February marks Black History Month. Follow the AJC this month for a series of short stories and videos and people, places and events that played a significant role in the development of black people in America. See the most recent entries in the series and more on Black History Month at myAJC.com/blackhistorymonth.
Today, Auburn Avenue is likely the place you might get stuck behind the Atlanta Streetcar. But for a century prior, there was no place hotter, livelier or richer in any black community than Auburn Avenue.
Located east of downtown Atlanta, Auburn Avenue was known as the “richest Negro street in the world,” a phrase coined by its “mayor” John Wesley Dobbs.
The rise of Auburn Avenue as the primary black business district in Atlanta was, to a great extent, an outcome of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots. After the riots, black business moved away from mixed communities into black enclaves such as Auburn Avenue. Banks and insurance firms sprung up along the street. Churches like Ebenezer and Big Bethel were beacons. Black newspapers settled there, as did a black YMCA. Night clubs were proving grounds for James Brown and Gladys Knight.
But the most famous thing to come out of Auburn Avenue was Martin Luther King Jr., who was born on the street and lived there through college. When King returned to Atlanta as an adult, he didn’t move back to Auburn Avenue to live, but understanding the importance of the street, opened up the national office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference there.
The area is globally recognized as a black and civil rights destination. So much so that it was named a National Historic Landmark District in 1976 and the area near where King was born – which includes his birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center and a national park – has been designated as the King National Historic Site.
After years of neglect, Auburn Avenue, with the help of the streetcar, seems primed for revitalization. Shops and restaurants are opening up again and people, including Georgia State University college students, are discovering that it’s a cool place to hang out.