In the early decades of the fledgling American republic, Thanksgiving was only celebrated in New England. It became a country-wide holiday after the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be a National Day of Thanksgiving.
Since then, Thanksgiving has traveled to every corner of the country, and remains one of Americans’ favorite celebrations. In a NielsenIQ survey this year, 91 percent of respondents said they planned on celebrating this week. (76 percent reported they’d be sporting elastic waistband-pants rather than fancy dress.)
Georgia is home to some unique Thanksgiving stories and traditions. Check out these vintage photos of Thanksgivings past:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt chowing down with First Lady Eleanor, 1939
Here, the jolly Roosevelts dig into a Thanksgiving turkey dinner in Warm Springs, Georgia. The president was a frequent visitor at the resort town, where soaking pools helped to soothe chronic pain from childhood polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
This 1939 Thanksgiving was being celebrated a week earlier than normal because Roosevelt, hoping to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression, impulsively shifted the holiday a week early to make more days for the Christmas shopping season. Chaos ensued: poultry producers complained they’d be short on turkeys, college registrars argued that course schedules were already set, and half the country rebelled anyway, celebrating Thanksgiving on the original date. Republican Alf Landon, handily defeated by Roosevelt in the previous election, sulkily declared that the president had behaved “with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
Judging by the enthusiasm with which he spears the bird in this photo, Roosevelt didn’t seem too miffed by the bad press. But by 1941, with the new date still widely unpopular, economic reports were showing it hadn’t done much to boost Christmas sales, either, and Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back to the original date, where it has remained ever since. The infamous three-year interval became known as “Franksgiving.”
Unsolicited Turkey Fact: Those pieces of paper stuck on the drumsticks have gone out of style, but they’re meant to obscure the unsightly leg bones on a handsome roast turkey. Delightfully, they are called “turkey booties.”
Kids pray before a Thanksgiving meal at the United Methodist Children’s Home, 1954
The United Methodist Children’s Home opened in 1871 on a farm in Norcross before moving to Decatur in 1873. Still operational, now under the name Wellroot Family Services, it’s one of the longest-running faith-based child welfare organizations in the state.
In this photo, from left to right, are Martin Towe (age 5), Jimmy Manesa (age 5), and Becky Cornelius (age 4), bowing their heads before tucking into a gigantic roast turkey. (Jimmy is doing his best to focus on the prayer, but is understandably distracted by the bird.)
This photo was taken by Bill Wilson, celebrated photographer for the Atlanta Constitution, where he worked for nearly forty years. Wilson, who won several national awards for a photograph of a Korean prisoner of war reuniting with his family, captured countless moments of Atlanta history, from sports to politics to everyday gatherings like the one pictured here.
Georgia Tech plays Auburn University at Grant Field on Thanksgiving Day, 1917
These days, Auburn has better-known rivalries with Georgia and Alabama, but a hundred years ago, the football feud between the Tigers and the Yellow Jackets was the stuff of legends. Here they are playing at Grant Field, the first 5,600-seat Georgia Tech arena. It was constructed in 1913, largely with the labor of Tech students themselves (this was way before OSHA created workplace safety regulations).
The Auburn-Tech rivalry dates all the way back to the 1890s. In 1894, Auburn claimed the largest victory of the teams’ 92-game history, routing the Yellow Jackets 94-0. Adding insult to injury, Auburn pulled an epic prank against Tech two years later, in what is now hailed as one of the greatest pranks in college sports history.
Here’s what happened: On November 7, 1896, the Yellow Jackets boarded a train to Alabama for an Auburn home game later that day. Unbeknownst to them, Auburn students had descended on the railways the night before, armed with buckets of pig grease and soap, which the pranksters used to coat 400 yards of train tracks. When Georgia Tech’s train arrived at the Auburn station, the slick rails left the conductor unable to break, and the train coasted five miles down the tracks, finally coming to a halt in nearby Loachapoka. The team had to hoof it to Auburn stadium on foot, while lugging all their gear. Needless to say, Auburn beat them again, 45-0.
But Tech seems to have had the last word. The annual competition ended in 1987, and the teams have only played each other twice since then; Georgia Tech won both handily.Another Turkey Day Classic: Morris Brown v. Clark College
Several miles away, Atlanta University Center has its own historic rivalry. For many Atlanta families, Thanksgiving morning meant cheering at the Turkey Day Classic, Morris Brown vs. Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University). Morris Brown’s long-running student newspaper, the Wolverine Observer, reported on the annual game, offering a fairly biased appraisal of the teams’ competence. “Morris Brown Slaughters Overrated Clark” ran the 1959 headline. “’We ate our turkey and (C.C.) pie, too’” was the summary in 1978. Heightening the drama, of course, was the beat of the universities’ legendary marching bands, which inspired the hit 2002 film Drumline.
After it was built in 1948, Morris Brown’s handsome 15,000-seat Alonzo Herndon stadium often hosted the Turkey Day Classic. Before that, the rivals frequently met at Ponce de Leon Park, which used to face the Sears Roebuck building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, now Ponce City Market.
To see more photos of the legendary rivalry Morris Brown and Clark College, head to the digital archives of the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library, which are free to search and open to the public for in-person reference appointments!
Joseph E. Lowery leads Thanksgiving-eve sit-in at Winn Dixie to protest sale of South African products, 1984
The legendary civil rights activist Joseph E. Lowery was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1977-1997. Lowery helped found the SCLC in 1957 following the Montgomery Bus Boycott; by the 1970s, in the wake of the victorious civil rights movement, the SCLC had broadened its advocacy to include the plight of oppressed and marginalized people in other countries.
During the 1980s, SCLC focused its global advocacy on South Africa, where white leaders were brutally repressing the power of Black South Africans under the system known as apartheid. All over the world, activists coordinated boycotts of South African goods, students urged their universities to divest of stock investments from South African companies, and governments issued sanctions against the white supremacist South African government.
In 1984, an eagle-eyed Black shopper at the Winn Dixie grocery store—a chain that often touted its popularity in Black communities—noticed that many of the canned and frozen items for sale were produced in South Africa. She alerted Lowery’s wife, Evelyn, who was president of SCLC Women. On the night before Thanksgiving, 1984, the Lowerys organized a sit-in at the Winn Dixie on North Decatur Avenue to protest both the sale of South African products and discrimination in hiring and promotion practices the SCLC had recently discovered. Lowery, pictured above, was arrested, along with 19 others. “We cannot in good conscience permit the aiding of apartheid by the Winn Dixies in this nation unchallenged,” he’s quoted in this Atlanta Voice article.
When Winn Dixie ignored this protest, the SCLC stepped up their efforts, organizing a year-long picket and boycott of the grocery chain. It worked: the combination of bad publicity and loss of revenue from Black shoppers spooked Winn Dixie’s leadership, and in 1985, they pulled South African products from their shelves for good.