ATLVault: Sweet Auburn gave birth to the American civil rights movement

Atlanta and the nation have taken a lot from Auburn Avenue. Now, the time may have finally arrived to give something back.
Auburn Avenue is arguably the birthplace of the American civil rights movement. David Yoakley Mitchell is the head of the Atlanta Preservation Center.
Published: Feb. 12, 2023 at 11:19 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2023 at 8:18 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Its streets were traveled by some of the nation’s principled and most courageous. Its buildings were brick-laid by people who endured and persevered to leave behind a better city than they discovered.

Atlanta and the nation have taken a lot from Auburn Avenue. Now, the time may have finally arrived to give something back.

“This corner has been in the possession of Black people since the 1870s,” said David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, of Auburn’s intersection with Jesse Hill Jr. Drive. “This corner housed the first bank for Black people in Georgia. The remnants of Gate City Drug are here; the first pharmacy in Georgia for Black people. There’s a lot of history in these buildings.”

By the 1880s Atlanta was the South’s economic hub, and Black populations - and Black economic, social and political power - were on the rise. Alonzo Herndon - a barber by trade - was well on his way to becoming the city’s first black millionaire: first, by acquiring residential and commercial properties and then, by founding Atlanta Life Insurance Co. with a partner.

Still standing at that corner is 229 Auburn Avenue, once home to an Atlanta Life Insurance branch and now listed as a Place in Peril by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Since the late 1970s Auburn Avenue has lost 47% of its original fabric,” Mitchell said. “At this rate Auburn Avenue is at risk of losing its national registrar accreditation. Auburn Avenue is piercing the veil of being a Black-White issue. This is an Atlanta issue, and it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

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Auburn Avenue is also home to the Prince Hall Masonic Grand Lodge, which was spearheaded by Atlanta businessman and civic leader John Wesley Dobbs. The lodge was completed in 1937 and served as a base in Atlanta for the Prince Hall Freemasons, a predominantly African American branch of the North American Freemasons.

Here is an an aerial view of Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

Later, the lodge also housed the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Martin Luther King Jr.-led civil rights organization. The building was also the home of a Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Shoppe, and the studio for WERD, the nation’s first African American-owned and directed radio station, which began broadcasting in 1948.

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Currently, the nearly 80-year-old building is undergoing an extensive renovation thanks to funds from local investors. It will be turned into a 16,000 square-foot multi-use space.

Across from 229 Auburn Avenue is the Grand Order of the Odd Fellows building. The building, completed in 1912 and dedicated by Booker T. Washington in 1913,, housed businesses, offices and also had a 1,296-seat auditorium and a roof garden, which was the site of most of Black Atlanta’s dances and social functions during the 1920s and 30s. Two Black newspapers - the Atlanta Independent and The Daily World - operated out of the Odd Fellows building, as did the Gate City Drug Store.

Georgia Trust has placed this historic building in downtown Atlanta as in peril.

The name “Sweet Auburn” was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, referring to one of the largest concentrations of African-American businesses in the nation.

A National Historic Landmark District was designated in 1976. Sweet Auburn was also added to the National Register of Historic Places the same year.

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“Auburn Avenue has come to represent the place where Atlanta draws its radial capital, based on what happened in this area” Mitchell said. “It tells the larger story of the 20th century, a story of economic transition and the story of both pre- and post-civil rights Atlanta and the nation.”