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.