How Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue Became Known As The Richest Negro Street In The World

The Butler Street YMCA (center) is one of the few iconic structures still standing in the Sweet Auburn business district. Photo courtesy NPS/Library of Congress


It was known as Wheat Street until 1893. Following complaints from white settlers who argued that the enclave was more cosmopolitan in nature and needed a description that best fit it, the name was changed.

That is how the area came to be known as Auburn Avenue. When Jim Crow laws were used to enforce racial segregation in Atlanta, it turned out to be one of the safe havens for the Black community.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the African-American population occupied the city’s east side, which is now known as Old Fourth Ward. Auburn Avenue rose to prominence during this period as a commercial hub and burgeoning destination for the elite Black community. It was here that African Americans found spiritual inspiration, discovered their cultural identity, and pursued their entrepreneurial dreams.

It was a pot in which Black businesses, entertainment venues, and religious institutions were cooked. As a result, it was given the nickname Sweet Auburn. On Auburn Avenue, financial institutions consolidated black businesses’ financial clout, offering entrepreneurs soft loans to cushion their businesses.

John Wesley Dobbs, a civic activist and self-proclaimed mayor of Auburn Street, coined the term Sweet Auburn. Fortune Magazine described the enclave as “the richest Negro street in the World” in 1956.

Alonzo Herndon, a freedman, became the city’s first black millionaire. He began with a barbershop on Peachtree Street before establishing the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. Six years later, another business owner, Heman Perry, established Standard Life, a second black insurance company. Citizens Trust Bank also provided loans to black entrepreneurs and homeowners that white-owned banks would not have provided.

Auburn Avenue also provided a place of worship for the Black community. Three generations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family served as preachers at Ebenezer Baptist Church. There was also the Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The first Black daily newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World, was founded on Auburn Avenue. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Odd Fellows, the Masons, and the National Urban League all had a presence there. It was the heartbeat of African-American life whether for business or leisure.

Sweet Auburn began to fall when the frontiers of freedom were opened to Black business owners with the repeal of segregation laws. The business owners began moving their businesses to the west side of Atlanta and new development took over the abandoned shopping centers. With time, the once bustling and vibrant Sweet Auburn lost its magic and sank into the abyss of time.



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