How Auburn Avenue in Atlanta became known as the richest Negro street in the world

Stephen Nartey January 31, 2023
The Butler Street YMCA (center) is one of the few iconic structures still standing in the Sweet Auburn business district. Photo courtesy NPS/Library of Congress

Until 1893, it was known as Wheat Street. Changes were made to the name following complaints from white settlers who argued that the enclave was more cosmopolitan in nature and needed a description that best fits it.

That was how the region became known as Auburn Avenue. It later turned out to be one of the safe havens for the Black community when Jim Crow laws were used to enforce racial segregation in Atlanta.

The African-American population occupied the city’s east side which is present-day Old Fourth Ward, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. It was during this era that Auburn Avenue gained attention as a commercial hub and burgeoning place for the elite Black community. It was where African Americans drew their spiritual inspiration, became aware of their cultural identity and pursued their entrepreneurial goals.

It was a pot that cooked Black businesses, entertainment spots as well as religious institutions. It later earned the moniker Sweet Auburn as a result of this. On Auburn Avenue, financial institutions consolidated the financial clout of black businesses, offering entrepreneurs soft loans to cushion their businesses.

The term Sweet Auburn was coined by civic activist and self-acclaimed mayor of Auburn Street John Wesley Dobbs. In 1956, the enclave was described by Fortune Magazine as “The richest Negro street in the World”.

A freedman, Alonzo Herndon, became the city’s first black millionaire. He started with his barbershop on Peachtree Street and later moved on to open the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. Six years later, another business owner, Heman Perry, opened a second black insurance company, Standard Life. Black entrepreneurs and homeowners were also able to access loans from Citizens Trust Bank, loans which ordinarily white-owned banks wouldn’t have provided.

Auburn Avenue also offered the Black community a place to worship. At the Ebenezer Baptist Church, three generations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lineage were preachers. The Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was also available.

Auburn Avenue was where the first Black daily newspaper, Atlanta Daily World, was birthed. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and the National Urban League all had a presence there. It was the heartbeat of African-American life whether for business or leisure.

Sweet Auburn began to fall when the frontiers of freedom were opened to Black business owners with the repeal of segregation laws. The business owners began moving their businesses to the west side of Atlanta and new development took over the abandoned shopping centers. With time, the once bustling and vibrant Sweet Auburn lost its magic and sank into the abyss of time.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 1, 2023


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