Remembering Sweet Auburn Before the Expressway: What Nostalgia Reveals About the Limits of Postwar Liberalism

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series can be found at the bottom of the page.

By Danielle Wiggins

In the spring of 1978, a dozen Atlanta teenagers set out from the Butler Street YMCA to interview local residents about their memories of the famed “Sweet” Auburn Avenue. A Black commercial center located just east of downtown, Sweet Auburn was once deemed the “richest Negro street in America.”[1] But by the late 1970s, it was a shadow of its former self. Bustling storefronts were replaced by empty lots and boarded up buildings. The street no longer buzzed with well-dressed men and women rushing to appointments in the Rucker Building. Crime, according to many of those interviewed, had replaced legitimate enterprise as Sweet Auburn’s driving spirit.

Rucker Building, 160 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta. James R. Lockhart, 1979, Prints Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

What had triggered Sweet Auburn’s decline? Older residents pointed toward a number of causes—the opening of new neighborhoods and businesses to Black residents on the city’s westside; crime, which had been on the rise since the 1950s; an urban renewal project that demolished homes and displaced residents in the name of progress on nearby Butler Street. But the force that had truly destroyed the spirit of Sweet Auburn, many suggested, was the expressway. The Interstate 75/85 “downtown connector,” built straight through Auburn Avenue in the mid-1960s, was, according to Mable Hawk, “the deathblow” that confirmed the end of Sweet Auburn’s golden age.[2]

The oral histories collected in the Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project captured the sense of loss that characterized what Michelle Boyd called “Jim Crow nostalgia” in the post-civil rights era.[3] This nostalgia for a lost sense of Black unity and achievement, despite oppression, emerged through the stories told about Black Atlanta during the Jim Crow era and the transformative 1950s and 1960s. The countervailing transformations that unfolded during this period included not only desegregation and the passage of civil rights legislation but also urban renewal and highway construction. These projects—one set that seemingly benefited black communities and one that seemingly destroyed them—represented two sides of the postwar American Liberalism coin. Elderly Black Atlantans’ nostalgia for the period before these transformations birthed the modern Atlanta reveals the connections between the constructive and destructive aspects of midcentury liberalism. Moreover, their storytelling illuminates not only the harms of highway construction but also reveals the limits of the victories of the civil rights movement.

Auburn Avenue, a thoroughfare stretching a little over a mile, was nicknamed “Sweet Auburn” by civic leader John Wesley Dobbs. According to Dobbs, Auburn Avenue was “sweet” not only because of the money that circulated there, but because unlike other Black business districts, it was not “across the tracks” but was adjacent to the white business district on Peachtree Street.[4] Life behind the veil on Sweet Auburn was rich, as the interviewed elders recalled. For seventy-four-year-old Roger McKeary, Sweet Auburn “used to be heaven to the Black peoples.” He recalled young folks getting dressed up after work to go out for a night on the town; first they grabbed Cokes and ice creams at Yates and Milton Drug Store, and then, “if they felt like it, they’d go up to the dances.”[5] Others recalled going to see famous black entertainers at the Top Hat and the Royal Peacock, and a few spoke of opening their own businesses. “If we were lucky enough to start a business on Auburn Avenue,” A. J. Taylor claimed, “you were looked up to as being somebody.”[6] Life in Sweet Auburn, and Black Atlanta broadly, wasn’t perfect. Interviewees also remembered that many Black people were poor and lived in shoddy housing, the schools were overcrowded and children sometimes had to share desks and textbooks, and Black Atlantans were excluded from well-paying jobs. Indeed, Auburn Avenue, both the sweet and the sour, emerged not despite Jim Crow segregation but because of it. Yet, segregation and oppression fostered a sense of togetherness claimed Fletcher Coombs of Mutual Federal Savings and Loan, “more togetherness than we seem to have now.” [7]

Mutual Federal Savings, 205 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta. James R. Lockhart, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The unity fostered by the shared experience of Jim Crow buttressed Black Atlantans’ battle against segregation, exclusion, and racial violence in the “City Too Busy to Hate.” Though tensions did emerge along class, gender, and generational lines, Black Atlantans sought to present a united front in their local movement. In fighting to undo the structures of Jim Crow in public transportation, public accommodations, private enterprises, policing, and voting, civil rights activists in Atlanta sought to bring the city into the future. In the 1950s and 1960s, activists, both Black and white, sought to tear down the vestiges of both the Old South and Henry Grady’s New South to create a new New South.[8]

Civil rights activists were not the only ones working to modernize Atlanta. Boosters also sought to transform Atlanta into a Sunbelt metropolis by modernizing the city’s lifeblood—its transportation system. In 1944 urban planners hired consultants to create a new transportation plan that would create easier access to the central business district downtown from the expanding suburbs outside city limits. In the 1946 Lochner Report the consultants recommended a north-south expressway that would bend east at the central business district. Thus, the expressway wouldn’t be constructed through the downtown white commercial area but through the area just to its east—Sweet Auburn.[9]

The modern Atlanta that boosters envisioned was not only studded with skyscrapers and connected by futuristic-looking highways; it was also a city cleansed of poor white and all Black communities. Highway construction, like the urban renewal projects which sought to remove “blight,” enabled urban leaders to reconfigure urban spaces to remove or hide Black communities. The proposed north-south expressway would be built through the junction of Auburn and Piedmont Avenues, creating a clear barrier severing the Peachtree-Auburn Connection. The area, toward the western end of Auburn Avenue, was the commercial cluster of the district, with the powerful Atlanta Life Insurance Company and Citizens Trust Bank, as well as several popular retailers, located near the junction.[10]

When it became clear in 1956 that this vital intersection would be demolished by the construction of what would become the downtown connector, Black civic and business leaders mobilized. While many Black elites initially supported urban renewal projects with the hope that the dilapidated and dangerous housing would be replaced by new affordable units in the same area, they decried the city’s attempt to destroy the prosperous Sweet Auburn community with the expressway. By the mid-1950s Black Atlantans had become a significant voting bloc and gained enough political clout to challenge the proposed construction. They ultimately convinced the city to build the expressway a few blocks to the east, allowing Atlanta Life and Citizens Trust to avoid demolition and displacement.[11]

Bronner Bros., 223 Auburn Avenue, corner of Butler Street, Atlanta. James R. Lockhart, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Nonetheless, the expressway was built. By the time it was completed in 1964, construction displaced an estimated 30,000 residents and forced several businesses to close, while others suffered low traffic during the years of construction. Furthermore, there was no entrance or exit off the expressway directly onto Auburn Avenue. Traffic was diverted around the district completely, so the businesses that survived after construction struggled.[12] The expressway destroyed the spirit of enterprise in Sweet Auburn in more ways than one. As Fletcher Coombs explained, “the building of the freeway took people out of the community and when you take people out of the community it has some effect on business. Businesses thrive and survive on people and when you don’t have people you can’t stay alive and some businesses had to close.”[13]

In splitting the avenue in half, the expressway fundamentally altered Sweet Auburn’s atmosphere. The looming and loud highway disrupted the ambulatory experience of Auburn Avenue. No longer a pleasant experience, Atlantans no longer walked the Avenue. The underpass it created below separated the eastern and western sections with a dark stretch that served as a hotspot for petty thieves and drug dealers. By the 1970s it appeared to many residents and business owners that Sweet Auburn was being overcome by crime and disorder. Restaurant owner Mable Hawk claimed, “there are people who are afraid to walk Auburn Avenue, there are business that have to keep their doors locked in many instances…you can go in some of the beauty shops and the doors are locked, you have to knock on the door to get in.” Fletcher Coombs argued that the highway construction displaced many of the respectable old-time residents and explained that there was a “physical change in terms of the type of resident.” The new residents who populated the area, Coombs contended, “don’t maintain their properties as well as they did twenty years ago.” Thus, in the eyes of longtime residents, highway construction changed more than just the built environment of Sweet Auburn; it fundamentally destroyed its warm spirit of enterprise, conviviality, and respectability and fostered instead an atmosphere of fear, lawlessness, and decay.[14]

But, it wasn’t only highway construction that destroyed the spirit of Sweet Auburn. “When they integrated,” Reverend William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street Baptist Church explained, “they took the life out of many of those places.”[15] Indeed, just as Sweet Auburn declined, the fortunes of black Atlantans able to integrate the mainstream rose. In the aftermath of local and national civil rights victories during the 1950s and 1960s, Black Atlantans made advances, particularly in business and politics. In 1971, Ebony magazine called the city the South’s “New Black Mecca.”[16] The story profiled several prosperous Black-owned businesses, featured photos of stately middle-class homes in neighborhoods on the city’s westside, and profiled rising stars in local politics. In 1973 Atlanta became the first major Southern city to elect a Black mayor—Maynard Jackson, grandson of Sweet Auburn’s unofficial mayor, John Wesley Dobbs. Yet, as middle class and elite Black Atlantans’ political and economic clout continued to rise in highly visible ways during the last quarter of the twentieth century, many more Black residents fell deeper into poverty. Indeed, in mid-1970s Sweet Auburn, nearly half the neighborhood’s 9,000 residents lived below the poverty line and in overcrowded and deteriorating public housing complexes like Grady Homes and Wheat Street Gardens.[17] Due to the political and economic constraints on urban governance in the 1970s and 1980s, the city’s Black political leadership was ultimately limited in its capacity to alter the city’s governing priorities and to redistribute resources to poor and working-class Atlantans. While Black Atlantans were able to attain the civil rights movement’s goal of more equitable political representation, they struggled to achieve another more fundamental objective—economic justice.

In the 1970s Black civic leaders and business owners sought to tackle one manifestation of post-civil rights decline—decaying Auburn Avenue. They began organizing to revitalize Sweet Auburn, which they hoped could also bring back that sense of togetherness that had been weakened by the transformations of the 1960s. Figures such as the Butler Street YMCA’s John H. Calhoun, Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association president Fletcher Coombs, Atlanta Life’s Jesse Hill, and several other prominent business owners formed a variety of different organizations such as the Auburn Avenue Development Association, the Inner City Development Corporation, and the Auburn Avenue Revitalization Committee. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s these organizations created a number of plans, proposals, and commissions that outlined different ways capital could be brought back to Sweet Auburn. Many of the plans proposed solutions that would improve Sweet Auburn’s built environment and encourage people to walk the Avenue again: restored facades, renovated sidewalks, new lighting and street furniture, improved landscaping, and greater police presence and activity, particularly near the troublesome underpass.

Interior Doorway, Second Floor, Odd Fellows Building, Auburn Avenue, Atlanta. David J. Kaminsky, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Creating narratives of Sweet Auburn’s history before the expressway was a vital component of these revitalization efforts. In 1976 the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark, and with the designation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in the Auburn Avenue’s eastern side in 1980, the city’s and the public’s interest in the neighborhood’s history grew. The Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project, which was partially funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, was one of the earliest memorialization projects. The project not only served as an educational and employment experience for the youth, local participants in the city’s CETA Youth Development program and one Spelman student; it also intended to document and distribute stories about Sweet Auburn’s past throughout the Atlanta community. The project produced a short-lived newsletter and a collection of oral histories with notable subjects such as Reverend Borders and C. A. Scott of the Atlanta Daily World, as well as lesser-known people like Mable Hawk and Dr. Homer Nash. The oral histories were housed first at the Butler Street YMCA and then later at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. Reporting on the project also disseminated these narratives of the neighborhood’s past in newspaper articles with headlines such as “’Sweet Auburn’ History is Saved.”[18] The stories of Sweet Auburn’s glorious past continued to circulate as Black civic and political leaders sought to bring back the spirit of Auburn Avenue well into the twenty-first century.

What do the memories of Sweet Auburn captured by Black teens in the late 1970s reveal? These recollections of Sweet Auburn’s past and their explanations for its decline suggest a different narrative of the post-civil rights era that challenges the triumphant story often told about Atlanta and Black America as a whole. Their stories reveal a profound sense of loss that percolated throughout the post-civil rights era. There was a longing not only for the businesses and people displaced by the highway, but a nostalgia for a bygone era of purported racial togetherness forged by the shared experience of Jim Crow, of fates seemingly linked despite differences. The trajectories of Black Atlantans in the post-civil rights era mirrored the bifurcated Auburn Avenue. But whereas nearly all of Sweet Auburn declined when split in two, Black Atlantans had divergent paths after the transformations of the 1960s. The sense of togetherness that Fletcher Coombs noted characterized life on Sweet Auburn during its golden age was challenged not only by highway construction and urban renewal, but by desegregation itself.

Like the highway that split Sweet Auburn in two, desegregation revealed divisions that already existed in Black Atlanta and deepened inequalities between elites and everyone else. While some were able to prosper and take advantage of new opportunities available to African Americans at the onset of the post-civil rights era, others were less equipped and consequently became even more marginalized. Thus, the divergent experiences of incidents such as the tragedy of the Atlanta Youth Murders between 1979 and 1981 and the 1996 Olympic Games revealed the limitations of the advances of the civil rights movement, which succeeded in providing more opportunities and representation for a particular class of African Americans but failed to fundamentally redistribute resources and power in Atlanta.[19] While it was easy to root Sweet Auburn’s decline in the upheaval caused by the construction of the downtown connector, implicating the very successes of the freedom struggle was much more fraught.  

Additional entries in the Justice and the Interstates series:

Danielle Wiggins is an assistant professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in history from Emory University in May 2018 and her BA in History from Yale in 2012. She is a former National Fellow of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation (formerly the Miller Center) at the University of Virginia. Her research examines the intersections between post-civil rights black politics and the rightward-shifting Democratic Party from the 1970s to the early 1990s.

Featured image (at top): Odd Fellows Building & Auditorium, 228-250 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta. David J. Kaminsky, 1979, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 33.

[2] Transcript of interview with Mable Hawk, box 2, folder 12, Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project Records, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta, GA.

[3] See Michelle Boyd, Jim Crow Nostalgia: Reconstructing Race in Bronzeville (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[4]“A Profile of Sweet Auburn,” Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Chronicle, vol. 1, no. 1, box 1, folder 6, Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project Records.

[5] Untitled project notes, box 1, folder 3, Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project Records.

[6] Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Chronicle, vol. 1, no. 2, box 1, folder 6, Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project Records.

[7] Transcript of Interview with Fletcher Coombs, box 1, folder 38, Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Project Records, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta, GA.

[8] On the civil rights movement in Atlanta see Maurice J. Hobson, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Winston A. Grady-Willis, Challenging U.S. Apartheid: Atlanta and Black Struggles for Human Rights, 1960-1977 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), Alton J. Hornsby, Black Power in Dixie: A Political History of African Americans in Atlanta (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009); Gary Pomerantz, When Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta (New York: Scribner, 1996).

[9] Larry Keating, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 90-93.

[10]Ronald H. Bayor, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 71-74; Irene V. Holliman 2009. “From Crackertown to Model City? Urban Renewal and Community Building in Atlanta, 1963—1966,” Journal of Urban History 35, no. 3: 372-375.

[11] Bayor, 74.

[12]Keating, 91-92.

[13] Interview with Fletcher Coombs.

[14] Interview with Mable Hawk; Interview with Fletcher Coombs.

[15] Sweet Auburn Neighborhood Chronicle, vol. 1, no. 2.

[16] Phyl Garland, “Atlanta: Black Mecca of the South,” Ebony 26, no. 10 (August 1971), 152–57.

[17] “Sweet Auburn: A Comprehensive Urban Design Plan for Auburn Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia,” December, 1975, box 22, folder 8, Arnall T. Connell Papers, Kenan Research Center, Atlanta History Center, Atlanta, GA.

[18] “’Sweet Auburn’ History is Saved,” The Atlanta Journal, April 10, 1978.

[19] On the class-informed experiences of the Atlanta Child Murders and the Olympic Games, see Hobson, The Legend of the Black Mecca, Chapters 3 and 5.

One thought on “Remembering Sweet Auburn Before the Expressway: What Nostalgia Reveals About the Limits of Postwar Liberalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.