The 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre: How Fearmongering Led to Violence

Historians in the News
tags: racism, violence, Atlanta, race riots

In the center of downtown Atlanta, a handful of streets intersect, forming what locals know as Five Points. Today, a park, a university, high-rise buildings and throngs of motorists and pedestrians make this a bustling area, belying its history of bloodshed. In 1906, Five Points became the epicenter of the Atlanta Race Massacre that claimed the lives of at least 25 African Americans and two white residents.

The four days of violence that began on September 22 were spurred on by a number of factors, including yellow journalism, rape accusations and a resentment of African Americans enjoying greater access to voting rights and economic opportunity.

During Reconstruction, many African Americans moved to Atlanta from rural areas to pursue job prospects. An industrial, financial and railroad center, Atlanta was widely viewed as the capital of the New South, but the city was also rife with race and class conflicts. 

The 1906 gubernatorial race only heightened these tensions. The race featured a neck-and-neck race between Clark Howell, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, and Hoke Smith, the former editor of The Atlanta Journal. Democratic candidates Both men attempted to win voter support by emphasizing their plans to disenfranchise Black men. 

“They were very clear,” says Clarissa Myrick-Harris, an Africana Studies professor and Division of Humanities chair at Morehouse College. “We can't have Negro rule. We have to stop them. We have to keep them from voting. They’re getting too uppity. They're taking over.”

In addition to voting rights, many white residents wanted to shut down bars on Decatur Street, one of the thoroughfares that made up Five Points. They argued that these establishments attracted African American criminals. More than crime, however, critics objected to interracial socializing between Black men and white women in the saloons. Others resented the success of Black-owned businesses that were propelling African Americans into Atlanta’s middle and upper classes.

“​​What's remarkable about this period is that in spite of all those things done to suppress, repress, discriminate against, terrorize, massacre, kill and destroy Black people in Black communities, Black people not only survived but in many cases also thrived,” says Myrick-Harris, who co-curated an exhibit about the Atlanta Race Riot to commemorate its 2006 centennial.

“In 1906, many of the Black businesses were located in the Peachtree Street area in downtown Atlanta. They were competitors with white business owners, and they [the white entrepreneurs] didn’t like that.”

The local press capitalized on Atlanta’s growing racial strife with sensationalistic articles. By the end of summer, a series of articles began rolling out—including in newspapers affiliated with the dueling gubernatorial candidates—featuring white supremacist groups and lynchings, as well as an alleged, likely fictional rash of sexual assaults of white women by African American men.

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