Thousands of Atlantans plan to mark the anniversary of the Atlanta Race Massacre this Sunday.
The goal is to gather 5,000 people around 500 tables across the city around the theme “Better Me, Better We, Better World” as part of the Equitable Dinners Atlanta initiative.
Attendees will be encouraged to engage in conversations about systemic racism and ways to move forward as they remember a 116-year-old event that many have chosen to forget.
Learn from history
As GPB’s Political Rewind recalled in a special last year, a white mob began a four-day rampage through black communities in Atlanta on September 22, 1906. Twenty-five black residents were murdered, hundreds others were terrorized, and buildings and businesses were destroyed. The crowd’s anger was stoked by segregationist politicians and sensationalist reporting from the city’s two major newspapers at the time, The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal.
Despite its lasting damage, the Atlanta Race Massacre has been largely ignored by city officials and many historians. It was not until 2006 that the city publicly recognized the event. Massacre was added to Georgia’s social studies curriculum in 2007.
then and now
Documentary filmmaker, journalist and author King Williams doesn’t just write about the tragic nights of September 1906, he takes students, community leaders and others on a tour of the untold places where the events took place at the center -city of Atlanta.
Peachtree Street looks nothing like it did back then.
But at an address across from a shady park today, there was once a major black-owned business.
“The Crystal Palace was Atlanta’s finest barbershop, with four floors and crystal chandeliers,” Williams said. “All the barbers wore white and it was just meant to serve an elite clientele.”
It was the barbershop of Alonzo Herndon, a former slave whose post-slavery entrepreneurship made him one of Atlanta’s wealthiest black citizens.
Then, in September 1906, a series of lies in the newspapers about attacks on white women sent the city’s white men into a frenzy and three nights of terror began.
Anyone traveling through downtown Atlanta today passes by the places where black men were chased through the streets and beaten to death.
“You see, all of a sudden a crowd of people just showed up,” Williams said. “You see torches. You hear gunshots. You hear people screaming.
The windows of Herndon’s barbershop were smashed but he survived.
Others weren’t so lucky.
The killings and destruction of black-owned businesses and homes throughout downtown had a purpose, Williams says.
He believes the intent was to hinder the economic success of black people like Herndon and thwart black voting power amid a racist election campaign.
But the massacre was buried in a veil of silence.
“A lot of black leaders wanted to move past the event and not talk about it anymore,” Williams said. “So for the next century, you have this version of Atlanta that people don’t really know about.”
Challenging the stories of the past
Williams says the 1906 massacre doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative of Atlanta as a progressive city and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
That’s why Out of Hand Theater’s Adria Kitchens is working with a coalition of groups to restore the massacre and its legacy to the city’s public memory.
“Part of being able to do that is to really name the full story,” Kitchens said. “So that we can look at it collectively, look at it together and say, ‘What are the things that we’re going to do differently, now? “”
On Sunday, September 18, 2022, groups large and small will meet simultaneously in homes, social halls, restaurants and other locations in an Equitable Dinners event. Actors will perform short one-on-one plays on race and justice at the events, followed by dinner and moderated discussions.
Out of Hand Theater Founder and Artistic Director Ariel Fristoe says they’ve used this format for various numbers over the past few years and it works because it’s direct and personal. It will be the theatre’s largest performance, dinner and discussion to date.
“It feels wonderful that no dinner guest has to take on the burden of sharing something painful that happened to them to start the conversation,” Fristoe said. “Instead, we have an entertaining, vivid, and emotionally engaging story that makes those conversations go much further and much faster than they otherwise would.”
This story comes to Reporter Newspapers/Atlanta Intown through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.