ATLANTA — In the heart of the New South near the turn of the 20th century, more than 10,000 people stormed through the city’s downtown — the beginning of a four-day melee that left dozens of black residents and two whites dead.

It became known as the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, putting U.S. racial tensions on an international stage. A century later, historians are working to educate “the city too busy to hate” about this dark chapter from its past that many living here today have never heard of.

On Thursday, a preview of “Red Was The Midnight: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot,” an exhibit of photographs, documents and illustrations recalling the riot will open at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site — not far from where the violence unfolded 100 years ago.

Atlanta was at the center of change in the South in 1906, home to six historically black colleges that helped give rise to a critical mass of affluent and educated black community seen by whites as a threat. By late July, local newspapers were publishing sensationalized accounts of a “black crime wave” against white women that further outraged whites. The climate led to a sense of foreboding in the weeks preceding the riot, erupting on the night of Saturday, Sept. 22, 1906, explained Georgia State University professor Clifford Kuhn.

“Any black people on the street were fair game,” Kuhn said.

Streetcars — the place where whites and blacks literally rubbed elbows on a daily basis — were an easy mark with captive targets. More than 20 streetcars were smashed, derailed or attacked. Blacks jumped from the old Forsyth Street bridge to the railroad tracks below to escape lynch mobs. Others were thrown over.

Barber shops, a symbol of black prosperity and independence, were also destroyed. One barber and a shoeshine boy were among three people killed and whose bodies were laid at the foot of a statue of former Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady, who was regarded as the leading architect of a harmonious New South. The statue still stands today in the middle of Marietta Street, near the Five Points business district of downtown Atlanta.

Blacks who passed down the story of the race riot to younger generations did so as either a cautionary tale or to galvanize others into action. In the white community, the story was largely minimized and forgotten.

“The city fathers wanted to sweep it under the rug,” Kuhn said. “The vast majority of people have never heard about it.”

The riot was covered by international press, including publications in France, Italy and England. One magazine, Le Petit Journal of Paris, ran a brutal image of whites attacking blacks.

One hundred years later, piecing together accounts of the riot has been difficult for historians. Most, if not all, of the witnesses are assumed dead, and their descendants remain in obscurity. Traumatized by what they had seen, many victims and others fled Atlanta for fear of reprisals in the aftermath.

The preview exhibit focuses on short- and long-term reactions to the riot. Few photographs or other visual depictions of the riot are available today, said Clarissa Myrick-Harris, a history professor at Clark Atlanta University and co-curator of the exhibit.

“The challenge has been, ’How do we tell the story in a way that will be compelling?”’ she said.

The exhibit does use photos to illustrate the face of early 20th century black Atlanta and shares copies of powerful correspondence from those in Atlanta writing to assure far-away relatives of their safety and to describe the horrors of what they witnessed. The recollections are from prominent black leaders including former Morehouse College President John Hope, NAACP President Walter White — who was 13 at the time and pointed to the race riot as the watershed moment of his life — and renowned black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote a poem entitled “A Litany of Atlanta” to address his feelings about the riot.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary, local historians have been conducting hourlong tours of sites involved in the riot on the second Sunday of each month. Kuhn said the centennial presents an opportunity for the city to learn and heal from this atrocity.

“There has been a veil of silence,” Kuhn said. “To continue to sweep it under the rug is dishonest.”


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