Originally created 01/20/99

At turn of century, Georgia bleak with slivers of hope



Complaints about traffic congestion. Alarm about urban infrastructure needs. Deploring a negative, divisive political campaign.

Those topics, found in the Georgia news media in recent weeks, can also be unearthed from the news pages of 1900, demonstrating that some things haven't changed much from the beginning of the 20th century to its final year.

But the overall picture of Georgia 99 years ago is in stark contrast to the robust Georgia of today that heads toward the new millennium as a national leader in population and economic growth.

"Georgia was primarily a rural area, with still a lot of vestiges of the antebellum South," said Douglas Bachtel, a sociologist at the University of Georgia. "A lot of people were dirt-poor; uneducated and unskilled."

Unlike today, there was a large out-migration, Mr. Bachtel said, as blacks headed to Chicago and other Northern cities in search of opportunity, while poor whites headed West.

In post-Reconstruction Georgia, blacks feared whites and the very real threat of racial violence. And whites feared blacks, for their numbers and desire for equality. A post-Reconstruction white determination to keep the races separate was institutionalized with the first Jim Crow laws and anti-black voting barriers.

"As African-Americans entered into the 20th century, it was with no celebration or anticipation," said Herman "Skip" Mason, a black historian in Atlanta. "There was a sense of anxiety, that they would slip back."

Yet within the bleak scene of Georgia in 1900 were gleaming slivers of hope.

There were new drives among blacks to promote education and economic self-sufficiency, beginning a tradition of pragmatic leaders in the state. There were the beginnings of economic diversity, with mechanization coming to agriculture and new manufacturing operations springing up. And deals were set to open the way for national distribution of the sweet, brown drink that would become Georgia's -- and perhaps America's -- most recognizable product around the world.

Atlanta, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes left by Union Gen. William T. Sherman, bounced back from the Civil War behind optimistic, can-do leadership that propelled the city as capital of "the New South" and toward its boosters' dreams of becoming, as its leaders would say near the end of this century, "a world-class city." It more than doubled in population between 1880 and 1900, and would more than double again, to top 200,000, by 1920.

"Atlanta recovered very quickly from the physical damage of the war, and the people were determined," said Franklin Garrett, the 92-year-old Atlanta historian who has extensively chronicled the city. "Atlanta has been fortunate to have forward-looking citizens, and it has just continued to grow."

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A Michigan-born journalist, Ray Stennard Baker, traveled through Georgia in the first years of the century to examine race relations in "the New South."

He recounted the comment of a black youth who worked as a butler's assistant in the home of a prominent white Atlanta family. When asked by his friends what the white people talked about at dinner, replied: "Mostly they discuss us colored folks."

Georgia was nearly 47 percent black at the time; Atlanta's population was 40 percent black. Many Southern whites were determined to maintain their domination, and Jim Crow laws to enforce separation and increasing barriers such as taxes and white-only primaries stripped away black voting rights.

"After I had begun to trace the color line, I found evidences of it everywhere," Mr. Baker wrote -- in theaters, blacks had to sit in the balcony; on street cars, the seats in the rear, hotels and saloons were "whites only," an elevator sign read: "This car for colored passengers, freight, express and packages."

Mr. Baker quoted a white woman who recounted a black man accidentally brushing her shoulder and, when he realized it, "such a look of abject terror and fear came into his face." The man raced away.

The penalties for blacks for such affronts could include whippings, beatings, hanging and being burned alive -- hundreds of lynchings were reported in Georgia over three decades beginning in 1890. By 1906, tensions over alleged race-mixing sparked an Atlanta riot that claimed 17 lives. Gov. Hoke Smith was elected that year on a platform that included disenfranchisement of black voters.

Democrats were the white Southerners' party and they established Georgia as a one-party state for most of the century. In Cobb County, future home of Newt Gingrich, Democrats were elected by 3-to-1 margins in 1900.

Yet Mr. Mason, the black historian, reflects that the harsh treatment actually spurred some black progress. Booker T. Washington gave his "Atlanta Compromise" speech in 1895, urging black self-help and acknowledging racial separation. W.E.B. DuBois, an Atlanta professor, promoted the power of education and the Atlanta University Center became a center of black learning.

Black-owned businesses flourished in areas such as Atlanta's Auburn Avenue, and black middle classes grew in Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah.

"It was almost like the law of survival," Mr. Mason said. "They had no other choice."

-- -- --

Some three-fourths of the population lived in rural areas in 1900, most of those on farms. The end of slavery was followed by sharecropping and tenant farming that left many, black and white, in a new kind of servitude with no hope of escaping their debts.

Thousands left the farms for the new textile mills, which for most was trading one hard life for another. Whole families worked from sunrise into dark for less than dollar a day before returning to rows of poorly built frame homes.

"By 1900 the cotton-mill worker was a pretty distinct physical type in the South," wrote historian W.J. Cash. "A dead-white skin; a sunken chest and stooping shoulders were the earmarks ..."

Poor diets led to ailments that became identified with the region such as hookworm and the vitamin deficiency called pellagra.

But, Mr. Bachtel said, mechanization was arriving in agriculture, and newer industries were diversifying the economy. Besides textiles in Augusta, Columbus and Macon, there were growing turpentine, fertilizer and naval stores industries in south Georgia and mining of coal and iron ore to the north.

There was also a rise of tourism, helped by former Yankee invaders who returned to vacation or spend winters in the state. Thomasville was a booming tourism center at the turn of the century, although it would be soon be eclipsed by Florida as a vacation destination.

And in 1900, a new enterprise called the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Co. began producing the sweet, bubbly beverage in bottles. Sold at soda fountains in Atlanta since 1886, the invigorating drink with the secret formula was beginning national distribution.

Not even Coca-Cola Co. President Asa Candler, who had stood in front of his company's new headquarters in 1898 and pronounced the three-story building "sufficient for all our needs for all time to come," could envision the spread of Coke as an American icon.

-- -- --

In Georgia's growing urban areas, housing and sanitation problems expanded with the population. The turn of the century brought new buildings, railroads and viaducts across the state.

"The time has arrived where to delay longer than is absolutely necessary in building of a viaduct over the railroad tracks between Whitehall and Peachtree streets would amount to criminal neglect of the interests of the city," Atlanta Mayor James G. Woodward told the city council on Dec. 31, 1899. The viaduct was completed in 1901.

Bicycles joined horse-drawn carriages and wagons for personal transportation. New bridges were built over the Chattahoochee River, foreshadowing today's Cobb-to-Atlanta commute.

"The building of this bridge would be of special convenience to the heavy traffic constantly plying between Atlanta and a large section of Cobb County," wrote S.W. Power in calling for the Power's Ferry bridge finally constructed in 1903.

The first automobiles, or "locomobiles" powered by steam and gas, appeared in Georgia in 1901. On Feb. 21 that year, The Marietta Journal reported that Mr. Henry Brady and his wife and child rode into the city from Atlanta in the new vehicle.

"While here it attracted a good deal of attention as it was the first ever seen in Marietta," the newspaper reported.

Counties tried to cope with the new machine by passing new laws. Some places limited motorists to 10 mph -- somewhat like rush hours of today.

The politics of the time were colorful and spirited. An editorial in The Atlanta Constitution on Oct. 4, 1900, evokes more-recent campaigns:

"For weeks and months, politics has been the means of tearing Atlanta asunder and injection into the discussion of municipal affairs more personal bitterness of feeling than was ever recorded at any other time in Atlanta's career as a municipality. ..."

Georgia writers of the time, such as Joel Chandler Harris with his Uncle Remus stories, poet Sidney Lanier, and Charles Henry Smith's widely circulated letters from Bill Arp, a kind of Georgian Will Rogers, helped the state toward a Southern literary tradition that would grow with the likes of a woman born in 1900 in Atlanta -- Margaret Mitchell, the future author of Gone With The Wind.

College football, which began in the state with a Georgia-Auburn game in Atlanta's Piedmont Park in 1892, quickly became a state tradition. A teen-ager, Ty Cobb, growing up in Royston in 1900 would within five years give the state its first major-league baseball hero.

The era also brought some of the first reconciliations with the Yankee Union that had vanquished the state. Georgia played an important role in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, treating ill and wounded troops at Fort McPherson and sending men to the front, including Navy Flag Lt. Thomas M. Brumby of Marietta, a hero of the Battle of Manila Bay.

In July 1900, Atlanta hosted the first reunion of veterans from both sides of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

"Battle-scarred and gray-haired old soldiers ... who as enemies had met face to face in some of the bloodiest and most brilliantly conducted battles that history records, met as friends on the scene of one of their most famous actions," The Atlanta Constitution reported.

"The influence of the War Between the States, which had been so mighty a factor, politically and otherwise, was gradually lessened," wrote Cobb County historian Sarah Blackwell Gober Temple in describing the mood of 1900. "It was indeed, a changing world..."

The present vs. the past

A sample of current Georgia statistics compared with 1900:

State Population

1900 -- 2,216,331

1998 -- 7,642,207

City of Atlanta

1900 -- 89,872

1996 -- 401,907

State rural population

1900 -- 74 percent

1998 -- 32 percent

State number of farms

1900 -- 224,691

1998 -- fewer than 40,000

Acres planted in cotton

1900 -- 3.5 million

1998 -- 1.3 million

Coca-Cola Co. Revenues

1900 -- $519,000

1997 -- $18.9 billion