By Gino Nuzzolillo, ’20

The entrance to the Atlanta History Center.

I spent the week before Memorial Day digging into the archives at the Auburn Avenue Research Library and the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, Ga. I found relief from the sticky Georgia heat in the cool stacks of these libraries, overwhelmed by the number of documents I wanted to read for my research topic—Atlanta’s urban history from the Civil War to the Great Depression. I read hundreds of documents, including oral histories, city council minutes, even Atlanta’s first official comprehensive zoning and development plan from 1922. One document in particular, however, caught my attention, and provided me brief yet powerful evidence of Atlanta’s racial politics in the first decade of the 20thcentury.

The letter was sent from Charles Wickersham, a chairman of the board overseeing Atlanta’s Terminal Station, to Booker T. Washington on August 3rd, 1906—just six weeks before a riot in downtown Atlanta which left over twenty-five African Americans dead. Washington was no stranger to Atlanta politics, having given a speech there in 1895, now known as the “Atlanta compromise” address, arguing that African Americans should not seek to challenge Jim Crow segregation. In this case, it appears that Washington had concerns about accommodations for Black passengers at the station, concerns Wickersham attempted to mitigate.

Wickersham’s condescending tone pervades the letter: “Yourself [Washington] and other thoughtful and conservative leaders of your race have always preached, as I understand it, that you do not desire the sameaccommodations as the Whites, but you did desire equalaccommodations.” He then details the construction of separate facilities for African Americans, assuring Washington that they were just as “luxurious” as the waiting rooms and toilers provided for white passengers. Wickersham pivots to describe a recent episode of a Black woman who refused to leave the white waiting room area at the station. He writes,

The heading of Charles Wickersham’s letter to Professor Booker T. Washington

We had one unfortunate case of a woman who did this [sat defiantly in the white waiting room]…she did not evince a disposition to proceed to the Negro apartments, and one of the Station officials spoke to her. She went out then, but when this official went away she came back, and the next time she was asked to leave she became abusive and…profane, creating so much disorder that it was finally necessary to have the police take charge of her.

Although Wickersham clearly did not condone this woman’s behavior, he inadvertently provided us a portrait of a courageous individual willing to transgress segregated facilities despite potential police or mob violence, in a Georgia committed to disenfranchising Black voters and erecting monuments to the so-called “Lost Cause.” In September of 1906, dozens of Atlanta’s Black citizens would be murdered for supposedly acting as “disorderly” and “criminal” as this woman at Atlanta’s Terminal Station. In the early 20thcentury, Black Atlantans daily encountered violence, discrimination, and inadequate municipal services in their daily navigations of urban spaces. Nonetheless, small and large acts of resistance, like the one that took place at the station, portrays a community that was anything but passive in the face of white supremacy.

I could not find any record of Washington’s response. As for Wickersham? He’d later become part of the first Atlanta City Planning Commission, formed in part to stem the “encroachment of the races” in the “best interest” of the city. Segregation, if anything, became more violently entrenched.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the historical documents from this time period represents the perspectives of elite men like Wickersham, men clearly dedicated to maintaining racial and economic inequality in early 20thcentury Atlanta. Even within their records, though, we can find clues pointing a more “bottom-up” understanding of American history, stories of poor and working-class people acting from the belief that they had equal stake in American opportunity and citizenship.

Documents discussed here were found courtesy of the Atlanta History Center’s “City of Atlanta Recordsand “Long, Rucker, and Aiken Family Papers.”