By Claire Haley
There is a saying that “There is nothing new under the Sun.” At Atlanta History Center, we believe that there are, indeed, singular and extraordinary historical moments—but we also know that there are countless events in the past that can teach and inspire us. We are excited to share with you some stories of Atlantans who have proven courageous, creative, and steadfast in the face of adversity. They share why they stayed the course, what they sacrificed, and why it was worth it. We hope you’ll be inspired as we are. As we all encounter difficult moments, these stories can remind us that, indeed, “This, too, shall pass,” and our perseverance will be rewarded.
On August 30, 1961, nine African American students made history by attending their first day at four different all-white Atlanta Public Schools. Atlanta Public Schools, faced with federal intervention if it did not comply with the 1954 US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, was officially integrated by the Atlanta Nine. Thomas Welch, Madelyn Nix, Willie Jean Black, Donita Gaines, Arthur Simmons, Lawrence Jefferson, Mary James McMullen, Martha Ann Holmes, and Rosalyn Walton were chosen from a pool of hundreds who applied to attend these local all-white public schools. They underwent rigorous testing and interviews as part of the selection criteria. These high schoolers were heralded as unlikely, youthful heroes for sacrificing student leadership positions, support of teachers, and social inclusion to help achieve equal education for all Atlanta students.
Rosalyn Walton was a high school junior at Howard High School in the heart of the historic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. She was chosen to attend Murphy High School in Decatur. One of five children raised by her mother after her father’s early death, Walton credits her eldest brother with inspiring her to complete her education. Though he did not have a high school education, he encouraged her while he helped provide for the family.
Walton says she chose to apply to integrate Atlanta Public Schools out of a sense of duty. Police officers escorted Walton and Mary Ann Holmes into Murphy High School fifteen minutes after the morning bell rang each morning to avoid protest. On the first day of school, September 8, 1961, Time Magazine reported:
Last week the moral siege of Atlanta (pop. 487,455) ended in spectacular fashion with the smoothest token school integration ever seen in the Deep South. Into four high schools marched nine Negro students without so much as a white catcall. Teachers were soon reporting “no hostility, no demonstrations, the most normal day we’ve ever had.” In the lunchrooms, white children began introducing themselves to Negro children. . .
Though the Time account praised Atlanta’s school integration, it did not account for the hostility and challenges Rosalyn Walton and her fellows faced. In an interview in 2013, Walton-Lees (née Walton) described the incredible amount of pressure put on her as a teenager to always remain poised, even in the face of harassment. During her time at Murphy High School, she missed out on experiences that other students took for granted, routinely eating alone, suffering the ridicule of her bus driver, even being ordered to skip the prom. After graduation, Walton attended Morris Brown College and later retired as a supervisor with the Internal Revenue Service.
When asked in an interview in 2013 what those two years taught her, Walton answered: “It made me a better person, knowing that I could do anything I set my mind to do. [. . .] If I started out, I was going to finish it, no matter what.”
Though Alonzo Herndon was the wealthiest black man in Atlanta at the time of his death in 1927, his story began much differently.
In 1858, Herndon was born on a farm in Social Circle, Georgia, the son of Sophenie, who was enslaved, and her white slaveholder—who continued to regard Alonzo and his mother as property rather than family. After the emancipation that came with the South’s loss in the Civil War in 1865, Alonzo worked as a sharecropper and peddler alongside his mother, grandparents, and siblings. He left Social Circle in 1878 for Senoia, Georgia in search of a better life. He made the 71-mile trek on foot with only $11 in his pocket.
Herndon got his start in Senoia barbering. This trade would become key to later success: he opened his first barbershop in Jonesboro and then went to Atlanta in 1883 to work in a downtown barbershop on Marietta Street. Herndon eventually opened several shops throughout the city and his employees developed a reputation throughout the region as the finest barbers in the South. The most famous of his barbershops was the Crystal Palace, located on Peachtree Street. Touted as the largest, finest barbershop in the world by newspapers at the time, the shop employed an all-black staff that, ironically, served an all-white clientele. The shop’s opulence attracted a wealthy clientele that allowed Herndon to operate in a bustling area of the city.
Though a successful businessman, Herndon’s access to public places, expression of full citizenship— including the ability to vote—and the places where he could buy property, live, and worship were all restricted by segregation laws. Nevertheless, Herndon and his wife, Atlanta University professor and famed dramaturg Adrienne Elizabeth McNeil Herndon, were incredibly successful people. As his fortune grew from barbering, he branched into insurance, purchasing a failing mutual aid association in 1905 for $140 and reshaping it into the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. By the time of his death in 1927, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company was one of the nation’s largest black businesses, holding $19 million of insurance in force with offices in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas. The company still exists today.
Despite the immense challenge of being born into slavery and never experiencing a world without the restrictions of racial segregation, Alonzo Herndon built hugely profitable businesses while uplifting and supporting others. His story shows prosperity in the face of massive structural inequities through dedication and perseverance.
John M. Slaton served as the Governor of Georgia from 1911–1912, then again from 1913–1915. Born in 1866, he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1886 and built a successful law practice before beginning a career in politics.
Slaton’s most notable act as Governor would turn out to be the one that ended his career. In 1913, an Atlanta jury convicted Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the National Pencil Factory, of the murder of 13-year old factory worker, Mary Phagan. Frank was sentenced to death for this crime despite significant evidence that his prosecution was based on anti-Semitism rather than actual guilt. In fact, during his volatile and nationally publicized trial, editorials and commentaries denouncing Jews as vicious, subhuman, and untrustworthy were published almost daily. Jurors were reminded that they had an “Anglo-Saxon duty” to convict Frank. When the decision was announced, crowds cheered in the streets.
Despite recognizing that any intervention would likely ruin his career, Slaton decided that his obligation to the law was more important. After reviewing thousands of pages of documents and visiting the scene of the crime, he determined that he could not allow Frank to be executed due to the circumstantial nature of the evidence, so he commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.
In his 1915 Clemency Decision, Slaton wrote: “I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation, but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as a Governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.”
As he predicted, his constituents were outraged. Mobs threatened violence against Slaton personally and the National Guard had to be summoned to protect his house. Despite Slaton’s order that Frank be transferred to a more remote prison in Milledgeville for his safety, in 1915, a mob kidnapped Frank from the State, transported him to Marietta, and lynched him.
Slaton and his wife fled Georgia for many years, and he never again held public office. Ever committed to the rule of law, Slaton led a successful career as a lawyer, eventually returning to Georgia. He served as the President of the Georgia Bar Association, among other positions of leadership in the legal profession. He died in 1955.
In 2015, the Georgia Historical Society, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, and Atlanta History Center honored Slaton with a historical marker on the Atlanta History Center’s property on Slaton Drive—formally honoring the Governor who had been snubbed for many years due to his stance to uphold the rule of law in the face of immense public pressure.
All these compelling Atlantans are featured in our Meet the Past museum theatre performances. Written by Atlanta History Center Director of Performance-Based Interpretation Addae Moon, our performances seek to amplify moments in time from different figures in history, allowing visitors to connect and interact with these stories. When our doors re-open, we invite you to meet these towering figures face-to-face.