By Gino Nuzzolillo

On May 21st, 1917, residential segregation, substandard housing, and inadequate municipal infrastructure underpinned the worst disaster in Atlanta since the city’s destruction by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864. The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, as it would come to be known, decimated much of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward and upended the lives of its primarily Black inhabitants. The fire dealt close to $100 million in damages (in 2019 dollars) and displaced over 10,000 people in consuming hundreds of wooden shanties and lean-tos, often the only housing option available to working-class Black Atlantans. Residents scrambled to save their families and belongings; vital community institutions like the old Wheat Street Baptist Church succumbed quickly to the flames. The neighborhood home to Atlanta’s first Black elected official — city councilman William Finch — and the famous “Sweet” Auburn Avenue remained forever scarred by the fire.

Headline in the Atlanta Constitution on May 28th, 1917

Capturing the human toll of such a disaster is near impossible, especially when contemporary media insisted on demeaning and racist coverage of Black Atlantans’ reactions to the fire. The Atlanta Constitution described Black women observing the fire as “mammies” and rendered the neighborhood’s intense grief as “unintelligible gibberish.” Another article mentioned Charlie Marchman, a laundryman at the local Grady hospital, who rushed back to his house on Hilliard Street where he had stored his life savings of $600 — over $13,000 today — only to find that the fire had destroyed everything. The article’s depiction of Charlie’s actions are flippant, derisively casting them as frivolous: “The flames were as hot as Sherman’s definition of war, but Charlie figured that the loss of $600 might be worse…he rushed the flames with all the fury of a British charge.” The media’s coverage of the fire reflected the city’s lack of concern for the plight of its displaced Black residents. A week after the fire, a headline in the Constitution trumpeted that the disaster “May Be Turned Into Benefit, City Planning Experts Say.” Rather than ensure the reconstruction of decent housing or the provision of adequate fire protection, city planners were overjoyed by the opportunity to build “wide streets” and “spacious parks.” Though offered rhetorical support by Mayor Asa Candler and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, material relief for African Americans in Atlanta largely came through mutual aid organized by other Black residents.

Residential segregation locked African Americans into the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood and discriminatory policymaking ensured widespread poverty and the scarcity of municipal services like fire protection or water lines. The city’s antipathy for its Black residents meant that community recovery would not prioritize the residents directly impacted by the fire, but rather benefit developers and planners who could leverage the destruction for their own vision of Atlanta’s future. Residents of the Old Fourth Ward lost their homes, wealth, and community, left to fend for themselves.

The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 was only one of the many stories from Atlanta’s past that caught my attention this summer as the connections between geography, the built environment, community building, politics, and white supremacy became even clearer. The fire’s devastation was so acute because of past political decisions which allocated resources unjustly and made the Old Fourth Ward into tinder ripe for even the smallest flame. I realized this history isn’t so distant, and that the fire was not the last example of urban planning entangled with white supremacy in Atlanta — historian Kevin Kruse’s recent piece for The New York Times outlines the role Interstate 20 played in displacing poor Black neighborhoods and entrenching residential segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. However, I’m reminded of small reasons for hope. The Constitution briefly mentioned Black organizing to provide fire relief aid, which undoubtedly drew from the decades-old networks of mutual aid and solidarity established by Black neighborhoods, social clubs, churches, and schools. Indeed, in spite of the city’s disregard for their lives, Black residents didn’t respond passively to events like the Great Fire, but rather took steps to ensure their community’s survival.

Information for this post comes from news articles in the Atlanta Constitution, from May 22nd– May 28th1917.