Rebecca Burns has more than 20 years experience covering Atlanta. A veteran journalist and editor, she is also the author of three books on Atlanta history. She teaches at the University of Georgia and frequently speaks to college classes and civic groups.
Like millions around the world, I watched in horror on January 6 as a horde stormed the U.S. Capitol, smashing windows and surging into the building as they screamed in rage.
The scenes were appalling because of what they represented: a literal and direct attack on the core of American democracy. But as news anchors described the scene as “unimaginable,” I realized the surge of enraged violence was a scene I’d spent months imagining and have mentally revisited over the past 15 years. I researched and wrote about a gruesome chapter in Atlanta’s history—the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot—during which 5,000 white men and boys rampaged through downtown Atlanta, destroying Black businesses and homes and killing Black Atlantans at work, on streets, and in the streetcars.
In the process of writing the book, I found it almost impossible to visualize the horror. To piece together the events, I relied on newspaper accounts, reports, diaries, snippets of oral history, and the limited existing visual depictions—front-page illustrations from French newspapers and a few grainy photos. I wrote about the “roar of the mob” as white men and boys “swarmed” down Houston Street. Sitting in my living room and watching an insurrectionist, virtually all-white mob roar and swarm through the halls of the Capitol, it felt as though the events from 115 years ago were being broadcast on BBC and CNN.
In the aftermath of the insurrectionist violence in Washington, D.C. we have heard politicians and commentators say, “This is not who we are.” But—I’m hardly the first to point this out—violence entwined with white supremacy has been a constant since the first Europeans arrived on this continent.
To take just one example out of four centuries, here’s a recap of what happened in Atlanta in September 1906, when political posturing, racist attitudes, and false narratives sparked an outburst of deadly violence.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Atlanta bustled. In the “Gate City of the New South,” railways boomed, Coca-Cola flowed, and skyscrapers rose along Peachtree Street. In the face of great obstacles presented by Jim Crow oppression, a strong Black working and middle class emerged, anchored by the Atlanta University Center, progressive churches, and entrepreneurs such as Alonzo Herndon, founder of Atlanta Life Insurance.
During the vicious 1906 gubernatorial race, Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Atlanta Journal, campaigned against Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Aligned with populist Tom Watson, Smith made Black disenfranchisement the cornerstone of his platform, trading ugly campaign tropes and telling white voters that granting Black men equal access to the ballot box would amount to giving them permission to have their way with white women. Local newspapers fanned the inflammatory campaign messaging with lurid—and fabricated—accounts of rape and assault and praise for lynch mobs.
Things came to a head on the evening of September 22, 1906, when Atlanta newspapers distributed extra editions falsely claiming four assaults on white women by Black men had taken place that day. In response, white men and boys went on an hours-long deadly rampage. One Black man was stabbed with broken glass bottles in front of the Piedmont Hotel. A Black woman, Mattie Adams, was bludgeoned in her Peters Street restaurant by a rioter wielding a wagon-wheel spoke while another rioter fired shots at her young grandson. Western Union messenger Frank Smith was stoned to death, his body then tossed from the Forsyth Street viaduct. One hardware shop sold 1,600 guns that night, and rioters shot Black barbers at point-blank range as they worked. Black passengers were beaten to death in the streetcars. Police stood by; some officers even joined in the melee.
Over the next three days, white rioters made forays into Black communities. In response, the governor deployed the state militia—with orders to protect white Atlantans against possible retaliation. By the end of the riot, at least 25 Black Atlantans had been killed and hundreds of homes and businesses damaged. Two white people died; a police officer and a woman who had a heart attack witnessing the violence.
Attempting to imagine the violence that played out across Atlanta in 1906, I could only visualize the mob as a unit. Historical research let me track the movement of men and boys through Atlanta’s streets and on its streetcar lines, but could not reveal individual faces within those crowds, as some actively engaged in violence and others cheered as spectators. When rioters stormed the Capitol, some attacked officers and destroyed property as others took selfies and gawked at the spectacle. But, individual faces were contorted by rage.
I used the word “rage” in the title of my book about the Atlanta riot as an attempt to capture the senseless and violent actions of the mob and the rhetoric that fueled them. The ostensible cause of the riot was protest over claims of assault, but the deeper causes were resentment over Black economic and educational success and growing power at the ballot box. These people were not angry—anger can be inspired by righteousness. Rage is uncontrolled lashing out at a perceived injustice. The mob in Atlanta acted out of grievances fueled by false claims from politicians and media. So did the mob in Washington D.C.
This is Atlanta. This is Georgia. This is America.
In those historic events, white Americans acted to claim what they considered rightfully theirs based on the belief in white supremacy. Today, when white politicians and their followers talk about “taking our country back,” or “fighting to save America,” they are talking about preserving that same white status quo.
In a 1906 speech after securing the gubernatorial nomination, Hoke Smith vowed: “The white voters of Georgia are to be given the fullest opportunity to rule in the state and to express their wishes at the ballot box.”
After winning the election, Smith pushed for—and eventually secured—an amendment to the Georgia constitution that effectively disenfranchised Black voters. Over the past century, voting restrictions have continued in Georgia elections. The recent runoffs were the result of a later Georgia law intentionally designed to thwart Black candidates, demanding that a candidate win 50-percent-plus of the vote rather than a simple majority to ensure a Black candidate would not beat out a crowded field of white contenders.
It is no coincidence that along with Trump banners, this week’s mob carried the banner of the Confederacy. Their targets on January 6 were mostly white politicians, but the anger that grew over the past years and escalated in the two months following the election was fueled by racially charged rhetoric and fostering grievances. It is no coincidence that in call after call to Georgia election officials, President Donald Trump fixated on votes in majority Black counties in our state. False statements by Trump and his allies fueled the rage we saw at the Capitol, just as the false extra editions of newspapers fueled the violent outburst at Five Points in 1906.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Black officers described enduring racist abuse from the rioters in the Capitol; one recalls being called the n-word 15 times. Another described the jarring offense of seeing a white officer taking selfies with the insurrectionists.
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In the aftermath of the Atlanta riot, the city’s PR machinery went into overdrive. The official report was produced by the Chamber of Commerce. When I started working on the book in 2005, the riot did not appear on the Atlanta History Center’s timeline of key events. Over the years I have spoken with many native Atlantans and longtime residents who had never heard of it.
In the weeks following the riot, white civic leaders met with Black business owners and pastors to form a biracial coalition to prevent future violence. This was one of the seeds that contributed to Atlanta’s eventual “Too Busy to Hate” mantra. The coalition members also, however, reinforced segregation in the city across lines of both race and class.
The riot galvanized activism among Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the Atlanta University professor, and John Wesley Dobbs, the U.S. railway postal clerk, who both stood guard, armed, in protection of their young families in the ongoing days of the riot. Dobbs would become a voting rights activist and his grandson, Maynard Jackson, would be elected Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973. Du Bois was a founder of the NAACP, which would be led by Walter White, who as a teenager had been caught in the middle of the riot’s outbreak.
For a few hours on January 6, the top story was the historic election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the first Black Georgian elected to the U.S. Senate. Later that day, Jon Ossoff’s victory would be declared, making him the state’s first Jewish Senator. But by then, these groundbreaking victories in Georgia were overshadowed by the violence in Washington D.C.
In the days since the storming of the U.S. Capitol, politicians who had gone along with Trump’s false claims of a victory and enabled his spurious insistence that voter fraud led to his election loss, had decried the violence and urged Americans to move on, or remained silent.
In these non-responses, I keep hearing echoes of the official report on the Atlanta riot, which claimed that the mob was comprised entirely of “the tougher element” of the city’s white residents. The same narrative persisted in newspaper accounts; Atlanta’s white-owned newspapers decried the violence but blamed Blacks for causing it and lower-class whites for carrying it out. The New York Times called the event a case of “lynching fever” and, like other papers across the country, perpetuated the narrative spun by white Atlanta press.
Max Barber, the editor of The Voice of the Negro, countered that view. In a report published under the byline “A Colored Citizen,” in the New York World shortly after the riot, he asserted that followers of Hoke Smith had been complicit in staging some of the reported assaults and concluded: “The source of the riot: Sensational newspapers and unscrupulous politicians.”
Threatened, Barber left Atlanta and relaunched his paper in Chicago as The Voice. In November 1906, he published his account of the events and white Atlanta’s response to the riot. “Again we have a city that struts before the world as the liberal gateway of a great section, but is really the same old Atlanta steeped in the foul odors of antebellum traditions and held firmly in the remorseless clutch of a vile and unreasonable race prejudice. The white man’s attitude toward the negro still has in it a mixture of a fine conceit of superiority.”
Over the coming days and weeks, we will continue to see politicians who enabled Trump, even to the extent of trying to overthrow a fair election in Congress, try to distance themselves from what happened. We will witness efforts to create false equivalencies between racial justice protests and the violent display of the Confederate flag in the Capitol. We will hear calls to move on. But that implies, like the glossing over of the events in Atlanta, Wilmington, and Tulsa, a suppression of the outrage and horror we have witnessed. History, as the saying goes and the facts reveal, repeats itself.
This is our shared history. This is American history.
Often I am asked if, as a white writer, I even have the right to document the events in 1906, which, like so much of American history, consisted of white people doing horrible things in the interest of maintaining their dominance. The Atlanta Race Riot is a chapter in the shared history of the city as a whole. And white people are the ones who need to learn from it—and learn from what’s happening today. We need to own our history—all of it.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming days in Washington or across the country. There is a chance that, just as the Atlanta Riot continued over several days, we will see more instances of violence. What we do know is that calls to “move on” would enable the temptation to consign this horrible chapter to the history books too soon.
Rebecca Burns is the author of Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot (University of Georgia Press) and the former editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. She lives in Athens, Georgia.
One of the latest hairpin turns in the rollercoaster ride that is Georgia’s dual Senate runoff race took place this past weekend when the outgoing president of the United States spent an hour on the phone with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, regurgitating conspiracy theories and exhorting the state’s top election official to “find” enough votes to overturn the November election. That call now has been heard around the world, following the recording’s release to the Washington Post and AJC.
The call has been the true Kraken released during the post-election efforts by President Trump and his allies to undo his election defeat. The legality of pressuring a state official to change the outcome of a thrice-counted vote is something for constitutional scholars and criminal experts to debate.
Meanwhile, Trump supporters have griped that it was Raffensperger who crossed a line by recording his own phone call. Senator David Perdue, battling for a runoff victory, called the recording “disgusting” in a Fox News interview.
But, as any Georgia journalist, divorce lawyer, or corporate whistleblower can tell you, it was totally legal for Raffensperger to record his own conversation.
Georgia—like a majority of the states—has a “single-party consent” law when it comes to recording conversations. What this means is that one person on a call can record the conversation without the agreement of the other.
This can be used to protect journalists who conduct phone interviews. (As a part-time journalism professor, I always instruct students that the ethical thing to do is be transparent about recording, but it’s not required.)
Recording your own calls and conversations can be used to protect yourself in legal proceedings. One member of a feuding couple can record a heated conversation with their other half and submit it as evidence in divorce or custody hearings, for example. If you’re discussing pay or benefits with your boss, you can record the call to document what’s promised to you.
“The law allows a person to record someone else asking them to do something illegal, or threatening them in some way, which could be useful as evidence,” says Jess B. Johnson, trial attorney and partner in Pate, Johnson & Church.
There can be a “gray area” if you call from a state with single-party consent to a state, like California, that requires both parties to consent to a call, says Johnson. It’s advisable to check out the laws if you are placing a call between states, as often the law of the state with the strictest rules will apply.
However, in the case of the call between the White House and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, there was not any issue, as the District of Columbia also has single-party law.
Being able to release recordings that hold the powerful accountable or shed light on possible abuses of power is one of the civic values of a single-party consent law. In 2019, a proposed change in the law was sparked by the fallout from just such a case. Casey Cagle, who had been running for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination was tanked in part by a call released by former contender Clay Tippins, who recorded a conversation in which Cagle said he’d support “bad public policy” for political expediency. Cagle lost the nomination—clinched by a then Trump-supported Brian Kemp. Allies of Cagle’s in the next legislative session attempted to get the law changed. The attempt failed.
Having the law allows average citizens and public figures alike to protect themselves and document disputes or misdeeds. When the dust settles from the Trump controversy, it’s likely some will take up the cause of changing Georgia’s law again.
“There is no need to change laws that are not broken. Making it more difficult for law-abiding people to record conversations could have a chilling effect on the public’s right to know,” says Jim Zachary, president-emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and CNHI’s director of newsroom training and development. “Changing the law could also embolden wrong-doers and make it far more difficult for a person—for instance an investigative journalist—to expose wrong-doing.”
Update: We added a section to this story about making calls from a single-party consent state to a state that requires both parties to consent to a call.
As a boy in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis felt the call to the ministry early. He practiced preaching in front of a friendly audience: the chickens in the henhouse on his family’s Pike County farm. He read scripture to his flock, performed funerals, and even conducted baptisms. His bemused family gave him the nickname, “Preacher.”
Two decades later, Lewis addressed 250,000 people gathered on the Washington Mall—and millions more on televisions worldwide. As one of the featured speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Lewis represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement. “We will not stop,” Lewis said that day. “We must say ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”
For all his impassioned oration during the 60 years since he entered public life, the moment that cemented Lewis as an American icon came when he remained silent as he was beaten and bloodied leading 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the March 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. His unflinching demonstration of nonviolent resistance was captured on television cameras and ultimately led to an outpouring of support for, and the passage of, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lewis did not stop after that. Over the next five decades he marched into politics, representing Georgia’s 5th District since 1987, serving his Atlanta constituents and serving the nation as the “moral conscience of Congress.”
When President Barack Obama presented Lewis the Medal of Freedom in 2010, he said: “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind—an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
“Getting into good trouble” Some of Lewis’ inspiration for fighting the segregation he lived with in Alabama came from a trip to visit family in New York state when he was 11. When he returned, “the sins of segregation that had perplexed me up till then now outright angered me,” he recalled in his 1998 memoir, Walking with the Wind. He was a high school freshman when the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling was passed by the Supreme Court, and the lack of action in Alabama schools underscored the inequity around him. But it was an event closer to home—the boycott of buses in Montgomery—that inspired him, as he followed the daily news account and listened to radio addresses by the young minister leading the boycott, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I can still say that the Montgomery bus boycott changed my life more than any other event before or since,” Lewis wrote in Walking with the Wind.
Determined to become a minister, Lewis delivered his first sermon at 16, and that same year, committed his first act of nonviolent protest: applying for a library card at the Pike County Public Library. He was denied and circulated a petition. “It was an act, and that meant something, at least to me,” he later wrote.
Lewis enrolled at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville and balanced work in the school cafeteria with immersion in his studies. Still chafing at the lack of integration in schools, he applied, on the sly, to Alabama’s Troy State University. When there was no response, he wrote about the application to King, who arranged for a meeting, mailing Lewis a bus ticket to Montgomery. King offered to back Lewis in a legal challenge to Troy, but as Lewis was still a minor, it would require his parents’ permission. Anxious about the impact it would have on the family, his parents declined.
Lewis resumed his studies and continued to learn about the movement to challenge segregation in the South. In 1959, he and a group of students in Nashville began challenging segregated lunch counters and, in 1960, joined a wider student movement of sit-ins at cafeterias and department stores throughout the South. Recalling his first arrest, Lewis wrote: “Now I had crossed over. I had stepped through the door into total, unquestioning commitment. This wasn’t just about that moment or that day. This was about forever.”
59 years ago today I was released from Parchman Farm Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a so-called "white" restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961. pic.twitter.com/OUfgeaNDOm
In 1961, Lewis graduated from college (he earned degrees from American Baptist and Fisk University) and joined the Freedom Riders, integrating Greyhound buses. He was beaten. Arrested. But he continued marching and talking and training students in nonviolent action. He helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When he addressed the crowd at the March on Washington, he was 23 years old.
His family still worried. His mother had always cautioned him about avoiding trouble. But Lewis persisted, developing what would become a lifelong mantra: “get into good trouble.”
No event more encapsulated Lewis’s willingness to take personal risk than the incident at Selma.
54 years ago today, we were beaten, tear gassed, trampled by horses, and left bloody on that bridge in Selma. But we cannot rest. We cannot become weary. We must honor those who gave their lives for the right to vote. We must continue to find a way to get in the way. #goodtroublepic.twitter.com/Utygfx9hzc
In March of this year, Lewis made a surprise appearance at the event commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Selma march. “To each and every one of you, especially you young people . . . Go out there, speak up, speak out. Get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” he said. A documentary about Lewis, aptly titled Good Trouble, was released in July 2020, as the Congressman’s battle with cancer intensified.
“A real-life superhero” Lewis left SNCC and worked to fight voter suppression across the South, first as director of the Voter Registration Project and then, during the Carter administration, as director of ACTION, a 250,000-member volunteer agency. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986, to U.S. Congress, where he represented the Fifth District, which encompasses a wide swath of intown Atlanta, until his death.
In 2013, Lewis took a turn that was about as far from an Alabama henhouse as you could get: producing a graphic-novel memoir. The March trilogy, released in 2013, 2015, and 2016, put Lewis in front of hundreds of college classes, introduced him to tens of thousands of cosplaying fans at comic conventions, secured him a spot on the New York Times bestsellers’ list, and earned him a National Book Award.
When the first volume came out, Lewis went on The Colbert Report to promote it, prompting Stephen Colbert to ponder if producing a comic book might be beneath the dignity of a U.S. Congressman. “He was never afraid of what other people thought was dignified. He set his own terms,” said Andrew Aydin, a longtime aide to Lewis and his co-author on the March series (which is illustrated by Nate Powell).
What the March books do—“dramatize the conflict”—is what Lewis, King and other civil rights leaders did, said Aydin. As teenagers, Lewis and other future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had learned about King’s work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott by reading a comic book chronicle of the struggle, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1957. Today, millions of readers have learned about the modern civil rights movement through Lewis’ story in graphic novel format.
In 2015, Lewis led a crowd of children through San Diego Comic Con, cosplaying as himself in the khaki trench coat and military surplus backpack made iconic from Bloody Sunday news footage. At Dragon Con in Atlanta he cheerfully posed with costumed guests and signed book after book, attending panel discussions where he was introduced as a “real-life superhero.”
The books have been added to college curricula and reading lists: in 2019, the entire state of Vermont read the first volume of March as part of the Vermont Reads program. When the books debuted, “people weren’t willing to have the conversation about race they are having today,” Aydin said. “He saw new ideas and embraced them before they were considered safe.”
“Always so humble, so quiet” The public concept of Lewis is “an image set in granite,” embodied in his determined look captured in news photos of Bloody Sunday, said Aydin, who worked for and with Lewis for more than a decade. “But the man himself was so much fun. So full of joy.”
M. Alexis Scott, former publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, knew Lewis and his wife, Lillian, who died in 2012, for decades. “He was the icon of icons, and truly the conscience of America,” she said. He also was, she noted, someone who lived life to the fullest.
Lewis, Scott noted, loved to dance—“even if he wasn’t really a great dancer.” He was always ready to celebrate something or someone. At events, he was “always so humble, so quiet, always concerned about somebody else.”
Lewis and his wife were avid art aficionados and put together a collection including work by contemporary Black artists, as well as historical collectibles. On the flip side, they also “loved a good sale” and would hunt for deals at Dillard’s and Macy’s.
“He was kind of a regular, down-home Southern guy,” recalled Scott. “He was just adorable.”
Scott said Lewis would go out of his way to recognize people he met and make sure they felt heard, especially children and young people.
Tom Houck met Lewis in the mid 1960s, when he was just a teenager and worked as a driver for the King family. The two became friends and over the past 40 years have spoken almost daily. Lewis loved to gossip, said Houck, and Lillian would refer to the friends as “two leaky refrigerators.”
This summer, seeing the millions of people protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Congressman Lewis was so excited about this time,” Houck said. “John told me, it was ‘something I never dreamed of,’ and he was so happy to see come about.” Despite struggling with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he was determined to join Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowzer to see the Black Lives Matter street mural in Washington, D.C.
“John Lewis was already an icon when I met him in 1965, and he’s remained an icon,” Houck said. “His politics never changed. His commitment never changed.”
Since my husband, Jim, and I returned from a trip overseas on Monday, March 16, we’ve followed the instructions CDC workers distributed on our plane: avoiding others, checking our temperatures, keeping an eye out for the major symptoms of coronavirus infection—fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.
We both felt great, but having read about the risk of asymptomatically infecting others, we skipped visiting our daughter in Atlanta when we returned and headed back to our home in Athens, which went under a shelter in place edict earlier than most cities in Georgia. Self-isolating was relatively easy. We continued the maniacal handwashing we practiced during our trip and took our city-approved outdoor walks through vacant downtown blocks, empty quads on campus, and the wide streets in our neighborhood.
Saturday night, I woke up coughing. On Sunday, I started wheezing. During Monday’s third video conference call, talking got tougher; I found myself gasping between words.
On Tuesday, struggling to speak easily, I followed my insurance company’s instructions and checked in with my doctor electronically. I reminded her I’d recently returned from overseas and also reminded her of a significant detail from my medical history: a few years ago, I had a pulmonary embolism, or blood clot in my lung, which caused significant damage and required months of recovery. Should I get tested for COVID-19?
“As you know, testing is hard,” she wrote. It would be impossible to have a test at her office. “It is the pollen season. That could explain some of the symptoms.” Well, not really. I didn’t have any regular allergy symptoms like a runny nose or eyes. I had a dry cough and shortness of breath. She advised me to keep an eye on things. I wrote back again, reminding her of something else in my chart. Last month, a biopsy revealed basal cell skin cancer on my scalp. (Nothing too serious. “If you’re going to have skin cancer, that’s the kind you want,” the dermatologist assured me.) I was scheduled for outpatient treatment at the end of the month. Should I cancel, I wondered? The last thing I want is to be one of those people who infect healthcare workers. “If your symptoms are very much better you can proceed,” my doctor wrote.
That night, my coughing got worse. I could not complete a full sentence or draw a complete breath. In the morning, I checked in with my insurance company again, this time completing an “e-visit” about COVID-19 which was kind of like the most horrible BuzzFeed quiz ever. Rather than being told I belong in Slytherin, I was directed to call a nursing advice line. Another round of questions. “Go to the emergency room in the next 30 minutes to two hours,” the nurse said. “You need to get tested. Have someone drive you.”
Jim and I drove to the ER. At the door, a half-dozen robed and masked screeners stopped us for more questioning. They handed me a mask and sent me to triage.
“I’m just here because I drove her,” Jim said. He mentioned that he, also, had traveled and he, also, had constricted breathing. “Oh, you should be tested, too,” a staffer said, and sent him to triage as well.
I’ve never seen such a quiet ER. No blaring TVs. No family members crowding the lobby. No nurses gossiping at the front desk. Just a handful of us, spread out, adjusting to the clammy sensation of breathing with a mask covering most of your face.
In an exam room, more questions with the doctor. “You could have COVID-19,” he said. “Probably.” But he explained because there are so few tests available in Georgia, hospitals are only allowed to administer them to patients who need to be admitted. He said the restrictions on testing are frustrating. “I want to test to see how bad it is in the community,” he said. “I want to test the medical staff here.” But he can’t, because there aren’t enough tests to go around—something that has been known for weeks.
My medical history gave him reason to screen me for possible admission, so he ordered an X-ray and bloodwork. If anything looked serious and I might need to be admitted, then I’d receive a COVID-19 test.
An hour or so later, the results showed that I had some kind of respiratory infection but no testing flags red enough to put me in the hospital. I was given discharge papers including a sheet labeled “Viral syndrome and Coronavirus (COVID-19) instructions” that cover home treatment for COVID-19. Just in case.
The doctor circled the number of the Georgia Department of Public Health on the bottom of one page and suggested I try to get a test at one of the drive-thru testing centers in this area. I left with prescriptions for an inhaler and serious cough medicine, along with instructions to return if I started running a high fever.
I thanked him for working during this tough time, and for all that the ER staff was doing.
“It’s not bad now,” the doctor said. “But it will be bad in a week or two when things in Georgia escalate.”
I noticed he wore a basic pleated mask, like a dental assistant wears, not one that attaches around the nose and mouth. The nurse wore a mask that looked like it might have been reused or the wrong size; rubber bands were stapled to it in the place of the original elastic straps.
On March 9, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in Georgia was 17. Wednesday, when I went to the ER, Athens-Clarke County where I lived reported its first COVID-19-related death and the number of Georgia cases was 1,387. Today, the number is 2,001. The Georgia Department of Public Health is updating these tallies twice daily along with the total number of tests, which currently is 9,865. That’s out of a population of 10.2 million.
The screening protocols here are tinged with xenophobia. The fact is, I was put to the head of the screening line through my insurance company’s telemedicine system because I’d traveled overseas. But, if instead of traveling to Austria, I’d spent my spring break week in New York City or New Orleans or on the beach in Florida, I’d be at equal or higher risk, but not flagged by medical bureaucracy.
When I got home from the ER, it took several tries to get through to the Georgia Department of Public Health, then 15 minutes of voicemail prompts and waiting on hold to reach an adviser. I went through my symptoms and told her I’d just left the ER where the doctor told me to call them. She told me she had to check with her supervisor and asked me to hold. She forgot to put me on mute.
“I’ve got someone here who’s at high-risk.” I overheard her saying against the noisy backdrop of a call center. “I don’t want to be the person who gives bad news.” I heard the supervisor explain she needed to tell me there weren’t enough tests and it wasn’t advisable for me to have one.
“Thanks for holding,” she said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t really been on hold. “I hate to be the person with bad news,” she went on. “But there is a limit on tests and you don’t qualify as high-risk.” If things got worse, she said, I should call back. Or go back to the ER.
So, right now, I’m coughing, gasping a little, but still not running a fever. The inhaler helps. When I called to put my skin-cancer procedure on hold and explained that I couldn’t live with the idea of accidentally infecting anyone, the nurse thanked me. No problem, I answered. Cancer is one thing, but the guilt over possibly harming healthcare workers is something else.
I’m not a person who likes to talk about medical stuff. I hate shows like E.R. and House. A lot of what is in this post will be news to my friends.
But earlier this month, before Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name, he testified in a congressional hearing and called the U.S. lag in testing a “failing.” Over the past weeks, celebrities and professional athletes have been tested, but a rollout of widespread testing, considered essential epidemiological knowledge for tracking and containing a pandemic, simply has not happened. On March 9, on a visit to the CDC in Atlanta, President Trump said: “They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test.”
I need a test. My husband needs a test. Thousands of Georgians need tests. And we’re not getting them.
Rebecca Burns is the publisher of The Red & Black, the independent news organization that covers the University of Georgia, and an adjunct professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her two decades as an Atlanta journalist include seven years as editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. She lives in Athens and tweets at @RebeccaBurns.
Friday the 13th. We were seated in a tiny Viennese beisl, or pub, eating sauerkraut, sausage, and egg dumplings under the imperious gaze of Habsburg portraits and monarchist bric-a-brac. At the bar, a few patrons were heavily day-drinking while others, older gentlemen all, sipped from giant half-liter beer mugs. Our waiter suddenly walked over to the TV and switched it on as everyone swiveled in their seats to face the screen.
I drew on my high school German to translate for my husband as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz appeared in a national address. Austria, he said, would be enforcing new measures in the face of COVID-19. All of these steps, he said, would be done to protect the most vulnerable Austrians, the elderly citizens who raised us. To contain the virus, Kurz said, schools would be closed the following Monday and workers would be asked to stay home. All shops except the essentials—groceries, drugstores, the post office—would be closed. Bars, restaurants, and cafes would close at 3 p.m. At this, the beisl’s patrons simultaneously groaned, and our waiter walked behind the bar and poured himself a beer. He raised his glass in a toast to the room at large. “It’s crazy!” he said. Everyone else raised their glasses and drank along with him.
When we settled up, we told the waiter we were sorry about the impact on his business. He shrugged and said, “What are you going to do?” He pointed out that stricter measures were underway in other parts of Europe. We overtipped him.
That day was the turning point of a surreal week abroad as we watched reaction to the COVID-19 threat unfold overseas and at home.
Before leaving for our planned spring break trip to Vienna, we’d monitored the news closely including in Austria’s daily Wiener Zeitung. There were a few dozen coronavirus cases in the country, mostly limited to the southern Tirol ski area. There were no U.S. travel advisories for anywhere in Europe except Italy, a country with which Austria had already closed its borders. The conventional wisdom was to travel as planned, wash your hands, and steer clear of folks with coughs.
When we arrived on Monday, March 9, life in Vienna hustled along as usual. We explored the massive Naschmarkt market and gawked at ornate apartment buildings. On Tuesday, we toured the historic downtown and rode the Reisenrad—“giant wheel—the 1897 Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park, famed for its cameo in the Orson Welles classic The Third Man. We gawked at robe-clad scalpers selling tickets outside the opera house, and I tried to talk my husband into returning to pick up 3 Euro standing-room-only tickets. The next day we explored the Vienna Zoo—opened in 1752, it’s the oldest continually operating zoo in the world—and toured Habsburg opulence in the Schönbrunn palace. That night, we learned opera and theater performances were being cancelled and some cathedrals had closed. The next day, Thursday, museums were shuttered and restrictions were issued on public gatherings.
On Thursday morning we also woke up to a flurry of messages from friends and family asking if we’d make it back. Huh?
Turns out that as we slept, President Trump gave a news conference issuing a ban on travel from Europe. Luckily we missed the initial panic and didn’t race, as some did, to get $5,000 tickets home. That said, we abandoned plans for a day trip down the Danube to Slovakia and instead hung out in a park that had been a favorite haunt of Sigmund Freud’s.
While Trump’s travel ban didn’t stress me, I went through emotional whiplash waiting for the University System of Georgia (USG) to make up its mind about its COVID-19 plans. I’m the publisher of the Red & Black student news organization at the University of Georgia and teach at UGA part-time. While other colleges were announcing extended spring breaks and switches to online classes, UGA and the USG remained silent. Break was drawing to a close and I didn’t know what to expect—nor did tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty across the state. Late Thursday morning, Georgia time, USG issued a statement declaring all 26 schools would resume business as usual. Figuring that was settled, we went out to enjoy late-afternoon sunshine at a neighborhood beer garden. By the time we strolled back, USG had reversed its policy, extended spring break for two weeks, and asked students to stay away. I stayed up late drafting emails, communicating with our editors, staff, and sponsors.
Friday, we watched Chancellor Kurz issue that appeal to the greater good in an address that spelled out the risks of COVID-19 and the decisive actions taken in response. “It is important to act, to take quick measures now, and to stand together,” Kurz said.
Later that night, we watched a livestream of a White House press conference. The president assured listeners Google was working on a screening website, that drive-thru testing would be coming, and that “families returning from Europe, will be subject to extra screening, as well self-isolation for a period of 14 days.”
Over the weekend, we explored Vienna as it prepped for lockdown. Of course there is a German compound word for panic shopping—hamsterkäufe—or shopping like a hamster stuffs its cheeks with food. There’s a hyphenated compound word for the anxiety around COVID-19: Corona-Angst. We saw store shelves cleaned out (yes, the Viennese also stocked up on toilet paper) and signs popped up in windows announcing closures.
Vienna’s famed cafe culture has been named to UNESCO’s inventory of “intangible cultural heritage” and are an integral element of the city’s lifestyle. But we passed cafe after cafe with shuttered doors. Venerable coffee houses that had remained open through two world wars and occupation closed in the face of COVID-19.
On Sunday, we joined Viennese families in socially distant strolls through city parks and on the Danube. They were gearing up for a nationwide curfew that went into effect yesterday. We were gearing up to return to the States and to a lot of unknowns.
On March 16, the Vienna airport was on lockdown, with storefronts shuttered and gate after gate dark as travel was reduced to 20 percent of its usual volume.
“Good luck! We hope to see you again when all this craziness is over,” our flight attendant perkily announced as we arrived in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to transfer to the States.
Schiphol was equally eerie. With only a handful of kiosks and duty-free shops open, one guy at our gate hunkered down with a bottle of Merlot and a hunk of Gouda. We watched travelers pull at facemasks and stake out seats away from each other. The flight was hardly full—all the panicky folks had left over the weekend, crew told us.
As we approached Atlanta, we were handed forms we were told would be used in COVID-19 screening on our arrival. The questions were laughably broad—Have you had contact with a person known to be infected with “COVID-2019”—and included a badly formatted grid that was supposed to be used to list our symptoms. We also were told that because of the virus, the touch-screen kiosks at customs were closed and we’d have to fill out old-school paper forms, which we did.
We sat inside the plane at Hartsfield-Jackson awaiting screening. A crew of people wearing hodgepodge EMS uniforms, “CDC Temporary Staff” badges, and plastic face screens, walked down the aisles collecting our self-assessment forms. (They kept having to pause to explain the symptom grid to passengers who didn’t understand it and hadn’t filled it out.)
In exchange, they gave us a worksheet dated February 27, 2020. “You have received this booklet of important health information because you traveled from the People’s Republic of China,” the first page reads. “There is an ongoing outbreak of coronavirus diseases 2019 (COVID-19) in China.” The booklet instructed us to take our temperatures twice daily and keep a log “every day for 14 days after you left China.”
The health officials pulled a few people aside to have their temperatures taken and walked a handful off the plane. But for most of us the screening amounted to little more than having officials ask, “You feelin’ okay? Any coughing?” We walked out of our gate to a scene that was like a dystopian sci-fi movie with airport staff in masks and gloves, and caught a glimpse of at least a hundred people—including those taken from our plane—in a large glass-walled holding room. As we made our way toward the customs area, most of our fellow passengers with face masks yanked them down around their necks. It was stuffy, and they looked sweaty and uncomfortable.
We breezed through customs and were directed through the airport and out to the lobby. Nobody even stopped us to collect those paper customs declaration forms. Outside, Uber and Lyft drivers idled at the curb.
Surreal doesn’t start to capture the rapid series of events last week. We watched as a city centered on cafe life and cultural gatherings smoothly shut down. From afar, we watched our own city, state, and country lurch backward and forward with inconsistent messaging.
We’re home now in Athens, where campus is closed, streets are quiet, and our mayor and commission have issued a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. SEC sports have been cancelled for the remainder of the season. The 127-year-old Red & Black is going digital-only for a semester. We’ve been told to monitor ourselves for the next two weeks and to self-quarantine. Today, when St. Patrick’s Day parties would normally be raging in downtown bars, we’re seeing a stream of announcements about businesses putting themselves on pause. When 5 p.m. rolls around, I’m going to pour myself a bourbon and toast that Viennese waiter. “What are you doing to do?”
Rebecca Burns is the publisher of The Red & Black, the independent news organization that covers the University of Georgia, and an adjunct professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her two decades as an Atlanta journalist include seven years as editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. She lives in Athens and tweets at @RebeccaBurns.
Freaking out is understandable when encountering a horseshoe crab on the beach. After all, these ancient creatures have five pairs of legs, ten eyes, long spiky tails, and mouths on the bottom of their shells. They’re the incarnate version of those things inside the robot suits on Dr. Who, or a scale model of an extraterrestrial that Sigourney Weaver might battle. And if you come across a recently injured crab, you might discover another startling fact: It oozes azure blood.
The horseshoe crab might seem alien, but it probably shouldn’t. This animal has been here for somewhere around 450 million years, predating dinosaurs. “This is a very old species,” says Anthony Dellinger, president and lead scientist for North Carolina-based Kepley BioSystems, “with a very specialized immune system.” Paradoxically, that natural immunity contributes to the risk that the species now faces.
For the past few decades, the blue blood that protects horseshoe crabs from infection has become a key ingredient in a substance that ensures that biomedical devices, cosmetics, and certain drugs and vaccines are free from potentially deadly bacteria. The increased demand for crab blood for these medical purposes has led to dangerously aggressive harvesting. The resulting decline in the horseshoe crab population—the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List classifies the crab as “vulnerable”—has had ripple effects through a coastal ecosystem stretching the entire Atlantic coast.
A small project on Jekyll has big ambitions: to reverse the fortunes of the horseshoe crab.
The Jekyll Experiment
Some 500,000 horseshoe crabs are captured every year for medical purposes, generally in May and June, when they flock to beaches to spawn. Captured crabs are bled and returned to the ocean, a process that can take up to 48 hours. How many survive the ritual is uncertain. Estimates put the mortality rate as high as 30 percent.
“Collection can be dangerous to the crabs and often is indiscriminate,” says Kristen Dellinger, a scientist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a senior scientist at Kepley.
Just as Western cattlemen protected the bison through controlled ranching, the Dellingers and Kepley hope their project on Jekyll Island, the first phase of what Kepley is calling the Horseshoe Crab Ranch & Blood Institute, can preserve the horseshoe crab.
Tucked into Tidelands Pond, adjacent to the 4-H Tidelands Nature Center on the southwest end of the island, the experiment is funded by a National Science Foundation grant and managed in partnership with the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. About 40 crabs are residents in the pond, all housed in 15-by-15 foot enclosures in a protected pool that is freshened daily by tidal flows.
Like those who herd livestock from pasture to pasture, the UGA marine extension team rotates the crab enclosures in the estuary to prevent “overgrazing,” says Bryan Fluech, associate director of extension at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. Aided by interns from the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, Fluech’s team checks on the crabs, monitoring when and how often they feed, and supplements the natural food sources—such as krill and minnows—with other food. The crabs, it appears, are fond of anchovies.
Two of the crabs are test subjects for another innovation. They’ve been outfitted with ports—like those inserted for intravenous drips—which could allow labs to draw blood less invasively. “We’re wrestling with the economics and logistics,” says Kristen Dellinger. Kepley’s hope is that the next phase of the research, wherever that may be, will allow the company to explore the viability of commercialized ranching of crabs for medical research.
“The solution requires thoughtfulness to create a compassionate and humane solution,” says Anthony Dellinger.
An Ecosystem in the Balance
The contribution of horseshoe crabs to the biomedical industry is only a few decades old, but the crabs have played a pivotal role in sustaining an ecosystem stretching from South America to the Arctic for hundreds of thousands of years, says Abby Sterling. She’s a shorebird biologist with Manomet, a nonprofit that has spent decades on the conservation of shorebirds, including work with the Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative.
Birds such as the Red Knot make stops on the North Atlantic coast en route from Southern Argentina to the Canadian Arctic. They feast on nutritiously dense and easily digestible horseshoe crab eggs, which can allow a single bird to double its weight. “Horseshoe crab spawning is an important resource for migration,” Sterling says. “The birds have to build up their weight to have fuel to get to the Arctic to build their nests and raise chicks.” The Delaware Bay has been the “epicenter” of this migratory pattern for millennia, but birds increasingly have been stopping further south, notes Sterling.
Harvesting of horseshoe crabs by the fishing and biomedical industries now is regulated,
but the crab population still is dwindling, threatening the bird population. In the early 1990s, beaches in New Jersey held up to 100,000 eggs per square yard, a yield that has dropped to about 5,000, according to a 2018 report in Audubon magazine.
“Shorebirds face pressures including habitat loss, climate change, and Arctic warming,” Sterling says. “Losing an important nutrition source is another pressure.”
While crabs have been harvested for the biomedical industry in South Carolina, the industrial harvesting and bleeding of the crabs has been less prevalent here in the Southeast, which Sterling calls “one of the last strongholds” for the birds and crabs. “In Georgia, there has not been significant pressure on horseshoe crabs, and that’s something we want to maintain,” she says.
“The whole length of the hemisphere depends on these critical stopover places. Shorebirds need low-disturbance places to roost and to find food resources.”
The horseshoe crab project on Jekyll considers all these varying interests; public health, the health of shorebirds, the fishing industry, the survival of the crabs themselves, and the biomedical industry, says Anthony Dellinger. “When we approach a problem, we approach it in its entirety.”
From Here, A Global Reach
“We have been blown away by the reception in Georgia. Jekyll Island has been amazing to work with,” says Kristen Dellinger. In addition to collaborating with scientists at UGA and the host Jekyll Island Authority, a happy coincidence of the horseshoe crab project has been its proximity to the 4-H Tidelands facility, which has allowed researchers to connect with young people. “We are able to do outreach about this important species,” she says.
The Kepley researchers hope the project can be developed into a larger- scale model that will offer a more humane and sustainable way to harvest blood from crabs while also allowing wild populations to flourish without the impact of being bled. Beyond that, Sterling points to research into synthetic alternatives that could replace the need to draw blood from the crabs altogether. Eli Lilly, for example, has developed a compound that has been used in some testing and has been FDA approved for testing water sterility.
“The harvesting of crabs for biomedical research is critical for human well-being, but it’s important to take into consideration the timeline of the relationship between birds and crabs that has developed over thousands of years,” says Sterling. “Reducing pressure on the horseshoe crabs would help birds, and it also would help the crabs.”
For Jekyll, the horseshoe crab experiment represents another step in the island’s wide-ranging conservation efforts. “In terms of this project, our goal is to step back and let the research unfold,” says Benjamin Carswell, Director of Conservation for the Jekyll Island Authority. The horseshoe crab project, with its potential to advance medical research, aid migratory birds, and to bolster the crab population up and down the coast, marks a reach beyond local conservation.
“This is exciting for us to host and be part of,” Carswell says. “Regionally and even globally, the impact of this project goes far beyond Jekyll.”
For years, Atlanta has been a cinematic stand-in. We’ve seen Woodruff Park transformed into 1970s New York, the Pullman Yards join Panem, the Gulch enter the Marvel universe, and downtown streets and exit ramps host Fast after Furious chase.
While Georgia’s generous film tax breaks lured many movies from L.A. to the ATL, director Edgar Wright made another economical move for Baby Driver—skipping pretext entirely and literally retro-scripting his crime caper to make it set in Atlanta. No pesky faux street signs or rented LAPD cars.
Some have applauded Wright’s decision. Both Complex and Paste described the flick as a “love letter” to the city. (Although one of those pieces was written by a recent transplant who couldn’t tell Peachtree Center from Underground Atlanta, bless his heart.)
I’ve seen Baby Driver twice and each time Wright’s treatment reminded me less of a love letter than the time I saw Prairie Home Companion at the Fox Theatre and Garrison Keillor’s monologue was peppered with hackneyed “Peachtrees” and “Y’alls” and references to the humidity and the Big Chicken.
Don’t get me wrong—the movie deserves its glowing reviews and big box office. Just as he did in Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright renders over-the-top action impeccably. So why not pay a little more attention to the details about Atlanta?
I’m not hung up on the fast and loose geography that allows Baby and crew to get from Dunwoody to Midtown in three minutes, or puts an Octane coffee near Georgia State. It’s a driving movie; a visual pun like Octane can’t be passed up. And there were only so many times the crew could shut down roads for filming—four freeways and 40 surface streets to be precise.
Still, any Atlantan with a sense of place has to wonder:
How does Baby manage to idle on Peachtree Street and not get a ticket? Sure, the film’s opening heist scene is genius, but it all depends on Baby sitting in a cherry red Subaru WRX in the heart of downtown on a weekday without an Atlanta cop issuing a ticket or an irate Uber driver honking behind him.
Why no races against MARTA or CSX trains? Atlanta is built on rail lines. In a flick centered on getting around, Baby Driver misses a huge opportunity for a chase on a MARTA rail, against a CSX train, heck, even a loop on the Hartsfield-Jackson plane train.
And what about a streetcar snafu? With much of the action taking place in the heart of downtown, there should have been at least one case of Baby having to navigate around the Atlanta Streetcar, maybe stalled somewhere along Edgewood Avenue.
Where did all those folks in Fairlie-Poplar come from? As Baby does his “Harlem Shuffle” moves around the Healey Building, he passes a central casting sampler pack of extras, jabbering on their phones, emoting, hailing a cab. Wait. No one hails a cab in Atlanta. You call Uber or schlep over to one of the hotels where the cabs queue up. And the street preacher is a white dude with both a sandwich board and a megaphone?
On the other hand, where are the Peachtree Center convention hordes? The tacky tourist gear Baby swipes as he leads cops through Peachtree Center is realistic. What’s not? How easily he gets through the building. Where are the hordes of conventioneers in line at the Chick-fil-A? Would it have killed the filmmakers to throw in some Dragon Con attendees?
They were only caught in “traffic” once? In only one scene does Baby encounter a little congestion on the Connector, and it’s not really that bad.
Does anyone really dream of driving west on 20? Sorry Debora. Tuscaloosa is not the stuff of fantasy.
Why is there an old-school diner in the middle of . . . somewhere . . . in intown Atlanta? Oh, right. Because this was going to be L.A. Maybe licensing kept Debora from waiting tables at Waffle House, but what about the Majestic? Also, if such a diner existed, it would either be occupied by old folks or hipsters, not empty.
Why isn’t there more Atlanta music? First, as a millennial Atlantan, Baby would absolutely have more rap on those iPods of his. Maybe some real country. Yes, it’s nice that a Run the Jewels song featuring Big Boi made it to the soundtrack and fun that Killer Mike and Big Boi make cameo appearances. But for a movie driven by its soundtrack, Atlanta music should be heavily included in the mix. Not, perhaps, something as obvious as “Welcome to Atlanta,” but how about, say, Ludacris’ “Move” during one of the freeway scenes? Or Outkast’s “Elevators” in the drive down DeKalb Avenue? Or even “Why Georgia” by John Mayer. (“I am driving up 85 . . . ” Not, not “the 85.” More on that shortly.)
And that gets to the real problem. It’s not so much the continuity errors that make this attempt to capture Atlanta ring false, it’s the missed opportunities to build the story, from the ground up, with Atlanta truisms and a true sense of place. In a telling exchange, Baby and Debora talk about being “from here.” Really? No Atlantan just says “here.” The metro area is too sprawling for that. If Baby and Debora really grew up here, they’d be sure to clarify “Grant Park” or “Midtown,” or even “Marietta” or “Dunwoody.”
One of the trailers playing before Baby Driver was for Pitch Perfect 3—shot in Atlanta and on Union City soundstages, with the Fox Theatre and Georgia Aquarium standing in for spots on a global USO tour. As I write this, Robocop 3 is playing on IFC, with my old loft in Cabbagetown subbing for dystopian Detroit. It strikes me that there’s about as much connection to Atlanta in that movie as in Baby Driver. There’s no “there” in Baby Driver’s “here.”
And finally, why didn’t anyone tell Edgar Wright it’s not THE Buford Highway? Here’s the easiest way to spot an Atlanta newcomer: If they tell you about commuting from “the 85 to the 285.” Baby Driver reportedly pumped $30 million into the metro economy. Not one of the thousands of workers felt they could speak up to point out that Atlantans don’t use that needless article when they refer to roads?
When the bank heist of “Perimeter Trust” (which was accurately filmed outside of Perimeter Mall) involves an escape route down “the Buford Highway,” the Atlanta premise crashes.
On the plus side, here’s one thing the movie blessedly gets right: Kevin Spacey skips his overblown House of Cards and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil drawls. Because everyone knows that actual Atlantans don’t sound like movie Atlantans. (Too bad Ansel Elgort and Lily James didn’t get the memo.)
Rebecca Burns is the publisher of The Red & Black, the independent news organization that covers the University of Georgia, and an adjunct professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her two decades as an Atlanta journalist include seven years as editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine.
When the alarm sounded, they trotted into their metal chutes, waiting side-by-side until their harnesses dropped from above. As the stable door at Engine Company 7 opened, another alarm blared, and the team galloped out.
They couldn’t sustain that speed. It was a hard two-mile run over rough pavement from the station house on Whitehall Street downtown to the colossal Atlanta Warehouse Company in what is now Adair Park. Spread over 40 acres, the concrete storage buildings were touted as Atlanta’s largest fireproof structures. Inside, though, they held highly flammable bales of cotton and “linters,” silky strands of cotton separated after a first pass through the gin. On this breezy spring day, sparks from a steam shovel ignited the bales.
Horses panting, Engine Company 7 reached the warehouse after motorized crews from two other fire stations. Hose and pump teams saturated what they could while other firefighters closed off sections of the warehouse to contain the blaze. It wasn’t easy; the behemoth complex was virtually windowless, making it almost impossible for firefighters to direct water at the burning bales. In less than two hours, flames consumed all 49 bales of linters along with 170 bales—85,000 pounds—of cotton.
The warehouse blaze was only the beginning. Within an hour Atlanta’s meager fire department was dispatched to three other significant conflagrations, the last—and largest—of which swept through thousands of wooden shanties and Victorian mansions in the Fourth Ward. By nightfall, 10,000 Atlantans were left homeless by the Great Fire of 1917, which destroyed more of the city than General William T. Sherman had during the closing days of the Civil War 50 years earlier.
While cotton burned at the Warehouse Company, a quarter mile to the west, two boys looking for mischief dragged a garbage container behind the home of neighbor Fred Walker and set it alight. Breezes fanned the flaming trash pile, and smoldering scraps slipped into the crawlspace of Walker’s house, igniting its wooden floor joists.
The children tried in vain to put out the fire with a garden hose. By the time a West End neighbor called the fire department, flames were consuming Walker’s two-story home.
With nearby engine companies working the warehouse blaze, headquarters dispatched a horse team from Fire Station 5, a mile and a half away—a mile farther than most horses were conditioned to pull a fire wagon.
Also en route: Fire Chief William B. Cody, who had joined Atlanta’s volunteer fire department as a driver in 1878, a few days shy of his 20th birthday. Now almost 59, he still liked to get to the front of the action. Cody had spent much of his career working with the department’s horses, so when he arrived at the scene, he realized it would not be possible to bring in horse-drawn equipment to the West End. He called headquarters to request motorized crews as backup, leaving the horse-drawn teams at the stations.
By now the flames from Walker’s house had ignited homes on either side, lofting sparks to nearby streets. Panicked calls flooded fire headquarters. Reinforcements scrambled to douse buildings and create a “firebreak”—a barrier of space or moisture to stop flames from spreading. They drenched Gordon Street Presbyterian Church and the storefronts at the intersection of Gordon and Lee streets.
“There’s a big fire on,” headquarters staff told driver Hugh McDonald when he and members of Engine Company 6 pulled in to replenish the hose on their truck after battling the warehouse blaze. McDonald was sent right back out; a third alarm had been called in at 12:15 p.m. from Washington-Rawson, a working-class neighborhood just south of downtown. An accidental fire had started in the home of W.H. Timms at 355 Woodward Avenue and was spreading through the close-built wooden homes on his block. It had not rained for weeks in Atlanta, and the wood-shingled houses were as dry as kindling.
McDonald and his crew arrived to witness Chief Cody, who had hurried over from the West End, watching helplessly while flames ate through poles supporting streetcar wires along Woodward Avenue. Collapsed wires seemed to writhe in the street and set the fire hose itself aflame.
As Cody, McDonald, and other firefighters waited for Georgia Power technicians to cut the wires, more crews arrived. The horses drawing their engines had traveled so far and at such speeds that their hoofs bled. Now gusting at 15 miles per hour, the wind tossed smoldering chunks of wooden roof shingles through the air like seeds being blown from a dandelion, planting fires that burned two dozen homes in Washington-Rawson and eventually ignited a blaze worse than any seen for generations.
You couldn’t say Atlanta had not been warned.
In 1909 the National Board of Fire Underwriters issued a report noting that wood-frame homes crammed on city lots put Atlanta at a “high conflagration hazard.” Five years later, its 1914 report cautioned that the commonly used wooden roofing shingles prompted the risk of “flying brand fires to a pronounced degree.” In 1916 city lawmakers passed a code mandating fire-resistant roofing (such as asbestos or asphalt tiles) to replace wooden shingles. The ordinance had been slated to go into effect January 1917, but thanks to aggressive lobbying by Atlanta lumber merchants, the city postponed enforcement until July.
The Board also had cautioned Atlanta officials about the risks of scrimping on staff and equipment. Atlanta was one of the least modernized fire departments in the country. Chief Cody commanded a fleet that relied heavily on horse-drawn equipment. Even the city’s hydrants were outmoded, requiring special wrenches to open and shut, and with fittings that were incompatible with modern hoses.
Cody watched crews struggling to contain the Washington-Rawson fire. Then he looked over the railroad tracks and saw yet another plume of smoke rise from Decatur and Fort streets.
The flames came from a Decatur Street storage shed for Grady Hospital. Lieutenant J.A. Hooks and members of horse-drawn Ladder Company 12, en route to the main fire station, spotted a pile of cotton mattresses blazing on the facility’s porch, likely ignited by flying embers from the Washington-Rawson fire. Before long, the whole building was in flames. The firefighters had a pump, but lacking hoses—the central station had already distributed every last one—there was no way to get the water to the fire.
Hooks called headquarters for help but couldn’t get through. He wasn’t the only one. So many calls came in that the lines couldn’t handle them, and every public fire alarm had been pulled, crashing the system. Atlantans who weren’t calling the fire department were calling each other to pass along rumors that the blazes were the work of German spies. The U.S. had entered World War I just one month earlier, and Atlanta would play a pivotal role in the war effort, with officers training at Fort McPherson and troops arriving at the new Camp Gordon training grounds.
It was 1 p.m. before other trucks carrying hoses arrived at Decatur Street and tried to soak wooden homes in the alley behind the storage shed. But the advancing wall of fire was so ferocious they had to retreat.
Along Decatur Street, men climbed onto roofs and poured buckets of water over wooden shingles, hoping to stop the fire’s spread. They doused homes with garden hoses. But once fire took hold in one of the wooden shacks, it roared through rapidly. Homes burned to the ground in minutes.
People, horses, and cars crowded into the street. Some fled burning homes and businesses, others rubbernecked at the destruction. Orderlies at Fairhaven Hospital hauled out invalids in their beds, leaving them to wait as ambulances struggled to weave through the crowds.
Just before 2 p.m., less than three hours after the first fire was reported, Chief Cody ordered every one of his 204 firefighters on duty. Then he called Mayor Asa
Candler with another request: Call every city in a 350-mile radius—yes, as far away as Chattanooga and Savannah—and ask if they can help. Forget about the three earlier fires of the day; this fourth one is going to destroy Atlanta.
11:39 a.m. Alarm: Atlanta Warehouse Company
11:43 a.m. Alarm: West End
12:15 p.m. Alarm: Washington-Rawson
12:46 p.m. Alarm: Decatur and Fort streets in the Fourth Ward
Crews arrive at the fire in the Fourth Ward, but are unable to contain it.
As additional companies arrive, the fire spreads north of Decatur Street and along Edgewood Avenue.
Small fires ignited by flying shingles converge into a wall of flame. Firefighters hope that an empty lot will serve as a firebreak, but winds carry burning embers.
Wheat Street Baptist Church burns, soon followed by St. Paul’s Episcopal. Before 4 p.m., flames destroy Jackson Avenue Baptist, Grace Methodist, and Westminster Presbyterian churches.
Colonel Charles Noyes, Chief Cody, and Mayor Candler make the decision to dynamite large homes to create a firebreak.
Soldiers and officer trainees from Fort McPherson set up a command post at Peachtree and Baker streets.
Martial law is declared.
Dynamiting begins on houses around North Avenue.
Fire reaches Ponce de Leon Avenue, and winds carry burning chunks of wood across the wide street. Military bucket brigades work to dampen homes in the fire’s path.
The wind changes direction and begins to blow the fire back toward the already burned area.
Fire reaches Greenwood Avenue but does not spread farther.
8 – 9 p.m.
Fire crews arrive from Gainesville, Rome, and Chattanooga. Although the fire has been contained, the two-mile swath continues to smolder.
The fire officially is extinguished, but pop-up fires continue for three weeks.
Part II Exodus from the Fourth Ward
A decade earlier, Decatur Street was known as Atlanta’s den of iniquity. Crammed with shanties and saloons—many of them selling corn whiskey, running gambling operations, or operating illicit brothels—it was reviled by white politicians and pundits. A September 1906 Atlanta Journal editorial characterized the businesses along its thoroughfare as “disguised dives of the worst class” that “fostered and engendered criminals of the lowest species.” It met equal disdain from black middle-class moralists. A writer in The Voice of the Negro described Decatur Street as a hotbed of “staggering men and swaggering, brazen women . . . people divested of all shame and remorse.”
The city’s passage of prohibition in 1907 and ongoing police sweeps had dampened some of Decatur Street’s lively character, but it remained choked with wooden shanties and wagon lots. Respectability increased with each block north of the railroad track: Edgewood Avenue with its brick office buildings; Auburn Avenue, the heart of Atlanta’s black middle class; and Irwin Street, the de facto barrier between the Fourth Ward’s white and black residents.
As the May breeze grew in strength, it blew nuggets of flaming roof shingles northward, some traveling four and five blocks. Now a thousand feet long, the Great Fire rolled along Edgewood Avenue to Auburn Avenue, engulfing a complicated urban geography segmented along lines of race and class.
For black residents, the Fourth Ward was the area they had retreated to after white violence during the city’s 1906 race riot that left at least two-dozen African Americans dead. It was where they saw working- and middle-class stability, symbolized in structures such as the Rucker Building, which housed black dentists, doctors, and other professionals, and institutions such as Wheat Street and Ebenezer Baptist churches. For white Atlantans, it was a rolling terrain close to downtown that offered space to build large homes along Jackson Street and Boulevard, Atlanta’s wide, tree-lined thoroughfare.
Now the wall of flame threatened everyone.
“The last day has come; this fire brings the prophesies of the Bible,” an old woman shouted as flames moved down Auburn Avenue toward Wheat Street Baptist. A few people knelt with her in front of the church while other bystanders stood and wept.
By 2:25 p.m. Wheat Street Baptist had burned to the ground. A half hour later, Grace Methodist Church at the corner of Boulevard and Highland Avenue was aflame. There would be little divine intervention. Jackson Street Baptist was gutted before 5 p.m.
Residents of the Fourth Ward hauled chairs, pianos, trunks, and tables into the streets, calling friends and relatives for help transporting their possessions to safety. But those treasured items acted only as fuel, sustaining the fire as it headed north toward the grander homes on Boulevard and Jackson Street.
It crossed Edgewood Avenue and headed toward a vacant lot. “This could save us,” Cody said, surmising that the big clearing could create a firebreak. But the wind was now 17 miles per hour, strong enough to bend young trees, and propelled the flames northward across the lot.
After lunching with his wife, Pearl, and infant son, Billie, at his home on Boulevard Terrace, law clerk William Hartsfield caught the streetcar to his office downtown. Dense smoke clogged the sky. Hartsfield and his colleagues climbed onto their building’s roof, where they could see flames licking rooftops in Washington-Rawson. Hartsfield noticed that sparks now were shooting through the smoky sky and landing in the direction of Jackson Street, just a block or two from his house.
He rushed back home, where he saw flames moving up Jackson Street “as fast as a man could walk” and neighbors hauling belongings out to the street. “Confusion reigned supreme,” he wrote in a letter to friends the next morning. “Just imagine the terror and helplessness of those people.”
Hartsfield helped Pearl pack a trunk. When flames and smoke approached outside, he urged Pearl to take Billie and their maid and head out the back door, toward a patch of woods two blocks away, near Glen Iris Drive and Ponce de Leon Avenue.
He dragged Billie’s new crib—white enamel, filled with the baby’s clothes and bedding—out back and knocked down a fence to stash it in an empty lot behind his house. He helped his widowed neighbor haul out a trunk. Then, as flames came around the corner of Boulevard Terrace, Hartsfield dragged his own loaded trunk two full blocks to the Ponce de Leon Woods.
That afternoon Colonel Charles Noyes led 2,000 troops in a march from the 17th U.S. Infantry and Officers Training Camp in Fort McPherson to downtown Atlanta, where they set up command at the corner of Peachtree and Baker streets. Soldiers and officers in training—many still feverish after having typhoid immunizations the day before—manned bucket brigades, helped residents evacuate, and directed traffic. They were joined by Georgia National Guard’s Fifth Regiment and Governor’s Horse Guard units, who had been training near Lakewood.
Reinforcements began to arrive from other cities. Just after 3 p.m. firefighters from Griffin arrived on the Georgia Railroad, bringing 1,000 feet of fire hose and heading to the Fourth Ward. But the desperately needed hose could not be used; its modern couplings didn’t work with Atlanta’s outmoded hydrants.
By now the fires in the West End, Washington-Rawson, and the Atlanta Warehouse Company had been contained, so every one of Atlanta’s 204 firefighters was called to the Fourth Ward.
But still the fire spread.
The only solution, Candler, Cody, and Noyes had concluded, was to create a firebreak so large that the flames couldn’t skip over it. They would have to dynamite large homes on the affluent northern end of the Fourth Ward, whose residents had already fled, to keep the fire from crossing Ponce de Leon Avenue and heading toward Piedmont Park. I’ll get the dynamite myself, volunteered Mayor Candler.
Meanwhile, the inferno consumed everything—even the wooden pavers on the northern stretch of Boulevard. “It looked like the end of the world,” Boulevard resident Annie Mae Lipford would recall. Her family made a hasty escape, the chickens from their yard stuffed into the backseat of the car.
By 4 p.m. the Great Fire had spread almost a mile north of its origin at Decatur Street. The dynamite team decided to destroy homes around the intersection of Boulevard and North Avenue, ahead of the fire’s path. Booms from the explosions echoed through the area, and aftershocks shook nearby houses, shattering windows and cracking plaster walls.
After a home was dynamited, firemen moved in to soak the demolished building. At North Jackson and Ponce de Leon, 10 hose operators worked in tandem, combining forceful streams of water to douse the flattened homes.
But as the fire approached the break, the wind reversed direction. After gusting north all day, it began to move south, fanning back over two miles of smoldering lots that stretched from North Avenue to Decatur Street. Almost everything flammable in its path had already been burned or drenched with water.
By 7:45 p.m. the Great Fire had diminished, petering out where embers had landed at Greenwood Avenue, just a few blocks shy of Piedmont Park. Crews from Atlanta, Rome, and Gainesville worked to control pop-up fires and contain electric lines and streetcar wires.
It was not until 10:40 p.m., 10 hours after the Great Fire began, that Chief Cody declared it was under control.
Part III Aftermath
Early Tuesday morning 13-year-old Nina King walked out of the door of her Randolph Street home and entered a foreign landscape. Hundreds of surrounding houses and shops had burned to the ground. All she could see, for “blocks and blocks and blocks,” were chimneys. The skinny stacks stood erect over the vacant landscape like sentries at their posts.
Between the brick chimneys, smoke rose from the debris of obliterated homes. Fires still burned in basements and crawlspaces, fueled by timbers and framing that collapsed inward. For weeks flames would suddenly shoot into the air as gas from damaged lines was ignited by smoldering embers.
William Hartsfield approached the site of his Boulevard Terrace home to find soldiers patrolling the street. Fire had consumed Hartsfield’s house and everything he dragged to the backyard. He gathered the damaged remnants of Billie’s crib, but all that really was saved was what he managed to drag into the Ponce de Leon Woods: a trunk, a few blankets, his cherished phonograph, and a sewing machine.
Hartsfield was stunned to see flames had devoured not only timber houses and dry shingle roofs, but also the large shade trees that lined Boulevard and Jackson. “Every one of them was burned to a stump,” he wrote his friends. “It looked like a desert with exception of the chimneys and here and there a charred stump of a tree together with tangled wires and once in a while a dead cat or dog.”
Hartsfield, who would go on to serve as Atlanta mayor for six terms, told the Atlanta Constitution in an article published on the 40th anniversary of the fire that he still had intense memories—“like a nightmare”—of his experience then. “I realized . . . that when trouble comes singly, there are people and agencies to help us. But when calamity is wholesale, friends and neighbors are too occupied with their own troubles. It’s every man for himself.”
The fire left 10,000 Atlantans homeless. Some, like Hartsfield, found shelter with family. Most were left to fend for themselves in parks, streets, and empty lots.
Miraculously, only one death was attributed to the Great Fire: Mrs. Bessie Hodge of North Boulevard, who reportedly perished from “shock” after being informed that the fire had consumed her home. According to the New York Times, local hospitals took in just 60 patients with fire-related injuries.
“God has been good to us,” Mayor Candler told business leaders who crowded into the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning. “We had a fire yesterday that was not nearly such a calamity as it looked while the fire was burning.”
Frederic Paxon, secretary and treasurer of the Davison-Paxon-Stokes department store, was named head of the relief committee. The local leaders vowed to decline outside aid; after all, every city was pitching into the war effort, but Paxon promptly opened the floor for donations to help victims of the fire. Shouts came from every corner of the room.
The first donor was the M. Rich & Brothers department store (a friendly rival of Paxon’s firm) with $500. Pledges came from other stores ($250 each from the J.P. Allen and George Muse clothing companies) and local newspapers ($250 apiece from the Atlanta Journal, Atlanta Georgian, and Atlanta Constitution). Southern Bell and the Georgia Railway & Power Co. each pledged a hefty $2,500 while Coca-Cola contributed $1,000, as did businessman Ernest Woodruff, who two years later would take over the soft drink company.
Black business leaders were not allowed to pledge until all the white donations had been recorded. When they did, it was to “great applause,” noted the Atlanta Journal. Donors included Morris Brown College at $100 and Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor of First Congregational Church at $50. Benjamin Davis, publisher of the influential black weekly the Atlanta Independent, donated $25.
By the time the meeting concluded, the civic leaders had pledged $50,000 for fire victims. (The equivalent of $929,121 in today’s dollars.)
While business leaders met at the Chamber of Commerce offices, another gathering took place at Odd Fellows Hall, the Auburn Avenue home of the African American fraternal organization. There, the city’s black leadership got down to the practical matter of finding refuge for hundreds of misplaced families who would not be taken in by white hotels or churches.
The Odd Fellows building was designated a blacks-only Red Cross station. Its rooftop garden, usually the site of dances and concerts, became a dormitory lined with 200 army cots. The M.D. & H.L. Smith Tent and Awning Company loaned hundreds of cots, as well as a circus tent, which was set up on Auburn Avenue to provide shelter. Cots also lined the basement walls at Big Bethel AME, which had been spared in the blaze.
At the Auditorium-Armory, the Fifth Regiment set up a shelter and field kitchen. On Tuesday they prepared meals—vegetables, ham sandwiches, and slices of cake—for some 2,000 people. In addition to the Armory, shelters opened at North Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Masonic Temple, the Arrarrat Grotto, the Christian Helpers League, and the Marlborough Apartments. The old Woodward lumber factory was jury-rigged as a shelter for 1,000.
All week, horse- and mule-drawn drays and wagons pulled into the alley behind the Armory, laden with furniture and housewares salvaged from the fire zone. Red Cross workers cataloged the goods. It would take weeks for owners to file claims and collect their belongings.
Among the volunteers was a young Margaret Mitchell, who helped to coordinate lost children and wrangle misplaced furniture. “Explosions, fires, soldiers—men, women, and children fleeing from a holocaust—homeless people seeking shelter—every aspect of the disaster found a place in Margaret’s mind and waited there to emerge with remarkable vigor as the refugee passages in Gone with the Wind,” wrote Mitchell biographer Finis Farr.
The fire also separated hundreds of families. Newspapers ran missing persons bulletins. Scanning their morning papers on Tuesday, subscribers of the Atlanta Constitution read notices:
“John Zimmerman, age 12, is in care of Mr. Jones, 196 Oak Street, phone 736. He wishes to find his father, F.C. Zimmerman, or his brother Emmet.”
“John Taylor, at 44 Morgan Street, wishes to hear from his children. There is a boy 7 years old and crippled, a sick boy 2 years old a girl 12 years old and a boy 15 years old.”
“Blanche and Billy Albert: Mrs. J W. Albert is at 84 South Gordon and wants to find you.”
Within days racial tensions at the Armory escalated. In one hall, the Red Cross asked black ministers to man tables where black residents seeking help were asked to go first; they could get assistance only if the ministers vouched for them. No such system was in place for the hundreds of white residents asking for aid.
Sparked by complaints from white Atlantans, the front doors were shut off to black citizens, who were directed to a side entrance used for deliveries. The move incensed Benjamin Davis, publisher of the Atlanta Independent, who days earlier had praised Atlanta’s charitable nature. “When we drive by the Auditorium-Armory and see every front entrance shut tight in the face of the Negroes . . . we are impelled by a sense of righteous indignation to withdraw our commendation and say that the color line is strictly drawn and that the races are being served, rather than humanity,” he wrote. “It seems that our neighbors, in the hour of sore distress and deep sorrow, might spare us in the midst of our tears and our afflictions this humiliation.”
By May 27 Red Cross workers had designated Wednesdays for whites and Thursdays for blacks to appeal for aid. Away from the Armory, the Atlanta Police Department aggressively patrolled the ruined area. Police Chief William Mayo, claiming rampant theft, ordered that “junk dealers and negroes” would be allowed to enter the fire zone only with written permits.
Part IV Rebuilding
Analysis from the National Board of Fire Underwriters conducted after the fire underscored how Atlanta’s lax policies contributed to the devastation: 80 percent of the 1,938 destroyed buildings had shingle roofs, 97 percent were wood frame. In all, the blaze caused some $5.5 million in damage (more than $103 million in today’s dollars). Hit hardest were Atlanta’s African American residents. Disproportionately affected by the fire, they also were more likely than whites to have been denied insurance coverage.
While ruins still smoldered in the Fourth Ward, white residents pushed for ways to leverage the fire to reinforce segregation. On the evening of May 25, white Fourth Ward residents crowded into the North Avenue School to discuss rebuilding plans. They appointed 10 men and 10 women to a commission, and vowed they would not rebuild or sell their properties unless the 20-person team approved the plans. The role of the commission would be, the Constitution reported, “to consider all the needs of the burned area, including segregation of the races, parks, rearrangement and regarding of streets, and building regulations.”
Throughout the summer, the rebuilding committee, City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and other groups of wealthy white Atlantans considered a series of presentations and proposals. The one constant: Creating clear, physical barriers to separate the races.
One scheme called for the destroyed area to be remade as a linear greenway, connecting Piedmont Park to Grant Park. Henry Collier, the city’s chief of construction, proposed transforming Hilliard into “Grand Boulevard,” widening the road to 150 feet and extending it up to Ponce de Leon, parallel to the existing stretch of North Boulevard. Grand Boulevard would serve as north-south dividing line, with white people to the east and black people to the west. An extension of Houston Street would create an east-west border that also would serve as a racial barrier.
Other Atlantans called for loftier plans, seizing the opportunity of newly vacant land to rebuild Atlanta along the lines of established cities in Europe or the Northeast. “It would perhaps be impossible for financial reasons to turn the whole burned district into a park,” noted the editors of the Atlantian, a political newsletter, in their July 1917 issue. “But it is entirely possible to make of it a semi-park residential district which will greatly beautify the city.”
Returning to Atlanta in late June from a trip abroad, Joel Hurt, the streetcar magnate and developer of Inman Park and Druid Hills, was dismayed to see “cheap houses” already under construction in the fire zone. That afternoon he dashed off an op-ed to the Atlanta Constitution. He recommended bringing in expert advisers, like the Olmsted Brothers (who had worked on Druid Hills and some of the major properties in Atlanta), asserting, “The expense would be light compared to the value of the advice which would be received.” Hurt also suggested that the Atlanta City Council pass a law halting all rebuilding until a master plan could be developed, pointing out that the fire saved the cash-strapped city millions in demolition and displacement expenses. Just as Napoleon remade Paris to create the Champs Elysees under the guidance of Baron Haussmann, creating the “Queen City of the World,” Atlanta had been presented with a “golden opportunity,” wrote Hurt.
But before May rolled into June, construction began on some of the vacant lots. At the corner of North Jackson and East Avenue, the Knight Apartments were built. At Boulevard and Forrest Avenue, another multiunit building, the Saunders Apartments, rose from the ashes. The apartment buildings weren’t the only radical departure from what had been a residential section known for stately homes; lots once occupied by smaller houses and corner shops now yielded to gas stations and larger stores.
By May 30 Atlanta City Council announced it would enforce the shingle ordinance it had shelved. On May 22, 1918, almost a year to the day after the Great Fire, the city announced that its fire department would be fully motorized. The horses were euthanized or sold at auction.
Rebuilding after the Great Fire did transform the Fourth Ward, but not in accordance with any of the plans proposed in 1917. Unwilling to shoulder the cost of creating parklike developments close to downtown, well-heeled white people simply moved away to Druid Hills or farther up Peachtree Street. Grand homes leveled by dynamite were replaced by apartment buildings. In the center of the Fourth Ward, lots that had housed single-family homes and small businesses became larger commercial sites.
In 1921 Georgia Baptist Hospital relocated from modest space on Luckie Street to a big lot at the corner of East Avenue and Boulevard. In 1925 the Sears Roebuck Co. erected a mammoth showroom and distribution center near the former Ponce de Leon Woods, where William Hartsfield and his neighbors had huddled as their homes burned. In 1929 the Creomulsion Company opened a cough syrup factory at Glen Iris Drive and Forrest Avenue. Atlanta-based Scripto Pen Company built a factory along Houston and Jackson streets.
In the lower Fourth Ward, along Edgewood and Auburn avenues, a black middle class thrived in the face of Jim Crow segregation. Wheat Street Baptist Church, destroyed by the fire, rebuilt with a grand Gothic sanctuary in 1921. Ebenezer Baptist Church, which escaped the fire, grew in influence as pastors Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. occupied center stage in the growing civil rights movement. Benjamin Davis and the Odd Fellows faced friendly competition when John Wesley Dobbs and the Prince Hall Masons opened their own building on Auburn Avenue in 1937. The area disparaged for its shanties and saloons became known as Sweet Auburn, the epicenter of black middle-class success.
The heyday did not last. The midcentury victories of the civil rights movement paradoxically contributed to hard times for the Fourth Ward. During the post World War II boom, fueled by cheap suburban housing and expanding highways, middle-class white people moved out to the northern and eastern suburbs. Middle-class black people also moved away: to Collier Heights, the West Side development built by African Americans for African Americans, or to Cascade Heights.
From 22,000 residents in 1960, the Old Fourth Ward’s population dropped to just 6,000 by 1980. More than one-third of those residents lived in one area: the Bedford Pine federally subsidized housing development, formed from a cluster of more than 60 apartment buildings, a few dating back to the post-fire rebuilding efforts.
Once touted as one of Atlanta’s grandest streets, Boulevard became synonymous with intown crime, as did the entire Old Fourth Ward. Indeed, in the early 2000s, as residents and representatives of City Council sat down to craft a master plan for redeveloping the area, many wanted to drop the Old Fourth Ward name altogether and rebrand the district.
But over the past decade, the neighborhood has been rebirthed yet again. In October 2012 the Atlanta BeltLine completed its 2.25-mile Eastside Trail, which begins at Irwin and Krog streets, just a few blocks from the Great Fire’s southern boundary, and ends at Piedmont Park, where hundreds of Atlantans found refuge in a tent city after fire destroyed their homes. The trail has served as an impetus for hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate development and launched dozens of businesses, including the massive loft-office-retail-dining complex Ponce City Market, carved out of the Sears distribution center built at Ponce de Leon Woods.
A century ago the fire presented to Atlanta, in the words of Joel Hurt, a “golden opportunity” to reimagine itself and create the kinds of connected and open spaces that define the world’s great cities: the wide boulevards of Paris, the parks of Chicago, the dense grid of New York. That opportunity was squandered primarily because of prejudice. As development continues in 2017, the challenge will be learning from Atlanta’s past, when rebuilding was driven by, at best, economic expediency and, at worst, racism and classism.
This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.
A week from being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States and days before the federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., Donald J. Trump took umbrage with criticism levied by Georgia congressman John Lewis, who questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election, what with the steady drip of reports about Russian hacking and all.
On Friday night, Trump took to his favorite forum, Twitter, to state “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to…… mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
The first response was stunned disbelief among the political class that Trump, whose capacity to insult via Twitter is staggering, had gone too far. Lewis is universally considered an icon of the modern civil rights era.
One thing Lewis is not considered: a man of inaction. He was beaten during the 1965 march in Selma, better known as Bloody Sunday, that led to the Voting Rights Act. With more than 40 arrests for civil disobedience to his name, the septuagenarian hasn’t slowed down; this summer Lewis led a sit-in at the U.S. Capitol to protest gun violence.
“On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, let it be clear that John Lewis is an American patriot. Trump’s attacks on him further confirm it,” tweeted 2016 Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin.
“It’s telling, I’m afraid, that Donald Trump treats Vladimir Putin with more respect than he does John Lewis,” commented conservative commentator Bill Kristol.
“@RepJohnLewis is an American hero & a national treasure. Period. Full stop,” tweeted Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed.
Meanwhile, Atlanta residents swiftly flooded Twitter with #defendthe5th dispatches from Lewis’s “horrible” Fifth Congressional District, a swath of metro Atlanta that has a population of 737,000—nearly the same size as the entire state of North Dakota—and includes the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the historically black Atlanta University Center, Emory University, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, and neighborhoods such as Buckhead, Inman Park, Cascade Heights, and Decatur.
Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy and 2014 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate, tweeted that the biggest recent failure he could recall in the Fifth was Trump’s abortive effort to erect a namesake tower in Midtown.
Of course, Georgia’s Fifth District is not the first urban area Trump dismissed as failing; disparaging “inner cities” was a common campaign refrain. After the social media response to his Lewis tweets, Trump doubled down, tweeting Saturday night that, “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”
For someone who claims to possess real estate genius, Trump seems fixated on a mental image of cities formed by newsreels of 1960s riots—or perhaps by too many episodes of The Wire or repeated viewings of Blade Runner. Almost two-thirds of Americans live in cities, and we would hardly do so if they were all crumbling, crime-filled infernos. Yes, Atlanta has pockets of blight, repeatedly engages in development at the expense of its poorest residents, and has a staggering income gap. But Atlanta, the city, is gaining residents and experiencing a real estate rebound. Same story in cities nationwide.
So, good for you, Atlanta, rallying to correct Trump’s trapped-in-fiction take on urban America.
But the far more insidious attack was on what Lewis accomplished and what his legacy represents. Consider Trump’s personal narrative in contrast with that of the man he accused of being “all talk.”
In the 1960s, Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who honed his oratory in his parent’s chicken shed, led students in sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, joined the Freedom Riders to integrate interstate bus lines, co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and addressed the nation as one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders at the March on Washington (where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech). During that decade, Trump, the son of a real estate developer, attended Fordham and Wharton and avoided serving in Vietnam thanks to multiple draft deferments.
In the 1970s, Lewis directed the Voter Education Project. Trump took over his dad’s business and was subject to a federal lawsuit claiming that the firm violated the Fair Housing Act. (The case was settled in 1975.)
Trump, whose real estate holdings expanded with eponymous hotels and casinos and whose profile skyrocketed thanks to his bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, personified the “greed is good” zeitgeist of the Eighties. Lewis, elected to Congress in 1986, became a consistent voice for voting rights.
In the 1990s, Trump’s business suffered setbacks and by the 2000s, after a short-lived fling with the idea of running for president, he branched into a career as a reality TV star. He made a name in political circles by continuously questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship. Lewis, continuing to represent Georgia’s Fifth, moved into an unlikely new phase as a fixture on the sci-fi convention circuit with his National Book Award-winning, three-volume graphic novel memoir, March.
Given the hyper-partisan spirit of the country in general and social media in particular, it is not too surprising that among the many social media statements in support of Lewis after Trump’s attack were those downplaying his accomplishments. “John Lewis is not a “legend”–he was a minor player in the civil rights movement who became a nasty, bitter old man,” tweeted conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza (who went on to question whether Rosa Parks really did anything by giving up that bus seat in Montgomery).
While comments like D’Souza’s are rooted in partisanship, dismissing Lewis as a “minor player” displays a basic lack of historical knowledge. It’s good to know that, in response to the social media furor, Lewis’s 1999 memoir Walking with the Wind sold out on Amazon, while March claimed the top spot in sales. Some Americans might be brushing up on recent history.
Today, the country pauses to honor King, Atlanta’s most famous native son and the most famous civil rights leader. But we should also reflect on the thousands of others who, like Lewis, risked their lives to fight for social justice and voting rights. So many veterans of the civil rights movement live in Georgia’s Fifth that sometimes Atlantans seem to take them for granted. When I moved to the Fifth in the 1980s, Andrew Young was mayor, I registered to vote at a drive hosted by Coretta Scott King, and, yes, the first congressman I voted for was Lewis. In Atlanta it’s not uncommon to run into a living legend like Lewis or Young at the bank or Home Depot, nor to strike up conversation with a stranger while waiting in line and discover that the person you’re talking with marched in Selma, too, or was arrested trying to get served at the Five Points Woolworth.
So yes, Atlanta, #defendthe5th and keep posting photos of your brunch and kids, of the skyline and the murals and the gorgeous homes of Inman Park and Cascade. But don’t lose sight of what John Lewis really represents, not an area on a map, but the universal truth that all people are truly equal.
Donald Trump, you are wrong that John Lewis’s district is a crime-infested hellhole. You’re wrong that Lewis is “all talk.” You’re wrong about America’s cities “burning.” And picking a fight with a man who’s dedicated himself to fighting for justice and peace is just . . . sad!
Rebecca Burns is the publisher of The Red & Black, the independent news organization that covers the University of Georgia, and an adjunct professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her two decades as an Atlanta journalist include seven years as editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. She moved to Athens a year ago after living in Atlanta for 30 years. She tweets at @RebeccaBurns.
Beth Feeback will tell you she voted for Jimmy Carter—twice—before she turned 18. “My daddy brought me in the voting booth and let me pull the lever,” she says. On this chilly March morning, the sky streaked rose and gold, Beth and her father, Ralph McLaughlin, wait outside Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Beth and Ralph share a birth month—she’s 49 and he’s 84—and gave each other a shared gift: checking off a bucket list item by attending Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. “My daddy bonded with my brothers over sports,” she says. “For the two of us, it’s always been politics.”
At just past seven, father and daughter stand near the end of a line stretching from the front of the church to the parking lot. Within 15 minutes a hundred more people fall in behind them. Treatment for her rheumatoid arthritis is going well, but Beth is glad she brought her cane, given the long wait. She and Ralph take turns holding their spot and stretching their legs. Beth finds some pecans under the nearby trees and shows them to a couple who have traveled from Australia.
An added urgency prompted Beth and Ralph’s trip: Last August, Carter announced he was being treated for melanoma that had spread to his liver and his brain.
Carter occupied the White House for just one term, but in the almost four decades since, he’s remained a fixture on the global stage, a presence so ubiquitous he seemed a constant. Just as the sun would rise over the flat peanut fields of Plains and the tides would tug at the Georgia coastline, Jimmy Carter would pop up at contested elections, discuss the gruesome details of Guinea worm disease, denounce the carnival atmosphere of modern politics, and weigh in on the Middle East troubles. Even after calmly placing his medical prognosis “in the hands of the God I worship,” Carter seemed unstoppable. He underwent experimental immunotherapy and then, in December, declared he was cancer-free.
Alan and Sue Capelle made the two-and-a-half-day drive from a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, on impulse after catching a Sunday morning talk show segment on Carter. “When you get to a certain age bracket, everyone has some experience with cancer,” says Sue. “He has been so direct and seems at peace.”
Ed Bullington and his wife, Karen, left nothing to chance and staked the first spot in line at 4:45 a.m.—more than five hours before Carter’s Sunday school class will start. “I go way back in terms of political support,” Ed says. “I voted for him and was very excited to have the chance to do so after Nixon. But I admire him even more now. He has had a life of giving and empowerment of others. Not to be morbid, but the brain cancer made us realize we needed to come sooner rather than later.”
The highway through Plains might be wider since James Earl Carter Jr. was born here in 1924, but the town’s economy sputters as it did back then. Today the Old Carter Peanut Warehouse on Main Street houses a gift shop, and the high school, shuttered in 1979, serves as a National Parks Service visitors center. The sign on the Church Street service station might read “Billy Carter,” but its pumps have been dry for decades. The industry that now fuels Plains is Carter nostalgia, from the $3.30 sacks of peanut brittle and 50-cent reproduction postcards sold at the Parks Service gift shop to the thousands of pieces of political flotsam for sale at the Plains Trading Post. “We’re the biggest political memorabilia store in the South,” claims owner Philip Kurland. “And the largest for Secret Service collectibles.”
To be crass, Carter’s cancer scare has been good for business in his hometown, population 758. The weekend after his diagnosis announcement, 1,300 people arrived for Sunday school. “It was a shock,” says Kurland. “It was busier than the Plains Peanut Festival, which normally is the most busy weekend in Plains. We have had no slow season this year.”
The pilgrims place particular strain on Maranatha, which on a typical Sunday sees 30 active members in its pews. When Carter is in town, the 300-seat sanctuary and 100-seat Fellowship Hall overflow. Jan Williams, who manages the Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall, oversees crowd control at the church, a task she took on in the mid-1990s when Carter began publishing books about his faith and attendance at his Sunday school lessons began to tick upward. Williams, who’s in her 60s, has known Carter for more than 40 years. For her, welcoming guests to his classes is a mission that goes beyond protecting “Mr. Jimmy.”
“We are open, and everyone is welcome—of any faith or any denomination. They come for Sunday school and worship; that’s two hours we can minister to them,” says Williams. “We don’t have to leave the church property to be missionaries.”
By 8:30 almost every spot in the Maranatha parking lot is taken, and two SUVs trap a tour bus that carried international representatives of the Lions Club. An officer leads a dog between the vehicles as Williams shouts up at the bus driver. “Stay here, and then you can park. Do you want to hear Mr. Jimmy teach? I’ll make sure you can.”
Traffic unsnarled, Williams strides from the parking lot to the front door of the church and surveys the hundreds of people in the line that stretches the equivalent of several city blocks. “Are you number one?” she asks the Bullingtons. “Okay, you stand here. Everyone else, get in line behind them.”
She herds the faithful into single file, like a sheep dog in a cable-knit sweater and sensible walking shoes. “Can you tell what I used to be before I retired?” she asks. “A prison guard?” someone guesses. Williams laughs. At Westside Elementary in Plains, Williams was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher and attended the president’s inauguration in 1977. Today Williams directs visitors into the sanctuary as she might corral unruly grade schoolers into the cafeteria. At a folding table outside the church, security officers check bags and phones. “No! Put that back in your car,” Williams scolds a man clutching a hardback copy of Carter’s 29th and latest book, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. “The president will not sign autographs. You’re number nine. I’ll hold your place, but put that away.”
After 45 minutes Williams calls, “That’s all! The rest of you, come to the back, and we’ll get as many in as we can.” Beth Feeback and her father slowly follow Williams across the lawn, as do the Capelles, who also just missed the cutoff for the sanctuary. They hope at least to be among the hundred in the overflow Fellowship Hall. This is a large crowd. For the first time in years, Williams will have to turn people away; a hundred will leave Maranatha after hours of waiting.
Back in the sanctuary, Williams barks orders. Say good morning cheerfully—and loudly. The president will want to know where you are from. Give your state or country. If someone has already said your state, don’t say it again. Speak up. “He’s 91,” she reminds everyone. She leads a practice run. India. Georgia. Washington. “State or D.C.?” Williams asks. “Be specific.”
South Dakota. Australia. The Democratic Republic of Congo. “Just say Congo,” Williams advises. Mali. Ethiopia. Pennsylvania. Niger. “Nigeria?” asks Williams. No, Niger. “Nigeria?” she asks again.
The president and first lady will pose for pictures—after church. Have your camera ready. Stand to the side. Don’t try to shake hands. Don’t dodge the Secret Service agents. Did you know Mr. Jimmy carved these collection plates? He also made that wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary. Why don’t you all stand up and take pictures of the cross now? It’s made from persimmon wood hundreds of years old.
Williams urges people to squeeze close so she can make room for a few more folks. Beth Feeback and her father are ushered in from the Fellowship Hall. Sue and Alan Capelle follow shortly, along with a Sunday school group from Macon and a young man from Ireland.
Don’t clap for the president, Williams says. Just listen to the lesson. He doesn’t want applause.
After immunotherapy and the removal of 10 percent of his liver, Jimmy Carter is thin and pale, his skin as silvery as his hair. He looks like a smaller, glowing replica of himself. He wears a suit and a giant turquoise bolo tie. He brings his own Bible to the podium.
“Good morning!” he says.
“Good morning,” everyone replies.
Carter starts each lesson with an update on his life. He and his wife of 69 years, Rosalynn, just got back from Argentina. “We were fishing for dorado, enormous bass. Some are 20 pounds,” he says. This prompts a knowing “aahh” from half the gathering and blank looks from the rest. Carter mentions that he has other news. He is done with treatment for his cancer. He will not be going back for more.
Everyone claps and then looks at Jan Williams, who does not seem angry that they have broken her rule about applause. Carter explains he has been taking an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab, which he repeats a few times. “I’m kind of an experiment,” says Carter, adding that he will go back for MRI scans to make sure the cancer remains undetectable. At the side of the sanctuary, video cameras roll. NBC sends a cameraman and producer to capture each lesson in case Carter’s remarks are newsworthy. Within 48 hours this health update will appear everywhere from Fox News to the Daily Beast.
Carter moves on to roll call. California. Washington state. “That’s where the USS Jimmy Carter is stationed. It’s the best ship in the Navy.” Lithuania. Louisiana. Niger. “Oh, Nee-zher,” Carter nods. India. Alabama. Washington—D.C. “I used to live there.”
As the church leads into the weeks before Easter, Carter says he wants to focus on forgiveness of sin and betrayal. The reading is from Luke’s chronicle of the Last Supper. Carter asks what detail is missing from this account that is found in other gospels. That’s right: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
“Christ showed humility,” he says. “He was a servant.” Carter, who’s been teaching Sunday school since he was 18, sounds like the faithful Southern Christian he is, backtracking for emphasis, pausing from time to time to gather his thoughts as he elaborates on the symbolism of the Last Supper—the blood and body of Christ sacrificed for the sake of sinners. He sprinkles the lesson with references to his former occupation—the disciples squabbling for position in Jesus’s kingdom are like supporters who want places in a cabinet. He frames the doctrine with diplomacy, noting that Communion is also called the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist and celebrated in Catholic Mass just as in Baptist worship services.
At the conclusion of his lesson, Carter leads a prayer and then greets people in the front row, shaking hands with the Bullingtons—the early birds. Carter and Rosalynn settle into a pew a few rows from the pulpit. Rosalynn has the same beatific expression, immaculate auburn coif, and ramrod posture she had in the 1970s. The only person sitting more erect is the Secret Service agent stationed behind the Carters—or possibly the one up front, across from the organist. When the congregation bow their heads in prayer, the agents bolt upright, eyes wide open, and scan the pews.
Carter’s lesson lasted 50 minutes, with a full 30 devoted to the biblical explication. When pastor Jeremy Shoulta comes to the pulpit, his sermon is a compact quarter hour, focused on a line from the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses. The Reverend Shoulta is energetic and baby-faced; he bears more than a passing resemblance to Carter’s grandson Jason. Shoulta was born well after the end of the Carter administration. His parents and grandparents once traveled to hear Carter’s Sunday school lesson. “You can’t grow up in Baptist circles and not know about Jimmy Carter,” he says.
After the final hymn, Shoulta returns to the pulpit with a surprise announcement: Nancy Reagan has died. There are gasps from the pews and heads swivel toward Carter, who remains focused on the front of the sanctuary. Shoulta remembers the Reagan family in his final prayer. The organ plays; everyone stands and stretches, then gets back into line—this time to have a picture taken with President and Mrs. Carter.
Sharon Graybill and her sister-in-law, Emma, hit their places and smile as the camera clicks. Coming to hear Carter was something Sharon and her husband, Carl, always wanted to do but never did. Carl died six years ago. After Sharon heard about Carter’s cancer, she and Emma, Carl’s sister, decided to make the journey from Pennsylvania to Plains before it was too late again. Sharon, somber, says it’s a bittersweet trip, but she is glad she made it. The Graybills are Anabaptist Mennonites, and both women wear long, modest skirts and small lace caps. The service wasn’t too different from their own, says Emma, “but we don’t sing as many of the older hymns.” Michael Bach Henriksen, culture editor for the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, watches as the Reverend Shoulta shakes hands with the visitors. What surprised him about the visit was the simplicity and smallness of Plains, underscoring the American myth that anyone—from anywhere—can grow up to become president. He says that when he told people he would be traveling here, those of his parents’ generation expressed a “nostalgia for politics like in the era of Jimmy Carter.” More than 80 percent of Danes are Lutheran, and Christianity in his country does not take the varied forms it does in the U.S., he says. “Many Danes wish there was more of the Christianity of Jimmy Carter in U.S. politics, not the kind discussed by Ted Cruz.”
Carter’s motorcade leaves, headed for his ranch house on Woodland Drive. The pilgrims linger outside the church. Even though they have been here for hours—and most have skipped breakfast, lunch, and their morning coffee—they seem reluctant to leave. After they thank the Reverend Shoulta, they talk with each other, looking at each other’s pictures.
The chill has yielded to radiant Georgia spring. Sue and Alan Capelle stand in the sun, facing the church. “I’m so inspired,” says Sue. “I’m so glad I finally saw him.”
This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.
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