Atlanta’s “Berlin Wall”

December 18, 1962
Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

In December 1962, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. ordered barricades to be built across two Atlanta streets to discourage black citizens from purchasing homes in an adjacent all-white neighborhood. What seemed to him like a judicious compromise backfired, creating an embarrassment for the city as national media questioned its otherwise glowing reputation for racial harmony.

The controversy started in Peyton Forest, a prosperous, white subdivision of Cascade Heights in southwest Atlanta. The surrounding area was undergoing a racial transition that made white residents uneasy. When Dr. Clinton Warner, a Morehouse graduate, bought a house there, white homeowners asked the mayor to erect barriers on Peyton Road and nearby Harlan Road to prevent further “intrusion.” The Board of Aldermen approved the legislation on December 17, and Mayor Allen quickly signed it. Early the next morning, city maintenance crews, consisting mostly of black workers, erected wooden barriers saying “Road Closed.”

The reaction from the black community was immediate and furious. Petitions were filed in Atlanta’s courts, protesters picketed City Hall with signs referring to Atlanta’s “Berlin Wall,” civil rights organizations called for boycotts of white businesses around Cascade Heights, and black leaders publicly lambasted the mayor. Allen, who had been elected the previous year with overwhelming black support, must have been stung by the comparison to the repressive East German barrier. In fact, in his inaugural address, Allen had said, “It was in Berlin that the tragic and dramatic lesson of what happens to a divided city came home to me.”

The criticism surprised Allen, who’d believed his actions would put the focus on hundreds of acres of unused land north of Cascade Heights. The symbolism, however, was overpowering. Peyton Road remained blocked until March 1, 1963, when a judge ruled the barriers unconstitutional. The mayor had them removed within minutes of the decision. Despite this misstep, Ivan Allen Jr.’s legacy was shaped by his strong leadership in civil rights. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue