On the afternoon of September 22, 1906, Atlanta papers report four separate assaults on white women by Black men, none of which are ever substantiated by hard evidence. Inflamed by these fabrications, and resentful of the city’s growing African American population, white Atlantans riot. Over the next few days, the race riot will claim the lives of at least 12 Black Atlantans—the total may be more than twice as high—and devastate the city’s Black community.
The race riot took place against the backdrop of a heated gubernatorial primary. Atlanta’s population had nearly doubled over the last three decades, and its Black population had risen from 9,000 in 1880 to 35,000 by 1900. During Reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws became ubiquitous, African Americans competed with whites for jobs, held political office and established a thriving salon society. In fact, it was progress like this that led many whites to embrace Jim Crow, and the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was a direct result of this phenomenon. In the 1906 Democratic gubernatorial primary, one candidate, Hoke Smith, ran on a platform of explicitly disenfranchising the city’s African American population, arguing that giving them the right to vote had led them to pursue social and economic opportunities that should only be available to whites. His opponent, Clark Howell, was not anti-segregation or pro-civil rights—he simply maintained that the poll tax was already doing enough to prevent Black participation in government. Smith was the former publisher of the Atlanta Journal while Howell was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and it was no coincidence that city’s papers ran a slew of inflammatory articles about African American men committing crimes as the primary election neared.
The tension boiled over on September 22, after local papers ran with a story about a Black man assaulting a white woman. A white mob formed downtown and headed for Decatur Street and the surrounding district of Black businesses and salons. There, they looted Black-owned businesses, swarmed streetcars and attacked passengers, and assaulted hundreds, killing at least a dozen African Americans. The militia arrived around midnight, but it was only when heavy rain started a few hours later that the mob finally dispersed. Over the next few days, Black and white vigilante groups roamed the area. While law enforcement stood by and watched—and by some accounts, helped—as armed white men moved into Black neighborhoods, they cracked down on a group of Black men who had stockpiled weapons in Brownsville on September 24, arresting 250 men and confiscating the guns.
Although leaders of both races made attempts at reconciliation in the wake of the riot, many viewed it as proof that white Americans would sooner revoke their Black neighbors’ right to vote, destroy their economic and social institutions and murder them in the streets than allow them an equal place in society. The grief, exhaustion and rage felt by the Black community in the wake of the massacre was captured by W.E.B. Du Bois in his poem “A Litany of Atlanta,” published later that year.