By 1870, white Southern Democrats regained control of the Georgia legislature, effectively ending Reconstruction in the state

Over the next four decades, Black citizens were deprived of the right to vote beginning with the institution of the poll tax in 1877 by the Georgia Legislature. By 1900, only one out of 10 eligible Black persons remained on the voter rolls.

That same year, the state Democratic Party instituted the white primary barring Black voters from participation. In 1908, the state instituted literacy tests, property qualifications, and the grandfather clause, which exempted white people from two of those restrictions if they were descended from a veteran—essentially requiring a Confederate veteran.

During this period, white legislators at the state and local level passed laws that created an enduring system of racial segregation. Known broadly as Jim Crow laws, this system reinforced the second-class status of citizenship for the Black community. African Americans suffered continuous indignities by the way they were depicted in publications, popular songs, jokes, and cartoons.

Though Black Georgians experienced little political progress under Jim Crow, many did achieve a measure of economic success. While some Black farmers made the hurdle from tenant to landowner in rural Georgia, most Black economic development occurred in urban areas, where a small, but important, class of Black professionals emerged. 

Header Image: African American Photograph Collection, Kenan Research Center at Atlanta History Center
William Finch

In 1870, William Finch was elected to Atlanta City Council, representing the Fourth Ward, an area with a significant Black population on Atlanta’s east side. Finch and fellow Black Republican George Graham became the first two African Americans elected to city council.

voting ticket

Conservative Democrats in Atlanta instituted the local white primary beginning in 1872 to suppress the Black vote. The Republican Party—at that time, the party of lost viability after Reconstruction, it was discontinued. Despite this, Black voters in Atlanta remained active and were courted by local political factions in the cases of referendums and close elections. This activism finally prompted the city’s executive committee to reinstitute the white primary in 1892.

The park at the popular Ponce de Leon Springs (present-day Ponce City Market) featured a prominent sign clearly declaring that the site was racially segregated.

“We have no objection to your having a democratic primary, but when you have city elections where no politics are involved … we should be recognized. We are all equally interested in good government. In my little residence on Fort Street, I enjoy the fresh air just the same as the richest man on Peachtree Street. Therefore, I think we should be treated as if we were citizens and taxpayers of the great government, not as slaves.”

Jackson McHenry, Atlanta Journal, October 21, 1892

Convict Lease System 

In addition to political exclusion and Jim Crow segregation, the Black population in Atlanta and throughout the South were subject to a system of debt servitude in which laborers are bound in “slavery by another name” to work to pay off their debts.

Beginning in the 1870s in states across the South, a system of convict labor developed wherein corporations, justices of the peace, judges, and sheriffs imprisoned an unknown number of Black individuals for petty and often non-existent crimes and confined them in labor camps.

In the wake of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished enslavement, Southern lawmakers remade the legal code of their states to criminalize ordinary activities. For example, several Southern states made it illegal for a Black man to change employers without permission.

Often tried without due process, hundreds of thousands of men and women were pushed into forced labor. Taking advantage of the text of the 13th Amendment that specifically allowed involuntary servitude as a punishment for “duly convicted” criminals, Southern lawmakers created a system of industrial slavery that lasted until the 1940s. 

James W. English. A former Atlanta mayor and owner of Chattahoochee Brick Company

One of the most aggressive buyers of forced labor in Georgia was Captain James W. English. A former Atlanta mayor and owner of Chattahoochee Brick Company, English grew wealthy off the labor of Black prisoners at his businesses. By the turn of the century, English worked nearly half of Georgia’s 2,800 prison laborers.

Chattahoochee Brick Company catalog

Chattahoochee Brick Company produced hundreds of thousands of bricks every day that paved the streets and sidewalks of Atlanta and other cities throughout the South. The company used convict labor from its inception in 1878 and by the 1890s over 150 prisoners worked at the plant beyond the city’s western outskirts.

Reward notice

A Chattahoochee Brick Company notice offers cash reward for the return of escapees from the plant. Physical descriptions of the escapees reveal the results of the brutal existence they faced as forced laborers.

Black Professionals 

In spite of voter suppression and Jim Crow laws, Atlanta Black residents, many of whom had been born enslaved, made significant progress in promoting prosperity and economic development for the city’s Black community. African Americans established businesses, formed financial organizations, and made capital available for real estate investment and other endeavors.

The growing professional class also included small business operators, civil servants, ministers, and educators. These established the upper echelon in the African American community in the late 19th century.

Their economic success was based largely on a surging Black population in Atlanta that grew from approximately 9,000 in 1880 to 35,000 by 1900. The increasing Black population and the rise of the Black professional class in Atlanta created racial fear in the white population. Stoked by the use of such anxiety as a political issue and accompanying sensationalist newspaper coverage, those fears culminated in the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906. 

Alonzo Herndon

Alonzo Herndon, a formerly enslaved man, owned a chain of barbershops and founded Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. The company emerged as a vital element in the economic engine of Black Atlanta and throughout the nation.

Henry Allan Rucker

Henry Allan Rucker was born enslaved and became collector of internal revenue for Georgia from 1897 to 1911. Prior, he worked in several positions in the federal government that earned him a leadership position of the Georgia Real Estate Loan & Trust Company, one of the earliest Black-owned financial institutions in Atlanta.

Selena Sloan

Selena Sloan Butler was founder and president of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, the nation’s first Black parent-teacher association. In 1970 in Atlanta, the Black association merged with the white National Congress of Parents and Teachers. Today, Butler is recognized as one of the founders of the National Parent Teacher Association.

Atlanta Race Massacre 

White Atlanta’s impulse to suppress Black economic power and political participation—which had been ongoing for 40 years—hit a violent peak in the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906.

Throughout that year, former Atlanta Journal publisher and gubernatorial candidate Hoke Smith raised fears of Black political domination and openly called for lynching Black people. Such alarmism led to widespread violence as mobs of white men attacked and killed approximately 25 African Americans over three days. Black residents fought back, and community leaders emerged from the violence to spearhead the ongoing fight for justice. 

Walter White seated with people around him

Walter White (seated) was a direct witness to the 1906 violence as a young boy. He later co-founded the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and afterward became head of the national organization. He frequently stated that his desire to see justice was nurtured by the white riots.

John Wesley Dobbs

John Wesley Dobbs, also a direct witness to the Atlanta Race Massacre, guarded his home with a shotgun and spoke often of the violence of “the race riot of nineteen aught six.” Dobbs was Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons in Georgia and became a leader in the 1940s in the effort to register Black voters.