Photo: Stan Kaady
Auburn Avenue in Atlanta was once known as “the richest Negro street in the world.” The phrase was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, a civic and political leader known as the unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue. Dobbs once said, “Get the vote and the dollar and you’ll walk in Jerusalem just like John.” The dollar was definitely being gotten in the Auburn Avenue corridor, where several banks were founded, including Citizens Trust Bank. Auburn Avenue was also home to several insurance companies or societies, including Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Restaurants, theater and vibrant civic institutions thrived on Auburn Avenue, where the King family home is located. It thrived until the government drove through its destruction — literally.
In the early 1950s the city of Atlanta began construction on a system of expressways. That effort was put on steroids by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The legislation was championed by Dwight Eisenhower and authorized the construction of the interstates. The Federal government paid 90 percent of the costs, the states 10. One couldn’t imagine putting an interstate through the middle of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Auburn Avenue, however, was a very Black neighborhood and thus a different matter, altogether. When planners needed to choose a route for Interstates 75 and 85 to travel, naturally they opted to bulldoze Auburn Avenue. Today the I-75/85 Downtown Connector literally bisects Auburn Avenue.
Auburn Avenue, however, is not unique. Black communities were decimated in Montgomery and Detroit. In Miami construction of I-95 wiped out 10,000 homes and a Black business district. Interstate 40 in Nashville destroyed 80 percent of the city’s Black businesses and 650 homes. The story of razing and disrupting Black communities with interstates was not the exception but in fact the rule, all over the country. The history books often say that Auburn Avenue declined because of integration. We are often told that Blacks with means simply opted to leave for the greener pastures of white neighborhoods, when the opportunity presented itself. Certainly there is some truth to that but it ignores the reality of how a major interstate displaced businesses while mitigating the neighborhood’s quality of life and desirability. The choice, for many who left, was made for them.
Little can be done about the businesses, homes and communal institutions that were lost to make way for the interstates. What can be done, however, is to allow those memories to fuel us today. We can be fueled to fight for the businesses we have. We can be fueled to strengthen the banks we still have. We can be fueled to fight for the communities we still have and make sure they are never destroyed again.