Cover Story: Walking tour of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot

In front of the TriBeCa haberdashery at 66 Peachtree St., a small marker set into the sidewalk notes that Atlanta’s first black business magnate, Alonzo Herndon, operated a barbershop at that address.

What the memorial doesn’t record is that the barbershop catered to an affluent white clientele and symbolized the emerging black business class at the beginning of the 20th century. Nor does it mention that Peachtree and the surrounding streets were a largely integrated business community at that time.

But the most important omission on the marker is the barbershop’s place in an event that scorched the city for decades — the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.

The tragedy of Sept. 22-24, 1906 was suppressed by the local media and is now all but forgotten by Atlanta. “No one has ever come in here and asked about the riot,” says Tikiya Carter, an associate at TriBeCa. “I know about it, my boyfriend and I talk about it. But almost no one remembers.”

Some say as many as 40 blacks were killed, along with two whites, in rioting that had to be stopped by the state militia.

The history of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot is centralized in downtown around Woodruff Park. There are no signs to commemorate the sites, nothing to mark what happened 100 years ago this month. What follows is a guide to the forgotten landmarks that haunt Atlanta to this day.

1 Five Points (what is now Woodruff Park). Fueled by breathless newspaper reports of black men assaulting white women, racial tensions reached a peak the weekend of Sept. 21. That Friday, the Atlanta News declared, “It is time to act, men; will you do your duty now?” On Saturday morning, Sept. 22, at Marietta Street near Five Points, the Ku Klux Klan posted a skull-and-bones-decorated red sign — lore has it written in pig’s blood — announcing: “The call. KKK action. Sunday. Come prepared. Death to informers.” By late Saturday afternoon, a crowd of angry whites was already gathered at Five Points.

2 Decatur Street. This street is now part of downtown’s proud business heart, lined with stores and eateries. A hundred years ago, it was also a business hub — but hardly an object of pride. The street was lined with bars and gambling establishments that catered to blacks. It’s where the first violence of the race riot took place — on Saturday, a mob of white teens began to beat blacks. Mayor James Woodward ordered the Fire Department to turn its hoses on the rioters. Instead, Fire Chief Walthall Joyner (who was also mayor-elect) turned the hoses on the blacks who dared to defend their neighborhood.

3 Herndon Barbershop, 66 Peachtree St. The barbershop was owned by one of the wealthiest blacks in Atlanta, Alonzo Herndon. As a symbol of black uppity-ness, the stylish business was an early target that day. Having heard rumors of impending violence, Herndon closed his shop early on Sept. 22. Good thing. Later that day, a white mob smashed windows, broke in and demolished the interior. Some reports state that a bootblack (shoeshine man) who worked at the shop was chased and beaten to death by the mob. Other reports said the mob, angered that no victims could be found, attacked another barbershop across the street, killing the employees.

4 Kimball House Hotel, on Decatur Street between Pryor Street and Kimball Way, where a Georgia State parking deck is now located. A mob that eventually numbered 10,000 people gathered at the hotel Saturday night, where a man — waving a newspaper account of an assault on a white woman — stood up on a box and shouted that the “time to strike back is now.” A black-owned barbershop in the hotel’s lobby was attacked and one man inside the shop was murdered.

5 Forsyth Street Bridge, near what is now the MARTA hub. On the evening of Sept. 23, three black men were pulled off of a streetcar, tossed from the bridge onto railway tracks 10 feet below, shot and killed. Later, a barber was chased to the bridge, where he was slashed, killed and thrown onto the tracks. Other blacks jumped from the bridge to escape the lynch mob.

6 Marietta and Forsyth streets. Three murdered blacks were dumped by the mob at the foot of the Henry Grady statue on Saturday, a bloody expression of white hatred toward the idea of a “New South” that Grady championed.

7 Peachtree Street and Cain Street. Atlanta was a much smaller city a century ago, and the governor’s mansion was located where the Westin Hotel is today. Gov. Joseph Terrell would later claim he was unaware of the riot — his excuse for not calling up the militia until the early hours of Sunday, Sept. 24 to stop the rioting.

8 Piedmont Hotel. The hotel was owned by Hoke Smith, whose Atlanta Journal fueled the riot with unsubstantiated sensationalist claims of blacks attacking white women. Smith was running for governor on a platform of disenfranchising blacks. Mobs gathered and joined forces near the hotel Saturday, marching off to find blacks to murder. That evening, Mayor Woodward used the hotel to make a speech blasting the Atlanta newspapers for contributing to the riot. He also fretted that the riot would attract unfavorable attention, and it did in the world media, notably front-page, illustrated stories in such publications as France’s Le Petit Journal, as well as other lurid accounts in newspapers across America and Europe.