Atlanta ATL National Parks

Walking Down a Dream – Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District

Sweet Auburn is a place in Atlanta, Georgia I had never heard of before this week. While at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the opening doorway as you enter the museum area on the left wall is a corridor with photos showing white people and the word ‘White’ in neon. On the right wall are photos of blacks and the word ‘Colored’ in neon.

The room opens up with a wall exhibit on the left listing segregation laws with images of segregation signs from across southern states.

Jim Crow Laws – ‘All marriages between a white person and a Negro, or a person of Negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.’ 

A wall map on the right depicts Sweet Auburn, the historically segregated residential and business district in downtown Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929.

An informational sign describes Sweet Auburn as one of the wealthiest areas in the USA for Blacks in the 1950s. After touring the Civil Rights Center, an unplanned walk along Auburn Avenue would be my impromptu next ‘culturetainment’ tourist destination for a day hanging out in downtown Atlanta.

A woman at the Civil Rights Center told me Atlanta Streetcar would take me down Auburn Avenue for a $1.00 ticket fare. I spotted the streetcar on my walk on the other side of Centennial Olympic Park from the Civil Rights Center.

My preference was a walk down Auburn Avenue to check out this Sweet Auburn area in close-up detail.

Sweet Auburn Historic District

Sweet Auburn was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. In 1992, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized that Sweet Auburn was one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Sweet Auburn Historic District is located along Auburn Avenue, generally between Courtland St. and I-75/85 in downtown Atlanta. Walking tour maps are available through the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, 404-222-6688. For more information contact the Friends of Sweet Auburn. Group walking tours are also available. Call 404-688-3353 or visit the Atlanta Preservation Center for more information.

National Park Service – Sweet Auburn Historic District.

The first informational street sign I came across on Auburn Avenue described Early Segregation on Auburn Avenue. In 1900, most businesses in the section of Auburn Avenue closest to downtown were white-owned and segregated. Many blacks rode bicycles to avoid the segregated streetcars running along the street.

The sign indicated Auburn Avenue informational signs and plaques were initiatives from funding projects dating back to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Reverend James Tate

Reverend James Tate in 1870 opened the first school for Blacks in Atlanta.

Brian R. Owens art – 1996

Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture & History

Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American History & Culture is part of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. The building on the corner of Courtland Avenue and Auburn Avenue opened in May 1994. The core of the collection is derived from the former Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library at 333 Auburn opened in 1921 as the first public library available for Blacks in the segregated Atlanta library system since its establishment in 1902.

APEX Museum – African American Panoramic Experience

APEX Museum “Where every month is Black History Month.”

APEX Museum at 135 Auburn was originally the Atlanta School Book Depository Building (1910).

Atlanta Life Insurance Company

Alonzo Herndon, born into slavery, became Atlanta’s wealthiest African American with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company he founded in 1905. For decades Atlanta Life was one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the United States.

Atlanta Life Insurance Company at 148 Auburn Ave (1920).

Atlanta Daily World – 135 Auburn – first black daily newspaper

“We never tried to cover the general public, but only news that would have been primarily important to black people…” – publisher C.A. Scott

Mangos Caribbean Restaurant – Auburn Avenue

Royal Peacock Club, 184-186 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta

One of Atlanta’s leading nightclubs patronized by blacks and whites in the 1950s and 60s was the Royal Peacock Club. Originally known as the Top Hat Club in the 1930s, Royal Peacock hosted shows by James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes and Dinah Washington.

Royal Peacock Club, Auburn Avenue, Atlanta

Mural on side of Royal Peacock Club
I am prepared to die‘ – Nelson Mandela

Big Bethel AME Church – 220 Auburn Avenue

Big Bethel AME was first church for African Americans in Atlanta opened 1847, burned down 1864, rebuilt.

Big Bethel AME Church plays a pivotal role in the Sweet Auburn district from hosting the first school for African Americans in the church basement, Gate City Colored School (1879) to serving as one of the key centers for the organization of the Civil Rights movement. Nelson Mandela spoke here in 1990 within a few months of being released from prison in South Africa.

John Lewis Hero Mural (2012) at corner of Auburn Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive

Civil Rights legend John Lewis is Georgia’s 5th District Congressman since 1987. His congressional district covers about 75% of Atlanta. John Lewis, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was one of the main organizers and speakers of the 1963 March on Washington.

John Lewis – Hero
John Lewis – March on Washington 1963 speech

I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping the nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of the nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.

John Lewis – March on Washington speech 1963.

One of many derelict buildings in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District

Evelyn Gibson Lowery – Civil Rights Activist and founder of W.O.M.E.N. – Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now (1979).

Evelyn Gibson Lowery founded W.O.M.E.N. in 1979 as a sister organization to SCLC to champion the rights of women, children, families, and responding to the problems of the disenfranchised regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, or religion.

Evelyn G. Lowery married Reverend Joseph Lowery in 1950. Rev. Lowery became the third leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., founded SCLC on Jan 10, 1957 along with dozens of other southern Christian leaders in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and served as the organization’s first president.

Evelyn Gibson Lowery and Rev. Joseph Lowery participated in many of the key Civil Rights actions.

Evelyn Gibson Lowery Hero mural

Auburn and Bell and Interstate 85/75 underpass

Auburn Avenue went from being one the wealthiest areas in the USA for Blacks to becoming more and more derelict with the district’s economic decline of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the major impacts on the district was the construction of Interstate 85/75 corridor wiping out two blocks in the heart of Auburn Avenue. The interstate highway is only three blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park.

Pal’s Lounge Blues & Jazz on corner of Auburn and Bell.

Building at corner of Auburn and Bell with Evelyn Gibson Lowery mural.

Interstate 85 Underpass

Auburn I-85 underpass mural
Auburn I-85 underpass mural closeup of Auburn Avenue culturetainment historic sites.

John Wesley Dobbs Plaza

John Wesley Dobbs (1882-1961) was referred to as ‘Mayor of Auburn”. Dobbs was an activist and launched a Black voter registration drive in 1936. In the following decade his initiatives registered 20,000 Black voters in Atlanta and became a political force in local politics.

The name ‘Sweet Auburn’ is credited to John Wesley Dobbs from the 1920s referring to the “richest Negro street in the world.”

John Wesley Dobbs Plaza
“Through His Eyes’ – artist Ralph Helmick (1996) – John Wesley Dobbs Plaza.
John Wesley Dobbs Plaza
‘Sweet Auburn’s Decline’ – National Park Service sign.

S.C.L.C. / WOMEN Building, 328 Auburn Avenue

SCLC WOMEN building – 328 Auburn Avenue

Alice Dugged Cary (1859-1941)

Alice Dugged Cary was an educated African American woman from Indiana. In 1885 she moved with her husband to Atlanta. She served as the first female principal of Mitchell Street School and Principal of Morris Brown Normal School (teachers college) in 1886. She advocated in Atlanta for a Negro library and in 1921 became the first librarian of the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library in Atlanta at 333 Auburn Avenue. This was the first library in Atlanta open to Blacks. The library location is now an empty lot.

Alice Dugged Cary
Auburn Avenue site of former Carnegie Library (1923-1959), first Atlanta library open to Blacks. Prince Hall Masons Grand Lodge across street.

W.E.R.D. Radio Station 1949-1968

W.E.R.D. Radio Station 1949-1968

WERD was the first African-American owned and programmed radio station. Prince Hall Masonic Lodge where WERD braodcast started is seen across the street in the background of Auburn Carnegie Library photo above.

The side of the building facing Auburn Avenue had several W.E.R.D. Radio signs and a poster announcing the rebirth of W.E.R.D. Radio in 2014 at 54 Hillard Street, Atlanta.

Wheat Street Baptist Church, 359 Auburn Avenue

Wheat Street Baptist Church is one of three prominent Auburn Avenue historical churches, along with Big Bethel AME and Ebenezer Baptist, the church led by Martin Luther King Sr., father of MLK Jr.

Wheat Street Baptist Church, 359 Auburn

Big Mouth Ben Store

BigMouthBen bike

I went from being homeless on Auburn Ave. to a business owner on Auburn Ave.

Come inside to hear the story.

Bejamin C. Graham, aka BigMouthben

Big Mouth Ben Stores 370A Auburn Ave.

Homeless man becomes business man on the same street he used to sleep on. (Mar 8, 2018) – Fox 5 Atlanta.

Wesley Chapel Redding – Atlanta Entrepreneur

Wesley Chapel Redding born into slavery in 1857 was one of the founders of Atlanta Loan & Trust Company in 1891, the first Black financial institution in Atlanta. His former home on Auburn Avenue is where Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are buried at the MLK Jr Center for Non-Violent Social Change.

Wesley Chapel Redding

Jackson Street and Auburn Avenue

Ebenezer Baptist Church is located at the corner of Jackson Street and Auburn Avenue. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park Visitor Center is across the street from Ebenezer Church.

Ebenzer Baptist Church, Atlanta at Auburn Avenue and Jackson

Atlanta Streetcar is public transportation in a loop from Centennial Olympic Park to King Historic District stop at Auburn and Jackson. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical park is located across the street from the streetcar stop.

Atlanta Streetcar

At $1 per ride, Atlanta Streetcar will take you from Centennial Olympic Park to MLK Jr. National Historic Park over a distance of about 1.5 miles. Peachtree Center MARTA Station is on the streetcar route.

Google Maps Atlanta Streetcar Auburn Avenue route

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park

The next block east across Jackson Street has Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park on the north side and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on the south side of Auburn Avenue beside Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, Auburn Avenue, Atlanta
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site

One side of Auburn Avenue has the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park Visitor Center.

Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on the south side of Auburn Avenue is the burial place of MLK, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

I arrived at MLK Jr National Historical Park around 5:15pm, just after visitor center closing. A staff member mentioned I could still walk around the outside of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth home on the next block. So I did.

Martin Luther King, Jr. birth home, 501 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta

Followed by a walk around the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Grave site for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Auburn Avenue, Atlanta

Sweet Auburn’s Dream

A couple of people I talked with along the way that day told me I could take Atlanta Streetcar and ride for $1 to MLK Jr. National Historical Park.

So many stories I would have missed if I had not let my feet do the walking in search of Sweet Auburn’s dream.




  • Brian Cohen October 6, 2018

    Shame you did not contact me while you were in town, Ric. I could have accompanied you.

  • Jimmy October 6, 2018

    Walk in Atlanta? You crazy person 🙂

    I spend a lot of time there because of my in-laws, but I never feel Atlanta quite punches its weight as a tourist destination. What are your overall thoughts?

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