This article originally appeared in our May 2010 issue.
In 1963 Herman J. Russell built his house on the lot that nobody else wanted. His plastering firm had just landed a mammoth contract to help construct the new Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, so tackling a hilly residential lot seemed relatively simple. To Russell, the steep slope meant it would be easier to install an indoor pool, and the two-acre site meant there was room for a basketball court, tennis court, and a lower level with an outdoor terrace and parquet dance floor where he could party with a hundred close friends. Like all of his new neighbors, many of whom had built homes with fancy rec rooms, Russell wasn’t allowed in the restaurants and hotels Downtown. The Chamber of Commerce’s only African American member had to entertain at home.
November 22 was a typically hectic moving day for the Russells—parents chasing toddlers down empty hallways, directing movers and dodging boxes. Then Herman took a moment to do what any man would do in brand-new digs: He flipped on the TV. What he saw was the assassination of President Kennedy.
Juanita Abernathy had just bought her lot the year before, a few blocks over on a street so new that it didn’t yet have asphalt. She was mulling over floor plans with architect J.W. Robinson, though it would be a year before her husband, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, got around to visiting the property. Of course, that was about the time he and Martin Luther King Jr. got thrown into a Birmingham jail and, a few months later, organized a sizable rally in Washington. So Juanita understood why Ralph couldn’t get around to carpet samples.
The Russells’ and Abernathys’ swanky new community, Collier Heights, eventually encompassed fifty-four individual subdivisions and more than 1,700 homes, schools, and churches near what is today the intersection of I-20 West and I-285. In the tumultuous last decade before the Supreme Court ended Jim Crow segregation, Collier Heights became a virtual Who’s Who of black Atlanta. Residents included the Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King Sr., bank president Lorimer D. Milton, civil rights attorney Donald B. Hollowell, Grady Hospital medical director Dr. Asa G. Yancey, and Georgia congressmen Leroy R. Johnson and Billy McKinney (not to mention his daughter Cynthia).
Never before in the nation had African Americans possessed the means, the leadership, and the land to develop a modern suburb that so epitomized the American dream. Never again, at least in Atlanta, would they build one that was so exclusively their own. Loyalty to this heritage has kept the original community and its period architecture remarkably intact, a big part of why this seemingly ordinary ranch neighborhood was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Collier Heights’ first residents coordinated protests at Rich’s department store and Grady Hospital, organized voter drives, and advised U.S. presidents. But they also raked leaves and swapped recipes and chaired PTA meetings. Their children, outside playing 3-on-3 basketball or popping wheelies on shiny new Schwinn Sting-Rays, were relatively oblivious to the social upheaval they represented. They didn’t understand why busloads of tourists would pass by marveling at wealthy black suburbia. They just knew they had to be home when the streetlights came on. And perhaps their childish insouciance—their taking it for granted that they could grow up to attend the University of Georgia, or run a Forbes 500 corporation, or become president of the United States—was the greatest legacy of Collier Heights.
Dorothy C. Johnson tenderly opens the oversized turquoise burlap scrapbook, labeled simply in die-cut block letters and laminated in clear contact paper, that chronicles forty-plus years of the Larchmont-Kildare Community Club. Taped to fading construction paper pages are news clippings, invitations, campaign flyers, and newsletters documenting generations of residents along the little cluster of hilly streets on the west side of Collier Heights. There are snapshots of picnics, street parties, pool parties, barbecues, and community meetings—where someone thought to invite the firemen, or bring sidewalk chalk for the kids, or recognize Katie Tuggle’s ninety-first birthday, or her ninety-fifth.
Though there are cameos by celebrity neighbors such as Christine King Farris, Martin’s sister, and Leroy Johnson, the first black Georgia senator since Reconstruction, the book mostly features ordinary folk—the same faces aging and lapels widening as the pages turn, neighborhood kids growing up and having babies of their own. “I call us the little people,” defers Johnson, one of the club’s only three surviving charter members. “You know the famous folk, but we’re just the little people.”
Her protests aside, Johnson’s portrait of typical suburbia was anything but typical for African Americans in midcentury Atlanta.
After World War II, black Atlantans were confined almost entirely to three urban districts: the Old Fourth Ward; a south-side area around Pittsburg and Mechanicsville; and a smaller, more upscale area to the west around the Atlanta University schools. As soldiers returned home and farmers moved into the city, overcrowding escalated rapidly. Families doubled up, even on monied Auburn Avenue. Two-thirds of nonwhite houses were dilapidated or had no bathroom. Conditions worsened as demolition for new expressway routes and “slum clearance” measures replaced black sections with public amenities, many just for whites.
Although Atlanta’s racial zoning laws, passed between 1913 and 1931, were eventually declared unconstitutional, discriminatory real estate practices prevented African Americans from moving into new areas. Lenders, including the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, insisted that allowing minorities into white areas would lower property values. In fact, until 1950, selling to a buyer whose “race or nationality” would be “detrimental” to a neighborhood violated the ethics code of the National Association of Real Estate Boards. Restrictions prohibiting the mixture of “inharmonious races and classes” were incorporated into property deeds.
When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racially restrictive covenants in 1948, it removed the last “legal” means of segregation. “The game changes after 1948 . . . White homeowners start to realize that they have got to have some kind of, not illegal, but extra-legal type of resistance,” observes Kevin Kruse, author of White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. His book documents white opposition as it gradually became “legitimized”—less Mississippi Burning, more A Raisin in the Sun.
In the late 1940s, Alabamian Emory Burke and his cohort Homer Loomis chose Atlanta as headquarters for a short-lived, neo-Nazi party called the Columbians (after the Revolutionary War anthem “Hail, Columbia!”), writes Kruse. They targeted “endangered” working-class neighborhoods, posting signs with their red lightning bolt logo. Members dressed in khaki military uniforms “arrested” and brutalized African Americans caught trespassing, and sound trucks drove the streets, attracting hundreds of supporters to meetings near Castleberry Hill. Said Loomis, “If you see any niggers so much as walking on the wrong side of the street, stop ’em and whip ’em within an inch of their lives!”
After a year of terrorism and scattered violence, city and state officials had had enough. The Columbians’ charter was revoked and Loomis was arrested. But the oppression wasn’t over, thanks to the local Ku Klux Klan, which also took up the cause of “neighborhood defense.” The Atlanta Klavern counted local police officers as members, who bragged openly about murdering African Americans in the line of “duty.” But given the quick fate of the Columbians, Atlanta’s Grand Dragon discouraged overt violence, says Kruse. They too lost their state charter in 1947, declining further after Atlanta passed an antimask ordinance in 1949.
“Protective” community associations took over the resistance, negotiating voluntary boundaries with black real estate agents and offering to repurchase property from African Americans who tried to move beyond agreed-upon limits. Blacks cooperated in order to gain peaceful territory, albeit limited, as well as white support for utilities and basic public services. Both sides supported the politically correct objective of “community integrity”—code for racial homogeny. Creeks, access roads, cemeteries, railroad tracks, and major thoroughfares were designated as unofficial “Gentlemen’s Agreement Lines” of separation. Streets changed names—Boulevard turned into Monroe Drive—to indicate divisions, or they simply stopped abruptly to discourage “encroachment.”
Despite an outward display of boosterism characteristic of Atlanta for the time, the city’s African American leadership was not entirely comfortable with these compromises. On the one hand, T.M. Alexander, chair of the Atlanta Business League’s Housing Committee, openly bragged that “no city equals Atlanta for economic progress among its Negro citizens.” He joined Mayor William Hartsfield’s unofficial biracial advisory committee, the West Side Mutual Development Committee. Yet Alexander also berated the Metropolitan Planning Commission for its discriminatory land-use suggestions, writing, “No honest, intelligent Negro could, with a clear conscience, go on record as endorsing such proposals, with their insidious implications, however practical may be their application, nor how innocently they may have been inserted.”
Andrew Wiese, author of Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, explains, “Integration simply wasn’t an option. The choice was really between better black neighborhoods that were separate or no neighborhoods at all . . . African Americans were very astute political players. They recognized how the game was played.” Collier Heights was their end run around the system.