Exploring Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Historic District
Modern Cities takes a look at the rebirth of what was once called the richest African-American street in the world: Atlanta's Sweet Auburn Historic District
Once known as the “richest Negro street in the world”, Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue is a historic black commercial district and neighborhood in the midst of revival. Once recognized as one of America’s most endangered historic places, Auburn Avenue’s rebirth has been fueled by a mix of history, preservation, public infrastructure investment and the growth of Georgia State University. In addition, it’s home to a historic district development corporation tasked with improving the community without pricing out lower-income residents.
Concentrated along a short mile and a half of Auburn Avenue, the Sweet Auburn Historic District reflects the history, heritage and achievements of Atlanta’s African Americans. The name Sweet Auburn was coined by John Wesley Dobbs, referring to the “richest Negro street in the world.” Like other black communities throughout the country, Sweet Auburn’s success was intricately tied to the residential patterns forced on African Americans during the early 20th century–the result of restrictive laws in southern states which enforced segregation of the races, known as Jim Crow laws. It was here that many African Americans established businesses, congregations, and social organizations.
Several churches located along the avenue, such as Big Bethel AME and First Congregational, helped build and maintain the heritage of the street. The Royal Peacock Club provided an elegant setting where many African Americans could perform and bring the changing styles of black popular music to Atlanta. Originally called the Top Hat Club when it opened in 1938, the club hosted local talent and national acts such as B.B. King, the Four Tops, the Tams and Atlanta’s own Gladys Knight. One of the many significant commercial buildings within the district is the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. The second largest black insurance company in the United States, Atlanta Life Insurance was founded in 1905 by Alonzo Herndon, a former slave from Walton County, Georgia. The company steadily grew so that by 1910, there were more than 42 branch offices. The central building of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company complex is a Beaux Arts building facing Auburn Avenue. The district also includes the Rucker Building, Atlanta’s first black-owned office building, constructed in 1904 by businessman and politican Henry A. Rucker. The Atlanta Daily World, the first black-owned daily newspaper, was founded here in 1928.
Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. However, like so many other inner-city neighborhoods, Sweet Auburn fell victim to lack of investment, crime and abandonment, compounded by highway construction that split it in two. In 1992 the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized that it was one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) was formed to turn the trend around, starting with houses surrounding the birth home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and working outward. HDDC designed Sweet Auburn’s renewal to improve the community without pricing lower-income residents out of the neighborhood. Since 1994, HDDC has built and rehabilitated more than 110 single-family homes and more than 50 units of affordable rental housing. HDDC is are now focusing on the renewal of the district’s commercial area.
1. Established in 1918 as an open air market, the Municipal Market houses thirty local businesses and ten eateries a block south of Auburn Avenue at 209 Edgewood Avenue, SE.
2. Designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1976, the Sweet Auburn Historic District covers 19 acres of a historic black neighborhood just east of Downtown Atlanta.
3. Completed in December 2014, the Atlanta Streetcar connects the Sweet Auburn Historic District with Downtown Atlanta. The line’s tracks are installed in Auburn and Edgewood Avenues.
4. The Prince Hall Masonic Building houses the national headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
5. Rising in the background and blending old and new, 200 Edgewood is a mixed use infill development catering to Georgia State University students. Completed in July 2016, the 144-unit project consists of one 7-story building and two retrofitted historic buildings.
6. Patton Hall is a Georgia State University dormitory accommodating 325 residents at Edgewood Avenue and Piedmont Street.
7. The Sweet Auburn Historical Interpretive Program developed by Corporation for Olympic Development in ATLANTA, Digging It Up, African American Research and Consulting Firm, Inc., and Jones Whirly Design, Inc. Graphic Designer is an affordable method to raising awareness to the neighborhood’s storied history.
8. The Sweet Auburn Historical Interpretive Program developed by Corporation for Olympic Development in ATLANTA, Digging It Up, African American Research and Consulting Firm, Inc., and Jones Whirly Design, Inc. Graphic Designer is an affordable method to raising awareness to the neighborhood’s storied history.
9. *The Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History is operated by the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System. *
10. The APEX (African-American Panoramic Experience) Museum features exhibits on the history of Sweet Auburn and the African-American experience.
11. Dwell ATL is a luxury student apartment community on Auburn Avenue.
12. This building was completed in 1920 to serve as the headquarters for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. The company was founded in 1905 by a former enslaved person, Alonzo Herndon, who went on to become one of the first African-American millionaires in the country.