27.50

IN 1895, Ivan E. Allen, a typewriter salesman, moved to Atlanta from north Georgia. Within a few years, Allen would become a member of an elite circle of wealthy, civic-minded entrepreneurs who shaped Atlanta during the early decades of the 20th century. In 1897, a 15-year-old John Wesley Dobbs arrived in Atlanta on a train from Savannah. Dobbs, the son of ex-slaves, would go on to become an influential leader of Atlanta's black community.

As author Gary Pomerantz notes, at the "dawn of the twentieth century, Allen and Dobbs lived in parallel universes that would intersect in time in ways that they could not imagine." Allen's son, Ivan Jr., would become mayor of Atlanta during the 1960s and lead the city through the tumultuous Civil Rights era. Dobbs' grandson, Maynard H. Jackson, would, in 1973, become the first African-American mayor of a major southern city. "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn" is a compelling account of these two remarkable families and a political history of the city in which they lived.

Atlanta epitomizes the success of the Sun Belt cities. The Peachtree Street of the title extends from downtown to the city limits and beyond. At one end, it is graced with the hotels, office buildings and retail establishments that define Atlanta's skyline. As it winds its way towards the city limits, Peachtree Street becomes the main artery to Atlanta's most elegant neighborhoods.

Auburn Avenue intersects with Peachtree in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Auburn is not the sort of grand boulevard that Peachtree Street represents. It extends only a few blocks. During the era of segregation, it served as the retail and commercial center of Atlanta's African-American community. Black-owned banks, insurance companies, as well as the leading black newspaper, were all located within a few blocks of each other on Auburn Avenue.

Although they were separated from the economic mainstream, there were black millionaires in Atlanta at the turn of the century. Martin Luther King's boyhood home is on the same street, just beyond the commercial district. John Wesley Dobbs raised his family on Houston Street just a few blocks away from Auburn.

Pomerantz captures the nuances of life in Atlanta during the first half of the 20th century. The reader is reminded that during this period, formal segregation restricted virtually every aspect of daily life in Atlanta.

Blacks could not serve on juries. Tax forms for blacks were a different color than those used by whites. Laws prohibited interracial marriages. At banks, blacks used separate teller windows. Drinking fountains, of course, were segregated. At the one downtown theater that blacks were allowed to attend, they were required to enter through a side door and to sit in a balcony. …

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