Auburn Avenue was at one time known as Wheat Street. In 1893, a group of white citizens went to the city council and petitioned to change the name to Auburn because they thought it sounded more sophisticated. However, it wasn’t the whites who made Auburn Avenue sophisticated, but instead the ambition and entrepreneurial spirit of Atlanta’s diverse African American community that propelled Fortune Magazine to name Sweet Auburn “The richest negro street in the world” in 1957. With over $200,000,000 in new and proposed development, plus a shiny new streetcar, Auburn Avenue is once again poised for prosperity.
The name “Sweet Auburn” was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, grandfather to Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Dobbs, himself the unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue, helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement and for Auburn’s most notable resident, Martin Luther King, Jr. Ironically, progress lead, in-part, to the decline of the neighborhood as new found freedom fostered an exodus for exploration outside of this historic district. On this show, we’ll examine what made Auburn Avenue great, what went wrong, and why it’s all coming back together through rebuilding, re-connecting, and the Atlanta Streetcar.
While the Auburn Avenue historic district has seen a devastating decline since the 1970′s, there are many people working to preserve the neighborhood’s history and help bring it back to prominence. The Auburn Avenue Research Library is special in that it is the only library of focus in the Fulton County Library system, and that it has for years collected important documents, artifacts, and images relating to the African American experience. Archivist, Kerrie Cotten Williams joins Gene to talk about the collection, the importance of cataloging culture, and how the library preserves African American history not only for people right here in Atlanta, but for cultures across the globe.
Looking forward, Auburn Avenue plays an important role in Downtown Atlanta and Sweet Auburn’s revitalization due in large part to the Atlanta Streetcar Project. At one time Atlanta boasted over 300 miles of streetcar tracks, not only providing a mode of transportation, but also connecting our communities. In the late 1940′s the “car” went the way of the bus. Well, thanks to $47,000,000 in federal funding, the streetcar is back and it’s being built as we “talk” with an east-west route that rides right down Auburn Avenue. Here to traverse the future of transit in Atlanta, and specifically the streetcar, is Ryan Gravel, Senior Urban Designer with Perkins+Will. Gravel, who had the original (and may we say very bright) idea of the Atlanta Beltline, is the type of person who really sees the big picture, and we’re happy he could join Gene in the studio to talk about the positive implications the streetcar’s promise has on our city.
Back in the day, Sweet Auburn was not only home to seriously successful entrepreneurs, including Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first black millionaire, but it also hosted the hottest acts that showbiz had to offer. The likes of Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, and Little Richard all graced clubs like The Royal Peacock. Auburn was literally booming, but as the residential population dwindled so went the retail, restaurants and nightlife. Fortunately, the culture, character and history remained. Blight and the subsequent endangerment of those assets prompted local civic leaders to get involved to protect their homes and their heritage. As the Chairwoman of the Historic District Development Corporation, Mtaminika Youngblood continues to work toward the preservation of the Sweet Auburn area, representing the interests of the neighborhood and the community at large. Mtaminika’s connection to Auburn Avenue, along with her story of restoration and preservation of her family’s home, adds a personal touch to a show that is rich with history.
One of the sweeter stories of success along Auburn Avenue comes the way of the Sweet Auburn Bread Company, owned by chef Sonya Jones. Praised for her cakes and pastries, Chef Sonya opened shop and her doors to the community in 1997. One of her more notable moments was when she served then President Bill Clinton her famous sweet potato cheesecake (of her own creation!) during his visit to the historic district. Her ambition and tasty treats keep customers happy and deliciously contributes to the fabric of her community.
As we watch Atlanta grow, we cannot forget the history of our iconic neighborhoods. No other area of our city embodies the triumphs of African Americans like Sweet Auburn, and no other area is carrying the banner of Atlanta’s immediate developmental future quite like this neighborhood. We predict with pleasure that Auburn Avenue will continue to contribute as much to Atlanta’s positive growth and culture in the future as it has in our storied and precious past. As we celebrate Black History month, let us look to the future, but remember and honor those who helped bring us this far.