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All but forgotten

Can Georgia State save Sweet Auburn?

News Editor

Published: Monday, September 10, 2012

Updated: Monday, September 10, 2012 10:09

Atlanta Life Building

Patrick Duffy | The Signal

The Atlanta Life Building is surrounded by Sweet Auburn history.


Before the rising sun clears the buildings to heat up Atlanta, Auburn Avenue is silent, but awake. Past Piedmont, where weary students head to class, a ghost town sits. A dusty man sits on a bench in John Calhoun Park, wearing a coat, hat and threadbare jeans in the humidity. Further east a couple of aged women sit on the steps of the Big Bethel AME Church. One, in a thin dress with the straps hanging off her shoulders, stares at her hands. The other, with a leathery, dark- skinned face wears dingy socks in place of shoes. Her milky eyes watch thrashers make a nest in the “A” of the blue “JESUS SAVES” sign mounted on the steeple.  

This is John Wesley Dobb’s Sweet Auburn: “the richest Negro street in the world.” 

Georgia State’s “opportunity”

“More recently, over the summer, the National Trust came out with a new list of endangered places and the Sweet Auburn District was one of those places listed, ” said Richard Laub, director of the Heritage Preservation Program at Georgia State. 

The National Trust came to Auburn Avenue to personally relay the alarming news.

After the news, the Sweet Auburn Stakeholders, including Laub, was formed. Created by the National Trust and the Historic District Development Cooperation (HDDC), the Sweet Auburn Stakeholders include Councilman Kwanza Hall, Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Preservation Center, Fulton County Commission and the Atlanta History Center. 

Laub was the only person from Georgia State that was a member.

“I’m not representing the university so much as representing that place,” Laub said. “I’m not privy to the university’s design decisions or what they’re going to be doing.”

The situation intensified when news of Georgia State’s purchase of the Atlanta Life building reached the stakeholders. 

After the meeting, Laub reached out to Georgia State administrators.  Laub and Mtamanika Youngblood, former president of the HDDC and the chairman of its board, met with Jerry Radcliff, the vice president of finance for Georgia State. 

“Jerry was very reassuring in terms of what the intentions were in regards to Georgia State,” Laub said. “He said if Georgia State goes into the Sweet Auburn historic district they are looking to rehabilitate buildings or to build buildings on empty sites that would be compatible with architecture of the area. Just saying that was a big relief for a lot of people in the stakeholder’s meeting.”

Georgia State’s move into Sweet Auburn includes 100 Auburn Avenue and the building at 60 Piedmont.

Between the two Georgia State buildings sits the historic Atlanta Life structure. The HDDC is currently protecting the properties, hoping they can be purchased by an organization with the power to revive it.

“Georgia State University has a great opportunity here,” Youngblood said. “Those two buildings are in a dangerous place.”

Golden days

The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 caused black business owners to migrate to the area surrounding Wheat Street. Wheat Street soon became Auburn Avenue—the Mecca for African- American prosperity. Home to the black elite, Atlanta’s African-American middle and upper class thrived on Auburn Avenue. The Atlanta Daily World, founded in 1928 by Morehouse graduate William Alexander Scott II, was the first black daily in the US. Nightclubs, a hotel, grocery stores and churches lined the street. Atlanta blacks did not need to leave the corridor of cosmopolitan Auburn Avenue to find all the comforts of big city life.

Sweet Auburn’s most powerful success story may belong to Alonzo Herndon. Herndon was born in 1858 as a slave in Walton County. Emancipated at age seven, Herndon became a sharecropper in Social Circle.

With $11 in his pocket, Herndon opened a successful barbershop in Clayton County. His business savvy led him to Sweet Auburn, where he started Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Catering to the black community of Atlanta, Herndon’s multi-million-dollar company made him Atlanta’s first black millionaire. 

His success can still be seen on the corner of Courtland Street and Auburn Avenue. The impressive Atlanta Life building, with its unique stone façade and striking glass walls, was just purchased by Georgia State this summer.

The original Atlanta Life Insurance buildings, only footsteps away from Georgia State’s latest acquisition, are all but forgotten. Slats of particleboard keep the sun out of places where windows and doors used to be. Vines and weeds grow over cracked plaster on the walls. A dirty rain-soaked blanket, alongside empty vodka bottles, rests in one of the original entry ways. A makeshift bed for one of the city’s homeless is all the building is used for now.

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