More than two decades ago, Gary Pomerantz watched as Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr., the South’s first black mayor, stood in the shade of a dogwood tree in Kennesaw, looking at grave stones covering where his slave forebears were buried.
“In that moment, I felt a narrative sweep of Atlanta’s history,” Pomerantz says. “I felt the earth move.”
Pomerantz published his book Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn in 1996 after five years of uncovering slave graves in the woods, conducting more than 500 interviews, and filling the holes left behind in Atlanta’s history by a lack of proper documentation.
He takes an expansive lens ranging from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement and the 1996 Summer Olympics—telling the story of black and white Atlanta through the eyes of two prominent Atlanta families: The Ivan Allens and the John Wesley Dobbses. (Dobbs is credited with giving “the richest Negro street in the world” its “Sweet Auburn” nickname.)
On Thursday night, Pomerantz, who now lives in San Francisco, was invited to the Auburn Avenue Research Library to speak about his book in honor of the opening of Constellations, a self-proclaimed “shared workspace for civic and socially-based individuals” on Auburn Avenue, founded by cultural developer Gene Kansas. The coworking space hosts its official grand opening on Friday.
Kansas invited Pomerantz to speak at the event not only to highlight the importance of Atlanta history, but the importance of this particular corner of Auburn Avenue and Peachtree Street.
“What Gene is doing is important work,” Pomerantz says. “He is reaching out to history. He is bending it back to the modern day and making it all of a piece. It’s powerful.”
And even more than two decades later, Where Sweet Auburn Meets Peachtree still resonates with readers, drawing a large crowd to the opening event, including members of the Allen and the Dobbs families.
For Alina Bowie, an accountant and seminary student in Atlanta, this book connected her with her ancestry. While studying the book in school, Bowie learned that a slave record within the book listed her last name.
“It was mind blowing for me to see that. It sort of struck a chord with me; I was stunned,” Bowie says. “I am originally from New York, so to know that I could potentially have some roots in Atlanta is really interesting.”
Because she doesn’t have much of a record of her father’s side of the family, this connection was a profound way to learn about her own lineage.
Upon returning to the streets of downtown Atlanta, Pomerantz says he is glad to see the redevelopment of the historic neighborhoods that his book highlighted. “To see the work that Gene is doing at Constellations and along Auburn Avenue thrills me,” says Pomerantz. “He is connecting us with the past.”
Sweet Auburn has also been optioned as a TV series by Auburn Avenue Films. Pomerantz has continued writing and will be publishing his sixth book this fall through Penguin Press.