American Journey 1952, Part Four – Atlanta


Jerry F, Going Postal
Peach Tree Street, Atlanta.
Peach Tree-street, Atlanta, decked out for a public holiday,
Unknown photographer –
©, reproduced with permission

On a chill November night in 1864 a small boy lay trembling behind a rock — not a hundred yards from where I am writing this — and watched a city burn. It was the city where he was born; the proud city of Atlanta, only 30 years old then, but with a population already more than 30,000 strong.

A railroad city planned by a railroad man. But a city now burning like a torch, empty, evacuated, while Sherman’s engineers, braving the heat, went through the machine shops methodically with hammers.

That little boy is a very old man now. But he has a memory that is keen and sharp, with a biting edge to it. Time has healed many things for him, but he remembers Sherman’s Yankees as Coventry folk will probably always think of Germans.

He sits in his rocking chair on the front porch of his neat little frame house and looks with eyes remarkably bright for their age down the fabulous length of Peachtree Street. There are no peach trees now.

The street starts off with a brave show of fine municipal buildings, hotels, and department stores, and somewhere round the middle deteriorates into a huddle of neon-and-stucco structures proclaiming El Rancho’s Snack Bar, Brown’s Buffet, George’s Sizzling Steaks.

He sees it still as Margaret Mitchell imagined it in “Gone With the Wind” — an elegant thoroughfare (despite its unpaved sidewalks of red Georgia clay) of white colonial fronts dripping with magnolia and dogwood bloom.

In those days life was leisurely. A gentleman had time to tip his hat and gossip with a lady on her way to town while George, the darkie coachman, held his horse.

Perhaps Peachtree Street was never quite like that. Perhaps, too, the legends of the humbling and humiliating of a proud people have been exaggerated. And yet, if you read the history of those days you become aware of striking modern parallels.

Atlanta in the 1870’s must have startlingly resembled Prague or Warsaw under the Nazis in the 1940’s. The chopping up of the South, followed by the rule of absolute military dictatorship, is so strikingly like the sequence of events in Germany that the imagination staggers.

The wounds have healed, but a sudden change of temperature is apt to start them tingling even now. The Georgians are a proud people still. On the corner of Whitehall Street and Alabama Street stands an old-fashioned lamp-post with gaping holes torn out of its base by shell splinters from Sherman’s guns. Night and day there flickers the eternal flame of the Confederacy, first lighted on December 14, 1939, by the Old Guard Battalion of the Gate City Guard.

I spent a whole day touring the battlefields of Atlanta. You will find them all in the city’s street plan. Ezra Church and Peachtree Creek and, a few miles away, Kennesaw Mountain.

It was at Kennesaw in June and July of 1864 that Sherman began his great flanking movement that eventually split in two the heart of the Confederacy. You can stand on Cheatham’s Hill behind a battery of Southern guns and see the Confederate line of earthworks and chevaux-de-frise where a handful of veterans, ploughboys from Georgia for the most part, held off a Northern frontal attack for four bloody days.

Two thousand five hundred men were killed or wounded in that battle.

Yes, the memory of war dies hard here in Atlanta. There are still plenty of Southerners who like to argue that it was the North that seceded, not the South. That is why they hate, even in fun, to be called “rebels” and refer to it as the “War between the States,” although the official name for it is the “War of the Rebellion.”

Yet in the 80 years that have passed — 80 years that have seen Atlanta grow again into a city with a population of 666,000, as big as Manchester — a strange thing has happened. The South, which lost the war, is winning a long-delayed peace.

The Old South, the land of cotton, share-cropping, and the “Tobacco Road,” is changing. And it is changing faster than any other part of the United States. From the southern Atlantic seaboard, west to Arkansas and Louisiana, trim modern factories have sprung up in the cities, in the small towns, and in the open fields. Since the beginning of the Second World War (how often you hear that word “war” here in the South!) industry has invested billions in new Southern plants, put 2,000,000 Southerners on new, steady payrolls and started the dynamics of history’s first enlightened industrial revolutions.

The South’s industrial revolution began in the early 1920’s in the ugly classical pattern that was set a century before in the textile mills of Lancashire. Cotton mills moved south to take advantage of cheap labour. In New England industrialists still talk bitterly of this move south and of the tragedy of local unemployment it left behind. By a strange irony it brought about the collapse of the largest textile mill in the world, Amoskeag, in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Christmas Eve, 1935, and the state has not yet fully recovered from the disaster.

The “lintheads,” as cotton mill workers were called, huddled together in drab mill villages, chronically in debt to the company store. They worked a 55 or 60-hour week for around 15 dollars, as compared with a 48 to 54- hour week in New England for about 19 dollars.

In the ’30’s all this came to an end. The New Deal put a floor under wages, a ceiling on hours, and gave organised labour enough encouragement to worry Southern mill-owners. More and more new industries, moving south, found that well-paid employees not only worked better but spent their money freely buying home-made products.

A typical example of what happened in this second and enlightened phase of the South’s industrial revolution is to be seen at Camden, South Carolina, where in 1950 a fine, air-conditioned plant opened for the manufacture of Orlon, a new synthetic fibre which soon, so they say around here, will oust nylon from the world markets.

The new plant took on nearly a thousand semi-skilled workers, about half of whom came from the town and the remainder from the cotton country. Many of these new industrial workers were small “share-croppers,” farmers whose hopes for the future were bogged down by mortgages they could never hope to repay. I talked to one of these — a farmer who is now earning more in a week than he made in a month on his farm.

The plant gave him two months’ training, then put him to work testing batches of raw material in the laboratory. In 18 months he has missed only 12 hours’ work. With a secure future in sight at last, he kept on his farm, enlarged it, built a new seven-roomed house, and still had enough money left over to buy fertiliser and plan for a record crop of cotton and tobacco.

Now Camden, not so long ago a typical small Southern town existing in the best (or worst) traditions of William Faulkner, is “going places,” as they say over here. It has built a new high school, two new drive-in cinemas, a radio station, and a supermarket.

Last Sunday I visited the garrison chapel of Fort MacPherson here in Atlanta, an Army post first established by a Federal Quartermaster-General in 1865, but now better known as the one-time headquarters of General George Patton, Junior. I listened to an Army chaplain, a captain who wore the blue-and-white Korea medal on his surplice, preach a vigorous sermon on prejudice. He was addressing a mixed congregation of Northerners and Southerners, and he spoke his mind forcibly.

Never once did he use the word “negro.” But the implication was there. And we were made uncomfortably aware of it. I remembered something I had seen a few hours earlier. A notice in an Atlanta bus: “White passengers sit from the front, coloured from the rear.”

It had taken a little time for the significance of those words to sink in. Only when I noticed an elderly coloured woman standing up, though there was plenty of vacant seats in the “white” portion of the car, did I realise just what it meant.

Because this negro problem is so delicate, and as a curious stranger I may jump to first conclusions, which are usually wrong, I prefer to take no part in it. But it is the most fearful problem I have yet encountered in America. The sight of a coloured dining car attendant in a Southern train holding back a soldier of his own colour until he could find a seat for him at a table where no white man sat is something infinitely disturbing.

“This is our problem. We have to live with it — let us solve it our way,” says the South. All right. But let us, for heaven’s sake, face the facts — the fact, for instance, that in the United States roughly every tenth American man, woman, and child is a Negro. Let us face the fact, too, that here in Atlanta there are 100,000 negroes — and not a single negro policeman.

But I cannot shirk the issue as easily as this. Let me refer you to John Gunther, who speaks, angrily, for the North (and, to be fair, I heard his sentiments bitterly contested here in Atlanta, although they were written five years ago). He is referring to a professor of some eminence living in Atlanta.

“He works in close conjunction with several whites, but meeting him on the street after hours they will not be likely to recognise him or greet him. In a hotel he must take the freight elevator and under no circumstances can he eat in any but quarantined restaurants and lunch-rooms. He is too proud to go to a Jim Crow theatre, therefore he can scarcely ever see a first-run movie or go to a concert.

“If he travels in a day coach he is herded like an animal into a villainous, decrepit wooden car. If he visits a friend in a suburb he will find that water, electricity, and gas may literally stop where the segregated quarter begins. He cannot, as a rule, try on a hat or a pair of gloves in a white store. Not conceivably will a true Southern white shake hands with him, and at a bus terminal or similar point he will, of course, have to use the ‘coloured’ toilet and drink from a separate water fountain.”

I paid a visit to Spelman, a college for negro women, endowed, significantly, by the Rockefeller Trust from the North.

I was taken round the trim, spacious campus into the vast college library, where coloured students from far-away New York and Lagos and Trinidad sat reading in the silence of absolute concentration, by the bursar of Atlanta University, a coloured woman from Connecticut. She gave me a list of eminent European teachers who were members of the faculty: there was even one from China. “We make no exception to colour here, you see,” she said. And there was no trace of sarcasm as she said it.

She introduced me to a very remarkable woman — quite the most remarkable woman I have I met so far on this journey. Her name is Florence Read. She is a white woman, a Northerner from New England. For 23 years she has been Principal of Spelman. For all those years she has never had less than 400 coloured girls in her care.

She is near the end of her term now, but she spoke to me with hope in her voice, almost gaily, of how conditions are changing, very slowly, it’s true, but very surely.

She told me how only last year that great negro statesman Dr. Ralph Bunche visited Atlanta and was received — not officially, it’s true — by the Mayor of Atlanta himself. Not so long ago, for the first time in history Baptist ministers, white and coloured, met in Georgia for a joint session. A negro girl recently presided over a mixed meeting of the University of North Carolina. Small things themselves, but she sets great store by them.

Atlanta, as you probably know, is the capital of the Coca-Cola “empire.” Coca-Cola is as international as wheat or taxes, they say proudly round here. Before the war 76 different nations were drinking it. Every man, woman and child in Atlanta drinks 100 bottles of Coca-Cola a year, or so the figures say.

Coca-Cola consists mainly of sugar and water; it is distilled from a syrup the formula of which is a secret. A secret first discovered by a chemist here in Atlanta in the 1880’s and which since then has made at least ten millionaires.

It is a remarkably decentralised industry. The home factory makes only the syrup from its secret formula. It is bottled, under licence, by 1,056 American bottling plants in American cities.

So I had to see one of these bottling plants. I was taken round by the manager.

I sampled a bottle, fresh from the belt. It had a pleasant refreshing palate-stinging quality. Hardly what I would call a connoisseur’s drink.

I asked what it was about it that made it a national drink — for many Americans prefer a “coke” even if offered champagne as an alternative.

“It’s the taste,” he said. “Once your taste buds have become aware of that delicate, subtle bitter-sweet tang, they can be contended by nothing else.” Obviously the gods had never heard of it, or there would have been a familiar red-and-white “Coca-Cola” sign on Olympus.

On my last morning in Atlanta — a memorable morning as it turned out — I was driven north of the city to Oglethorpe University, where in the students’ recreation hall there is a Crypt of Civilisation. Walled up here, a metal plaque informs you, permanent records of our present civilisation are being stored for the benefit of archaeologists in the year A.D. 8113.

The Crypt was sealed in 1936. It contains a curious collection of twentieth-century bric-a-brac. It includes gramophone records featuring the voices of famous men and women and “hit” tunes of the year, cinematograph film, costumes of the period, hairstyles, film-stars’ photographs, newspapers, and, of course, a bottle of Coca-Cola. Moreover, the finders 6,000 years hence will no doubt be interested to learn that the Crypt was designed and built by the Ferro-Enamel Corporation of Chicago.

But civilisation has moved on quite a bit since 1936. I forgot ask if the Crypt was atom-bomb proof…

This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News on 5 March 1952

© 2024

Jerry F 2024