A City Enslaved
On the eve of the Civil War, Atlanta’s Black population was less than 2,000—which was still 20% of the total inhabitants. The overwhelming majority were enslaved. Scattered throughout the city, their movement and activities were tightly controlled.
A decade earlier in the summer of 1851, at least seven enslaved men were arrested for an attempted insurrection within the city. As a result, Atlanta City Council passed a wave of laws and restrictions on all Blacks in the city. The legal status of free Black persons—numbering perhaps 25 individuals—was only marginally above their enslaved brethren.
Heavily regulated, most Black individuals in Atlanta endured lifelong bondage, oppressive legal codes, and harsh racism. Despite the oppression of slavery, some Black residents conducted business, owned property, and founded churches.
Atlanta faced a monumental undertaking to rebuild after the destruction of war. It became essential to establish a social, political, and economic system without the institution of slavery.
When freedom came at war’s end, Black residents in Atlanta established a community of their own institutions while fighting for personal independence and civil rights within those new systems.
Header Image: Escaped enslaved persons in Virginia, 1862. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Building a Black Community
With freedom, the formerly enslaved population created economic opportunity, establishing businesses as grocers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. Such entrepreneurship helped build Black communities. Other newly freed Black residents gained employment as cooks, waiters, and personal servants.
The Black community had a long history of educating themselves and their children during enslavement. Free Black residents in Savannah and Augusta had founded private academies in 1829. In Atlanta, two former slaves, James Tate and Granithen Daniels had already opened a school for the Black community when the American Missionary Society opened Storrs School in 1865 and Atlanta University in 1867.
Atlanta’s Black residents organized politically both at the city and state level. The city’s 1868 charter allowed African Americans the right to vote, and two Black Republicans, William Finch and George Graham were elected to Atlanta City Council. Statewide, 33 Black men were elected to the state’s General Assembly the same year.
Outraged by Black electoral success, white state legislators voted to expel the newly elected lawmakers from state government. In Atlanta, city council negated the political power of Black voters by establishing city-wide elections in 1871, thus reducing the impact of that Black votes had within separate wards.
These efforts were just the beginning of the work of white supremacists to implement a system of laws to exclude the Black public from the voting booth and the halls of government.