The avenue once dubbed “the richest Negro street in the world” now measures its wealth in history and heritage.
Walking is an experience in Atlanta. An eye-opening experience for first-time visitors who know Atlanta only for its sports teams. A near-death experience for those not in shape to deal with its combinations of heat, humidity and hills.
Two miles feel like 20, and you leave a trail of sweat for every inch.
My walk took me from my downtown hotel on Peachtree Street to Auburn Avenue, the main thoroughfare for the Sweet Auburn Historic District. Back in the early to mid-20th century, it was the hub of black commerce and culture in Atlanta.
At one point, it was dubbed “the richest Negro street in the world.”
Only after I’d done my little walk did I realize how tightly my path was following the history of Atlanta. Sweet Auburn owes its existence to a bitter past.
In the years after the Civil War, newly freed blacks had their businesses downtown alongside whites, the same downtown where the Peachtree Center and its gleaming cluster of high-rise hotels stand now.
But competition between blacks and whites for jobs and housing led to problems and ultimately to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. Blacks fled the downtown and set up shop on Auburn Avenue.
Sweet Auburn became a vibrant corridor of black-owned restaurants and shops. Night clubs there featured some of the greatest black talents in America at the start of their careers. There were towering places of worship like the Big Bethel A.M.E Church.
Big Bethel is still there, but a lot of the old establishments are gone, and like similar districts in Kansas City, New Orleans and elsewhere, the neighborhood slid into decline.
The construction of the massive Interstate 75 freeway corridor helped cut off Sweet Auburn from the rest of the city. It became one of those neighborhoods that you avoided if you could and endured if you couldnt.
Once you learn that history, the things you see along your walk from Peachtree Street down Auburn Avenue tell you a lot. In a very few blocks, a fresh, modern, bustling downtown gives way to familiar signs of decay and desertion. The brick buildings where businesses used to be; the vacant lots on the side streets.
The 21st century sign that your neighborhood has fallen out of relevance is when Google Maps doesn’t even bother posting Street View images of it.
But Sweet Auburn couldn’t quite die, and you don’t need to look hard for the reason.
It starts on the 400-block of Auburn Ave. NE, where you find Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. co-pastored with his father. It continues on to the 500-block, where you find his childhood home.
Both are now part of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service.
There’s a massive new Ebenezer Baptist Church just across the street, a beautiful new structure of fresh red brick. But it’s the original that draws the tourists of all ages and all races. Whites of a certain age. Whole black families. Everyone in between.
Inside, park rangers explain historic details between recordings of MLK’s sermons.
The church clock is frozen at 10:30, the hour of Dr. King’s funeral following his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
There’s a lot here, including Dr. King’s tomb. Too much to see and absorb in an hour or two. But even if you’re here only long enough to step inside the old Ebenezer and hear Dr. King’s recorded voice ringing through the old sanctuary, it’s more than enough to tell you that you are on sacred ground.
The formerly richest Negro street in the world is now part of a district formally recognized by the federal government. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been designated a National Landmark Historic District.
But Sweet Auburn is not just about the past.
There are still businesses staying the course here. Styles of the Nile barbershop. Supreme Fish Delight. Haugabrooks Funeral Home. There’s also a library dedicated to African-American history and research.
Then there’s the Chinese fast-food corner shop where Antron works as a cashier and dreams of making a living as a poet and an artist.
He keeps his dream behind the counter, his own book of poems, with a cover based on one of his own paintings. The cover is torn and fading, but what matters most to Antron is that it’s published…and it’s his.
“I want to get out and see things, before I get tied down in one place,” he tells me. “I need to see the world.”
Antron’s book of poetry reminds me of this neighborhood, fraying and faded with time, but still carrying the seeds of hope for better days.
There’s talk of installing a streetcar line to reconnect this neighborhood with the downtown — and by extension, the rest of Atlanta.
You get the feeling that, with a little tender loving care, Sweet Auburn may yet be sweet again one day.
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