Revisiting Atlanta’s 45-Year Reputation as the “Black Mecca”

By Todd M. Michney

This blogpost is in commemoration of Black History Month, a tradition started in 1926 by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and which the Georgia Institute of Technology observes by sponsoring an annual lecture.

In 1971 Ebony magazine, the nation’s premier and most widely-read African American monthly serial, published an article by staff writer Phyl (Phyllis) Garland titled “Atlanta: Black Mecca of the South.”  Although it was not the first U.S. city to which that label was applied[1], the moniker stuck.  Coming on the eve of Maynard Jackson’s ascent to the mayoralty, the implications of Atlanta’s singular achievement and rising prominence among Southern cities, embodied in the term “mecca,” fit well with the city’s rapidly growing economy and carefully-managed image of steady progress toward racial equality.  Furthermore, as alluded to by the author herself, Garland’s article appeared at a time when opportunities for African Americans in larger Northern and Western metropolises were looking far less promising, with deindustrialization setting in and frustrations in many such cities’ black neighborhoods becoming manifest in a succession of riot-torn, “long, hot summers.”

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First page of the original Ebony article “Atlanta: Black Mecca of the South,” courtesy Google Books/ Johnson Publishing.

Atlanta’s reputation as a Black Mecca has proven durable, although numerous commentators over the years have pointed out where the city falls short – some stridently – insofar as the benefits of economic growth have not been distributed equally either to African American Atlantans relative to whites, or among them as a group. This past November, Georgia State University’s Law School hosted a symposium entitled “Still the Black Mecca?  Race, Social Inequality, and Urban Displacement in 21st Century Atlanta,” featuring contributions from speakers including scholars, activists, and other community stakeholders. In a subsequent interview, one of the event’s co-organizers, Dr. Kali-Ashet Amen, explained its planners’ main underlying concern:  “[T]his symposium was explicitly about equity – not equal opportunity, not access, not ‘diversity’ – but rather, racial equity; which is to say, we are concerned with the evaluation of fairness and justice in both the policies and the business deals that are being brokered in the name of urban progress.”

 

Revisiting Garland’s original article offers us a chance to assess how Atlanta has lived up to the Black Mecca label over the past four decades, from our contemporary standpoint where so much has changed, even as striking continuities remain. While we readily recall her hopeful tone – which in fact characterized most of the accompanying articles in that issue of Ebony on the theme of “The South Today” – we typically forget that Garland’s subtitle was equivocal:  “Racial peace, prosperity are mixed with problems in this bustling boomtown.” Garland was neither a native booster of, nor a naïve believer in Atlanta’s supposed racial progressivism. Born in Pennsylvania and having started her career reporting on civil rights topics for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier (famous for its militant “Double V” campaign during World War II), she went South in 1965 after joining Ebony, where she interviewed Fannie Lou Hamer among other black female activists in Mississippi, and reported on the early political gains from the Voting Rights Act. Just months before her “Atlanta: Black Mecca” article appeared, Garland had published another piece of reportage on the city, treating the campaign by the Community Coalition on Broadcasting which successfully pressured local radio stations to hire more African Americans in positions of authority. Incidentally, a striking contemporary parallel to this effort is a current lawsuit filed by black employees of CNN alleging the existence of a “glass ceiling” in hiring and promotion at this Atlanta-based company.

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Maynard Jackson, courtesy of Google Books/Johnson Publishing

Garland’s tentative rendition of Atlanta as a mecca for black politics came as the election of its first African American mayor was looking increasingly likely – she mentioned a perception that Jackson had been “campaigning unofficially” ever since becoming vice-mayor – in no small part due to the city’s black proportion reaching a majority. An attempt to delay this eventuality had been the underlying impetus behind Mayor William Hartsfield’s successful push to annex large portions of unincorporated Fulton County in 1952, which tripled the size of Atlanta’s geographic area. “Now a healthy 51 per cent of the population, they have made their power felt on all levels of local government and anticipate the day when that slim margin will be so solidly reinforced that they might push open even bigger official doors,” Garland wrote. Among the notable recent political gains she mentioned were the election to a statehouse seat of civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activist Julian Bond, formerly with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and who attended Morehouse College; around the time the article appeared, he had co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still on the horizon was the entry into local politics of two other civil rights veterans:  John Lewis, also with SNCC, and Andrew Young, the former executive director of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Young had been instrumental in organizing SCLC’s “citizenship schools” that increased voter registration in rural areas; in 1972 he became the first African American elected to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction, and in 1981 he would succeed Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s second black mayor. Lewis – already famous as a Freedom Rider as well as for his role in the 1965 Selma march – had relocated to Atlanta in 1967 to head up the Voter Education Project. Following his election to Atlanta’s City Council in 1981, Lewis defeated Bond in a bitter 1986 contest for Young’s former 5th U.S. Congressional seat that Lewis still holds today. While Atlanta was not the first major U.S. city to elect an African American mayor, its unbroken succession of black mayoral leadership since 1973 is the longest-running in the country, with Detroit recently having broken a comparable streak in 2013. However, with the city’s African American population in decline due to black suburbanization and white gentrification, the likelihood of Atlanta continuing this tradition is no longer assured. In fact, changing demographics raise the question of whether the post-civil rights model of black political leadership in Atlanta and elsewhere may be moribund.

Atlanta’s black-owned businesses constituted perhaps the most hopeful note in Garland’s “Black Mecca” article, as she referenced a recently-coined Nixonian phrase in concluding “black capitalism has been practiced . . . [in Atlanta] long before it was given a name.” Receiving particular attention for having just completed its twelve-story headquarters was the Citizens Trust Co., founded in 1921 by Heman Perry, a black businessman and real estate developer of the then-suburban Washington Park neighborhood. Currently the fourth-largest black-owned bank in the country, Citizens Trust remains true to its roots of lending on homes, and recently saw a spike in new account openings as a result of Atlanta hip-hop artist and social activist Killer Mike’s #BankBlack campaign. Yet despite such efforts, African American-owned financial institutions in Atlanta and elsewhere have struggled to remain solvent; Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Co., another institution mentioned in the article and a longtime landmark on the city’s historic Auburn Avenue, did not fare as well, closing in 2000. Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first African American millionaire and founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. – currently the second-largest such black-owned firm in the country – also received mention, alongside T.M. Alexander, another pioneer in that industry who had famously insured cars owned by Montgomery Bus Boycott supporters when their coverage was punitively discontinued. Garland also mentioned the city’s foremost black builder of the 1950s, Walter H. “Chief” Aiken, as well as the up-and-coming black developer of the 1960s, Herman J. Russell. Russell’s was among those black-owned construction companies that benefited from Mayor Jackson’s expansion of affirmative action programs (begun under his predecessor Sam Massell), which ensured that one-quarter of contracts for the Hartsfield Airport expansion were reserved for minority-owned firms. An article in Black Enterprise several years later lauded Russell, even as it hinted at the fragility of the city’s more than 2,000 black-owned businesses at the time. Strikingly, while Russell’s company remains among Atlanta’s top five largest African American firms along with Citizens Trust, a food service business and two car dealerships now share that distinction. Furthermore, Atlanta’s black business enterprises are increasingly more prominently associated with the recording, film, and television industry, symbolized in the latter case by the success of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” series on FX.

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Courtesy Google Books/Johnson Publishing

Finally, even as Garland celebrated Atlanta’s upwardly-mobile black middle class, she pointed to the glaring ways that working-class and poor African Americans were being left out of the city’s growing economy. One photo featured a husband and wife who both were elementary school teachers, noting “[h]ome ownership is the great pride of black Atlantans . . . [but] most of these people are not rich . . . [p]eople are killing themselves to maintain a certain standard of living,”[2] pictured left, while another depicted a young child in Vine City, “an inner-city poverty pocket untouched by Atlanta’s reputation for affluence” (pictured below and right).

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Courtesy Google Books/Johnson Publishing

 Even as Garland pointed to “verdant neighborhoods that are the true pride and joy of the city’s black citizenry” – Collier Heights, Cascade Heights, and Peyton Forest (this last one the site of modern Atlanta’s arguably most embarrassing incident of racial intolerance) – she noted “[t]here are 160,000 people living in poverty here and two-thirds of them are black.”  State Representative Julian Bond summarized the situation: “This is the best place in the United States for a black [person] if you’re middle-class and have a college degree, but if you’re poor, it’s just like Birmingham, Jackson or any other place.” Furthermore, white flight from outlying city neighborhoods was an ongoing problem, leading Garland to conclude “Evidently Atlanta is not quite ready for integrated housing.” Demographic turnover additionally had ramifications for the city’s ability to achieve public school integration, which despite an initial move in 1961 toward compliance with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling, was essentially stalled; a 1968 report had noted that 98 percent of African American children still attended all-black schools, and 65 percent of public elementary schools were “totally segregated.” Metro Atlanta still exhibits divergent outcomes for African Americans on the basis of class. On the one hand, suburban Clayton and Fayette are two of only seven counties in the entire country where blacks’ average income exceeds that of whites; at the same time, the metropolitan area ranks near the bottom among U.S. cities in terms of its potential for upward mobility. There is evidence that Atlanta’s elimination of its entire traditional public housing inventory further exacerbated inequality among African Americans, and while there is still an argument to be made that the city constitutes a “mecca” for the black middle class, even the most prosperous have been disproportionately impacted by the Great Recession, with many families experiencing downward mobility. Meanwhile, the failures of school desegregation have followed African Americans to the suburbs.

 

Much has changed in Atlanta since 1971 when Garland wrote the article that cemented the city’s reputation as a “Black Mecca.” Not only has white population decline reversed since 1990; Latinos and Asians now constitute an increasingly significant and growing share.  LGBTQ Atlantans, newly visible at the time the original article appeared, now stand at the forefront of the contemporary local civil rights movement. In the words of Dr. Kali-Ashet Amen, mentioned above as a co-organizer of the recent “Still the Black Mecca?” symposium: “[F]or the black mecca to be true to its name in the present moment, we are going to need a practical vision of multiracial, queer, and immigrant equity that is grounded in political commitments to black and brown thriving. Without that kind of intentionality, and multiracial mobilizing toward those ends, the black mecca idea loses all foundation.” With the benefit of a historical perspective – making clear that this concept from the outset was never understood so much as an established reality as a work-in-progress – we can better chart where we need to move, in order to rectify past injustices and make our city a more equitable place for everyone.

 

[1] New York (specifically Harlem), Washington, DC as the first black-majority city, and even New Orleans had previously been designated as the “colored” or “Negro mecca”; note that some white observers used the term in a derogatory way.

[2] On similar strategies by dual-income black couples elsewhere, see Todd M. Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

A Fireside Chat with Debra Lam, Incoming Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director

by Chris Thayer

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Debra Lam (via Chandler Crowell Photography)

 

At January 26th’s IPaT Town Hall, CUI Director Dr. Jennifer Clark sat down with Debra Lam, lately of Pittsburgh fame and now the Institute for People and Technology’s new Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation Managing Director. Previously Debra led the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance, which was in charge of technology, sustainability, and performance of the city government. In this fireside chat, Dr. Clark asked Debra about her vision for smart cities, the collaborative potential between government and research institutions, and the potential impact of the changing national political climate on local efforts. This article is a transcript of that interview; the file is available for download at the end.

 

JC: For those of you that don’t know, I’m Jennifer Clark. This is Debra Lam, who we’re welcoming today. Debra is coming from Pittsburgh, where she was in charge of what was called the Innovation and Performance Team at the City of Pittsburgh, so when we found out that Debra was moving to Atlanta, the brainstorm we had was “What if we had the person who actually did so much in Pittsburgh on the City side of the city-university partnership come to Georgia Tech and help us manage the University side of our city-university partnership here in Atlanta?”

Some of you have read some of the discussions about Uber, and how Uber came to Pittsburgh to pilot its autonomous vehicle technologies. Actually, Pittsburgh has also developed — Debra developed — an Inclusive Innovation Plan for Smart Cities.  

So, I wanted to start by asking Debra a couple of questions, picking up a bit on what Beth just said about the changing political environment. Some people have the thought that with the changing political environment, cities generally, and Smart Cities in particular, may fall off the radar. But there are other people who argue that cities have been leading urban innovation from the ground up for many years. As someone on the front line, how do you feel about that? What’s your argument for being an optimist?

DL: Thank you, Jennifer. First of all, I’d like to thank you, all of you, for giving me a very warm welcome. I think all of us here — I’m a huge advocator for city empowerment and just see that cities are on the ground and accountable from a purely operational standpoint, in terms of just day to day operations like cleaning the streets and fixing the streetlights, right on to managing citizen accountability and responsibilities like that. So that makes us really on the thrust of not only trying to deliver, but delivering well. And being on that forefront, I think that’s an exciting place to be because the scale is easier to deliver on, and the sensitivities of being on the ground makes us more accountable. Accordingly I’ve been a firm advocate of the idea that it’s great that there are these great international actors, and great national actors, but whatever happens at the international and national levels, cities are still going to be at that front-lines position. Earlier, we talked about how cities have moved forward, proving their potential repeatedly — and it shows that, I think, whatever happens at this national climate means that we’re still going to lead the way forward.

JC: City-university partnerships are emerging as one of the key vehicles for designing smart cities and developing the systems and platforms essential for optimizing urban systems and expanding access and building opportunity. What do you think technology-focused universities like Georgia Tech bring to this enterprise? What are key roles that universities can (or possibly) should play?

DL: So, first of all, are people aware of the MetroLab Network? Do you guys know what it is?

No? No, okay. So, for those those that aren’t familiar, the MetroLab Network is a national partnership of almost forty cities and more than forty universities across the country that have committed themselves to doing applied research. Basically, trying to matchmake urban challenges with real expertise coming from a university and applying them on a wider scale. We started with our own Metro21 Partnership when I signed Memoranda Of Understanding with Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. And that partnership really brought research to City Hall — it basically created an R&D Department within the City of Pittsburgh, which had never existed. We had everything from internships to semester-long projects to graduate research projects to faculty-sponsored grants, all funnelling into City operations to be applied for improvements in decision-making and performance. And that was really, I would say, a turning point in how we thought about innovation, because it allowed us to essentially decrease the risk of trying new things, because we have this university partnership, and to fast-track some of these innovations into City operations. And then from that partnership, we expanded it and launched MetroLab Network at the White House a couple years ago, during Smart Cities Week. And today, it’s transpired into that collection of forty-plus University-City partnerships, two of which Georgia Tech and Georgia State are also involved, and Jennifer is in the lead here in the City of Atlanta.

JC: We were talking earlier about Debra’s thinking about a Smart Cities ecosystem, and articulating how we should be thinking about the different pieces of a Smart Cities ecosystem. I wonder if you couldn’t share a little bit about what you think about that?

DL: First of all, I think this is an evolving space, and I think it’s new and growing space. What I found really great, and one of the reasons why I thought it was a great match to come to Georgia Tech, was that there was just a wealth of expertise all around Georgia Tech. And I thought, there’s so much we need to learn in terms of expertise. I really think of Smart Cities as a bigger ecosystem that involves a lot of different parts in collaboration in order to hit some alternate goals. In this ecosystem, there are certain resources or inputs that’s required in any context. These inputs could involve anything from data to technology, software to infrastructure — these are your basic components that cities are constantly looking at in terms of resources that are required to build a Smart City. But then these inputs require processes in order to be utilized. These processes involve new ways to improve efficiency, new ways to engage the public, whether it is for stakeholder engagement or innovative financial or business models, to think about how to find or procure these inputs, that technology or data. There are these processes that could become better or more efficient, or could really, really be more inclusive in thinking about where and how to serve the public, or different sectors of the community. But once you get into pursuing these different inputs and these process improvements, they ultimately lead to: Why do we do Smart Cities, at the end of the day? What is the ultimate goal of Smart Cities?

To me, Smart Cities is ultimately to improve the quality of life for residents. You can think of it as increased resilience, you can think of it as increased sustainability, you can think about it as increased equality, an increasingly just society — all those are goals that we’re striving for. There are certain inputs, resources that we need, processes that we can improve, but the reason why we are going towards a Smart City and all of us are collectively contributing, doing our part, is because we want to make a better world. Call it whatever you want, but that’s basically it. And that’s why I think that as part of the Smart Cities ecosystem, it is central that we are collaborative and integrative in our approaches. It’s hard to put people or areas into a specific box per se, but there are some of us that have great expertise in inputs, whether we are experts in sensors or technologies or data, and there are some who are really heavily involved in processes like stakeholder engagement or different ways of making financial models, and then there are some that are heavily involved in looking at what a just society looks like, or a resilient city looks like. Together, we, and I can say ‘we’ as Georgia Tech, really are formulating a true Smart City ecosystem, with players in all kinds of roles. That’s what makes Georgia Tech really powerful, to me. When we put all that together, we can create a really good narrative of what the Smart Cities should be, and how we could be on the forefront of driving Smart Cities — not just for the City of Atlanta, but for cities all over the world. Thank you, and I’m really glad you’re here.