Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906 Narrative

Written by the Equal Justice Initiative

The Atlanta Massacre of 1906 has been commonly referred to as the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906. The Fulton County Remembrance Coalition replaced Race Riot with Massacre to reflect the reality of terror that occurred.

In downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, September 22, 1906, at least 5000 white men and boys formed an angry mob yelling and screaming, “Get them all! Kill the Negroes!”

For several months prior, political campaigning leading up to the August 1906 gubernatorial elections had intentionally provoked whites’ resentment of African American enfranchisement and an emerging African American upper class. Candidates Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Atlanta Journal, and Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, urged white voters to suppress black peoples’ civil and economic rights through intensified segregation restrictions. Using their respective newspapers’ influence, both Smith and Howell also promoted and encouraged the dissemination of sensationalized reports of assaults by black men on white women, which aroused deep racial hostility and anger toward the African American community. On September 22nd, when the Atlanta Evening News and other local press printed unsubstantiated allegations that four white women had been assaulted by black men, the tensions spilled over into rage and mob violence.

The Atlanta Massacre of 1906 (commonly referred to as the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906) began the night of September 22nd and lasted through September 25th. African Americans were violently terrorized during the massacre, as white mobs roamed through downtown Atlanta and into predominantly black neighborhoods, burning houses, destroying black-owned businesses, and lynching any black person unfortunate enough to be in the mob’s path. While over 25 African American people were confirmed killed that weekend, many estimate that there were closer to 100 total victims.

The racial terrorism inflicted by white mobs during the Atlanta Massacre sought to maintain white supremacy and dominance by instilling fear in the entire black community through unpredictable, arbitrary, and brutal violence. It was common during this era for a lynch mob’s focus to expand beyond a specific person to target members of the person’s family, neighbors, or any and all black people in the area. In this case, as the mob spread out from the Five Points area of downtown Atlanta, they attacked, destroyed, and looted black-owned businesses, throwing stones and bricks through windows and using knives, firearms, and other weapons to attack any African Americans in the area. On September 22nd alone, white mobs attacked and shot an African American man named William (aka Henry) Welch, who may have been a local barber, and left him to die near Grady Hospital. Frank Smith, an African American Western Union messenger, was attacked by a white mob near a bridge on Forsyth Street. Once the mob caught him, they violently stabbed him and pelted him with stones before throwing his brutalized body over the side of the bridge.

As the mob continued their attack throughout downtown Atlanta, black men, women, and children fled to whatever shelters they could find. The segregated “colored” wards of Grady Hospital overflowed with dead and wounded black people, many of whom begged to stay at the hospital for protection from the attacking white mobs still raging outside. Wounded black residents even sought refuge in the local police station, as a section of the headquarters had been designated an impromptu clinic area. According to reports, a black woman named Leola Maddox and her husband were trapped downtown while shopping on Mitchell Street and targeted by a roving white mob; Mrs. Maddox was fatally stabbed and her husband was severely beaten. Later in the evening, white men shot and killed a black man named Will Marion in downtown Atlanta, and a black woman named Annie Shepard was also shot at point blank range in the chest and killed in a separate location. Ms. Shepard was employed as a launderer and may have been walking to or from work when she was murdered.

By midnight on the 22nd, the mob violence continued. While looting a pawn shop, a mob of more than 75 white men saw Milton Brown and began chasing him down Peters Street during the massacre. Mr. Brown was shot three times–in his chest, head, and shoulder. Members of the Atlanta Police Department witnessed Mr. Brown’s attack but did not intervene. News reports stated that as Mr. Brown was waiting for an ambulance, he stated that he “knew nothing of the trouble going on and that the attack on him was wholly unexpected.” He died before an ambulance arrived. He worked for the Stocks Coal Company as a laborer and was walking back to his home on Morris Street from a friend’s house on Castleberry Street.

From the 22nd to the 25th, news reports issued various counts of the dead and wounded, and many unnamed victims were reported to have been beaten, shot, maimed, or brutalized as the riot continued without intervention. Several areas were sites of concentrated violence during the riot as white mobs chased black people throughout Atlanta. A mob destroyed Mr. Alonzo Herndon’s Barbershop, located off Peachtree Street Northwest, and beat to death at least one of his black employees. Mr. Herndon, formerly enslaved, was a business owner and one of the richest black people in Atlanta when the riot erupted. The Kimball House Hotel off Decatur Street was swarmed by a white mob that gathered outside the hotel waving newspapers and shouting, “the time to strike back is now!” Off Marietta Street, as violence targeting black people continued, white mobs dragged at least three brutalized black people’s bodies to the base of the Henry Grady Statue — erected to honor Henry Grady, a white man who had represented the “New South” in the 1870s and 1880s, insisting that racial conflict was no longer a problem in the region. At least eleven unidentified African American victims of racial terror lynching were documented during the riot, but estimates indicate there were likely many more victims.

As the terror continued into Monday, September 24th, the white mobs began to migrate into nearby black communities, attacking black residents in their wake. On the morning of September 24th, Zeb Long was found hanging from a tree in East Point, Georgia, a suburb eight miles south of Atlanta. According to news reports, the East Point police arrested Mr. Long on September 23rd “for incendiary talk about the way white people were treating negros” and imprisoned him in the town jail. At 5 AM the next morning, approximately fifty white men broke into the jail and abducted Mr. Long. During this era, it was not uncommon for lynch mobs to seize their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or out of police hands. Though they were armed and charged with protecting the men and women and custody, police almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs intent on killing black people. The mob dragged Mr. Long with a rope around his neck and brought him to a wooded area near the town. The New York Times reported that Mr. Long “begged for his life” — but, despite his pleas, Mr. Long was “promptly” lynched. His body was later found hanging from the tree.

By the evening of September 24th, black residents in the community of Brownsville (now South Atlanta) received word that the white mobs were advancing towards their community. As Brownsville residents prepared to defend themselves, the white mob arrived along with police officers and “deputized” white residents. The mob forced their way into homes and buildings and assaulted black residents while looking for weapons — since Jim Crow laws made it illegal for African Americans to own firearms. When the mob confronted a group of black men on the street, shots rang out, leaving one white police officer dead and several white men wounded. At least six black residents were arrested for the shooting, though they had been responding to the white mob’s assault on their community. The arrested black men and were placed on streetcars under armed guard, but the streetcar never reached the jail. A white mob stopped the car near Crew Street to attack the black men onboard. One of the black men, Sam Magruder (whose surname was also reported as McSaunders) attempted to flee and was repeatedly shot by the mob; his body was reportedly torn apart by the bullets. Mr. Magruder was taken by ambulance to Grady Hospital, where he died the following morning. One white woman who saw the attack take place reportedly died from a heart attack due to the sight. Another African American man named Clem Rhodes was also reported shot and killed in “South Atlanta.”

Frank Fambro, a well-known resident of Brownsville, was lynched at his grocery store during the mob violence. A few years earlier, when Mr. Fambro testified as a witness in a murder trial, a local judge praised him as an example of “the way to stop lynchings.” But as the unchecked racial violence raged in Atlanta, Mr. Fambro was shot in the chest and killed in his own store, murdered by white men acting under the auspices of deputized authority. Another black man named George Wilder was found dead in a shed behind Mr. Fambro’s store on September 25th, likely lynched by the same mob. A 70-year-old Civil War veteran who served with Union forces, Mr. Wilder is regarded as the oldest person lynched during the Atlanta Massacre. Despite fighting for freedom and the end of enslavement in the Civil War, he was lynched by white men fueled by the same deep-seated racial hostility more than four decades later.

Following the outbreak of violence on September 22nd, military and police presence increased throughout the city and troops could be seen on every corner for the next several days. Rather than subduing the violence and protecting the most vulnerable residents, the law enforcement presence seemed to make the streets more dangerous for black people. Early in the morning on Tuesday, September 25th, Will Moreland and James Fletcher — two black men — were killed by Atlanta City Police on Randolph Street. Two white officers responded to allegations of a “disturbance” caused by “negroes […] firing at passing white men” and promptly shot the two black men they encountered. To justify the shootings, the Atlanta Constitution reported that the police officers were shot at before killing Mr. Moreland and Mr. Fletcher — but those claims were never confirmed or scrutinized in court. It was unclear whether the officers who lynched Mr. Moreland and Mr. Fletcher were full-time officers or newly deputized white men granted official authority to patrol the city much like the lawless mobs.

Also on the 25th, Sam Robinson was shot and killed by soldiers for “not halting.” Mr. Robinson, employed as a carpenter in South Atlanta, was on his way to work when murdered. The presence of white paramilitary citizens, police officers, and state militia did little to quell the riot, and served in many cases to increase the number of casualties.

As the violence and police arrests of black Atlanta residents continued, black leaders and white officials met privately to discuss plans for ending the terror, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce held a public meeting. Though the riot had been the product of white mob brutality, fueled by sensationalized narratives of racial hostility spread by the white press, these meetings insisted on a narrative that the violence was due to black Atlanta residents failure to protect white women. The Chamber of Commerce conversations also revealed that, among white residents, the primary incentive to end the riot was to end its disruption to local business.

In the aftermath of the riot, grand jury investigations concluded that city police had failed “signally and absolutely in the performance of their duty” and led to the death of many African American Atlantans. Citizen groups made up of white and black community leaders met to determine how to provide aid to those most affected. Despite the riot’s roots in racial hostility, more Jim Crow laws would later be developed to further restrict the rights and freedoms of black people in Atlanta, preventing them from living in certain residential areas, disenfranchising them, and forcing black-owned business out of the central business district.