ATLANTA — Atlanta is a cultural and business mecca with several Fortune 500 companies based here. The modern metropolis has a population of more than 500,000 but still has charm and Southern gentility of a small town.
The city today has a mixture of the old with the new — historic homes and striking architecture as well as the busiest airport in the world, and a booming television and film industry.
Among the old is Sweet Auburn, a historic district once coined the “richest Negro street in the world” by civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs.
Along Auburn Avenue, you’ll also find the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among other historic landmarks.
Fire Station No. 6 is within a few steps from the King Center. The station was one of six built during the 1890s and serviced the Sweet Auburn district. It closed in 1991 and serves as a museum today.
THE RISE & FALL (& RISE AGAIN) OF SWEET AUBURN
At the turn of the 20th century, black and white businesses were side by side downtown. However, things took a drastic turn when a series of events changed the dynamics of integrated commerce in the Southern town.
The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 happened as a result of a heated gubernatorial election, incendiary print articles about crimes against white women by black men and growing competition for jobs between black and white workers.
In the aftermath, dozens of blacks were killed, prompting residents to take their businesses east of downtown, also establishing churches and other social organizations. Among the historic churches on Auburn Avenue are Big Bethel AME and Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The district also is home to the second largest black insurance company in the U.S. — Atlanta Life Insurance Co., founded in 1905 by a former slave.
Families of varying economic classes dwelled on Auburn Avenue, from working poor to upper-middle class. Shotgun houses are still dotted alongside two-story homes with Queen Anne-influenced architecture and gingerbread flourishes. These homes were first occupied by white residents, but by 1910, the area was predominately black.
Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. By 1992, the district was recognized as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places, as it experienced abandonment, lack of investment, crime and a split caused by highway construction.
Today, the Historic District Development Corporation has revitalized many parts of the area, including the homes surrounding King’s birth home. Each year, residents celebrate the district’s rich heritage and revival during the Sweet Auburn Heritage Festival.
LITTLE BOY KING
The large home was owned by his maternal grandparents, Adam Daniel and Jennie Williams. Williams was a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, preceding Martin Luther King Sr. and then King Jr. King Sr. moved into the home in 1926 after he wed the Williams’ daughter, Alberta.
The King family rented out rooms to traveling ministers and others, as blacks could not stay in local hotels because of Jim Crow laws.
Today, rooms are set up in its original décor. In King’s childhood bedroom, there are twin beds and a table with a chess board, books and its nostalgic furniture.
Other parts of the two-story home, including the parlor and study, illustrate the family’s love of music, education and religious conviction.
Directly behind the King home is another string of modest homes that were built for poor workers.
“You see a neighborhood where you have middle-class homes but right in your back yard, literally, you have poor people,” a tour guide with the King Center said.
“Dr. King grew up in the environment seeing firsthand that people of different classes, of different beliefs and cultures can live together and work together in one community.”
Admission and parking is free to the King Center and King’s birth home. For more information, visitwww.nps.gov/malu/planyourvisit/hours.htm.