As Atlanta seeks rebirth, city must overcome segregationist past cited in new book

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s history of government-sanctioned segregated neighborhoods dates to 1922, when the city adopted a zoning law that created separate residential districts for black and white folks, according to a new book by noted researcher Richard Rothstein. The old Techwood Homes and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. also have segregationist roots, according to Rothstein.

bellwood quarry

As Atlanta’s civic leaders plan for the city’s rebirth, they will have to overcome some residue of the past. The park to be built at the site of the old Bellwood Quarry could become a bridge between the mostly black neighborhoods to the south and mostly white neighborhoods to the north. Credit: 4replicawatch.net

Rothstein’s work arrives at a timely moment. Atlanta is nearing a turning point in its ongoing effort to retool policies that have resulted in woes such as traffic congestion, food deserts, struggling schools, and a shortage of greenspace.

The City Design Project is nearing the point where specific plans are to emerge. The goal is to shape Atlanta into a place Mayor Kasim Reed has said will be, “the best place to work, live and realize your dreams.”

Reed’s is a lofty thought, right up there with Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of the “beloved community.” It also is a complete turnabout from the city’s 1922 zoning law.

Rothstein addresses Atlanta several times, and Savannah once, in a book released this month: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright Publishing Corp., a division of W.W. Norton & Co., released the book.

Rothstein is familiar with Atlanta. He’s written on Atlanta’s recent school cheating scandal and has placed it in the context of the much-criticized federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. According to Rothstein’s bio, he serves as a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, and as a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley).

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein

Rothstein said in an email exchange that he expects to visit Atlanta within a year and deliver lectures on the themes of the book. Reached for comment on May 11, Rothstein said time constraints prevented him from providing thoughtful comment for this report.

The book certainly speaks for itself. It also shows that Atlanta’s propensity for hiring experts from the North to help plan the city go back to the turn of the previous century.

In the case of the segregationist zoning law, Atlanta hired Robert Whitten, of Cleveland, Ohio to write the code. Whitten served as president of American City Planning Institute and his work was published by Harvard University Press. The planning institute merged over time with other groups and now is part of the American Planning Association.

According to Rothstein, Whitten wrote in a 1922 professional journal that, not withstanding a Supreme Court decision to the contrary, “[e]stablishing colored residence districts has removed one of the most potent causes of race conflict.”

Whitten advised Atlanta planning officials that, “home neighborhoods had to be protected from any further damage to values resulting from inappropriate uses, including the encroachment of the colored race.”

Atlanta zoning map, 1922

This “Tentative Zone Plan” from 1922 shows “Race Districts” include one marked as “Colored Dist.” Credit: kronbergwall.com

A copy of the tentative 1922 map was located by Kyle Kessler, of the Center for Civic Innovation. The map is posted on the website of Kronberg Wall, an architecture, design and development firm with an office in Atlanta. The legend on the map’s left side shows that the “Race Districts” include the “R-2” “Colored Dist.”

The Atlanta City Planning Commission wrote in 1922 that, “race zoning is essential in the interest of the public peace, order and security and will promote the welfare and prosperity of both the white and colored race.”

The Georgia Supreme Court disagreed. In 1924, the court ruled Whitten’s plan unconstitutional. Nonetheless, according to Rothstein, “Atlanta officials continued to use the racial zoning map to guide its planning for decades to come.”

Techwood Homes has a past that Rothstein notes has a segregationist overtone. This history is covered in report on georgiaencyclopedia.org. Rothstein’s portrayal is less varnished:

  • “It was built on land cleared by demolishing the Flats, a low-income integrated neighborhood adjacent to downtown that had included nearly 1,600 families, nearly one-third of whom were African American. The PWA [Public Works Administration] remade the neighborhood with 604 units for white families only. The Techwood project not only created a segregated white community, it also intensified the segregation of African American families who, evicted from their homes, could find new housing only by crowding into other neighborhoods where African Americans were already living. … A result of the government program, therefore, was the increased population density that turned the African American neighborhoods into slums.”
Techwood Homes

When Techwood Homes opened, only white families were allowed to reside there. Black residents of the shantytown it replaced crowded into black neighborhoods, exasperating blight in those neighborhood, according to Richard Rothstein’s book. Credit: Library of Congress via en.wikipedia.org

Techwood Homes eventually turned into a housing project where most tenants were black, and where police could not control the flow of illegal drugs and gang violence. The place was demolished and replaced with the mixed-income Centennial Place, according to georgiaencyclopedia.org.

Finally, Rothstein cites the segregationist leanings of Olmsted, based in Brookline, Ma. His father, Frederick Law Olmsted, is considered the father of landscape designers and the father’s projects include Central Park, in Manhattan, and Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood.

After the father retired from the landscape design firm, Olmsted Jr. continued to consult on Druid Hills, Piedmont Park, and Grant Park, according to a report on georgiaencyclopedia.org.

Rothstein notes that Olmsted Jr. served on President Harding’s Advisory Committee on Zoning. Formed in 1921, its task was to create a manual that cities could use to develop a zoning ordinance. Rothstein portrays Olmsted Jr. as an “influential” member who, during World War I, had directed a federal division that managed or built more than 100,000 units of segregated housing.

In 1918 Olmsted Jr. told the National Conference on City Planning that: “’[I]n any housing developments which are to succeed, … racial divisions … have to be taken into account. … [I]f you try to force the mingling of people who are not yet ready to mingle, and don’t want to mingle,’ a development cannot succeed economically.”

 

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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