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Jul 22, 2005 6:59 am

A Strange Career of Alleys, Avenues, Boulevards, and Interstates ...

Clay Risen,"Strange Career," Boston Globe, 17 July, looks back at C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow after 50 years. On the one hand, Woodward's Strange Career was enormously important to us in the civil rights movement, because he showed that the apologists for racial segregation were wrong. There had been a time when racial disfranchisement and segregation had not been fixed in law and, thus, they need not always be. On the other hand, Woodward's critics were also right to point out that proximity did not mean equity.

In the city plans of the old South, a grid of streets on which white property owners lived was commonly overlaid with a secondary grid of alleys on which their property lived. So, black folk and white folk lived in close proximity, but with a clear delineation of subordination. In the bustle of post-war urban development in a place like Atlanta, the old double grid disappeared and, as Woodward suggested, for a time black folk and white folk might live side by side on a street like Auburn Avenue, with one group or another predominating on a given block. The race riot of 1906 convinced local reformers that they must separate people who, in close proximity, killed each other with such abandon. Early 20th century Southern white progressivism's answer to that problem was a series of plans to identify different sections of Atlanta as black or white. White property owners in black majority areas were barred from selling their property to new white owners; and black property owners in white majority areas were barred from selling their property to new black owners. The constraints on the transfer of property were supplemented by new city plans that paved broad avenues and boulevards on racial dividing lines that were not to be crossed.

Eventually, of course, the legal efforts of Atlanta's white reformers to cordon off sections of the city along racial lines were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But, in the meantime, the legal and social pressures to geographically segregate the city by race reshaped its face. Two decades after the Atlanta race riot of 1906, Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in an upstairs bedroom of his grandfather's fine two story frame house on Auburn Avenue. His grandfather, A. D. Williams, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, had bought the house from its first white owner, who was required by law to sell only to an African American buyer. Once a racially mixed avenue built out from the city's center, Auburn Avenue had been defined as a black section. During World War I, its commercial end, toward the heart of the city, became"Sweet Auburn," a thriving black business district. By war's end, six of eight black millionaires in the United States owned either a business or a house on Auburn Avenue. Further away from the downtown, it became residential and mixed no longer by race, but by class. Gathered around A. D. Williams' fine parsonage were shot-gun cottages that housed the maids who worked in white homes across the city and took refuge on Sunday afternoons and evenings at Ebenezer.

By 1929, when Martin Luther King was born, the only remnant of Auburn Avenue's bi-racial history was a white-owned neighborhood grocery store immediately across the street from A. D. Williams' fine parsonage. The little son of the grocery store owner was one of young King's first playmates in the early 1930s, but by 1935 when the little boys entered segregated public schools, Martin Luther King's playmate told him that his daddy said that"We can't play together anymore." Young King would never forget that cruel learning moment. Later, when his own father prospered as the successor to A. D. Williams in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the family moved from the frame house that Williams had bought. They moved about two blocks away, around the corner and up on Boulevard, into an even finer two story yellow brick parsonage. As a teenager, young King's home was on one of those broadly paved boundaries between black and white. M. L. King, Sr., might be constrained by law to live on its black side, but it was neither a slave's ally nor a freedman's avenue. M. L. King's handsome two-story yellow brick parsonage looked proudly across that broad Boulevard at the equally handsome houses of substantial white property owners.

In the 1950s and 1960s, before the civil rights revolution fully empowered Atlanta's African American community, highway construction and urban renewal did a strange thing to Martin Luther King's Auburn Avenue and Boulevard. The last generation of white decision-makers authorized a massive interstate highway through the heart of Atlanta. The I-75/85 Downtown Connector now carries twelve lanes of interstate traffic, one of the broadest expanses of public highway in the world, directly over Auburn Avenue. The consequence for the once thriving street below it is that a barren and forbidding block of concrete now separates one end of Auburn Avenue from the other, as grand boulevards were once to separate the races. Neither trees nor commerce nor life, but death takes root in the concrete shade of twelve lanes of interstate traffic. And, for all the claims of urban renewal to replace blighted neighborhoods with thriving communities, a major access route to the interstate highway obliged state authorities to confiscate and level Martin Luther King, Sr.'s handsome yellow brick parsonage. His proud vista is now lost in a barren tangle of access routes. Two decades of progress between 1906 and 1929 wiped out almost all vestige of Auburn Avenue's bi-racial heritage and two decades of progress between 1955 and 1975 wiped out major centers of black wealth and pride that segregation had fostered.

Thanks to Manan Ahmed for the tip.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2005

Yes, it was: if it was directed at you, I'd probably have put it here.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/22/2005

When freeways are retrofitted through residential neighborhoods, you can tell the respect given the people by whether or not the freeway is routed over underpasses or overpasses. Overpasses are cheaper but make for the crime-ridden spaces that Ralph alluded to. Routing a freeway through underpasses requires digging, but the side-street overpasses are more residential friendly.

I don't know about now, but when I was living in Dallas in the 1960s and 70s, there was a clear pattern of digging down when the property values were higher (and perhaps race was a factor as well).

Charles V. Mutschler - 7/22/2005

Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Unfortunately, issues like this are never easy to resolve. Granted, the birthplace of MLK Jr. qualifies as an important historic site. Granted, poor neighborhoods often exist in areas which are transportation corridors or industrial areas. But balancing the historic values against economic values orf other social values often puts history in the last place. Getting the freeway re-located would have been the most desirable outcome from a historical perspective. But the larger community might be more concerned about building the most efficient highway at the lowest possible cost far more than they care about the historical and cultural value of the places that are lost to constructing the highway.

I've served on a city historic preservation commission, and I've been involved with efforts to preserve historic properties which owners want to remove for commercial reasons. Sometimes the best practical outcome is not really the best outcome historically. For example, moving the structure away from its historic site, to allow construction of the highway preserves the building, but at a loss of placement in context to the community it served.

Charles V. Mutschler

Ralph E. Luker - 7/22/2005

Jon, I take it your question is directed to Dale, because I emphasized that the displacement for the interstate access affected black and white property-owners, as well as impoverished people, I think of both races, though I'm less certain about that.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/22/2005

So.... it's ok to abuse communities if it's about class and not race? Hmm. I'll have to think about that one. Could they, perhaps, overlap?

Ralph E. Luker - 7/22/2005

Ah, Dale, you're ignoring my point that the access route to the downtown connector took out MLK, Sr.'s fine two story yellow brick house on Boulevard. I can assure you that a)if it were standing today, it would be a National Historic Site (there's not even a marker of where it stood and one probably can't be put on the exact site because it's paved over) and b) even if King hadn't lived there, if it were standing today as it stood in 1950, the property could easily command $500,000 just given the location and quality of construction. My point is that interstate highways and access took out highly valuable properties of both white and black homeowners. We're not just talking about poor folks here.

Dale B. Light - 7/22/2005

There is nothing really "strange" about the decision to construct Atlanta's Downtown Connector through MLK's neighborhood. Such projects were common in mid-century American cities. I remember the plans to build a highway right through Philadelphia's South Street Corridor. The charge at the time was that black neighborhoods were being targeted ["urban renewal is negro removal"] but that was not really the case. These projects reflected the idea in urban planning that cities should focus on providing easy access from the booming suburbs to the Central Business District, which provided most of the city's tax revenues. Not surprisingly the decision of where to locate these access routes reflected the fact that some communities [poor whites and blacks] had relatively little political or economic clout and could not defend themselves against the planners' schemes.