Interstates, racial segregation, and elections in Atlanta
Five images that tell a story about the black and white divide of the city, which was exacerbated by freeway design.
The 1939 “Race of Household” map above comes from the Planning Atlanta collection at Georgia State University. It shows the percentage of homes occupied by African American residents.
That’s basically Downtown on the left, Old Fourth Ward at the top, center, and Grant Park at the bottom, center. Notice the way that majority-black and majority-white districts were dispersed in a fairly mixed way across this part of the city in comparison to the situation today (read on for more about that).
This was what the demographic makeup of the city center was like before the interstates came through.
The image below shows the construction of Interstate 85 in the early 1950s, plowing through the Auburn Avenue/Sweet Auburn/Old Fourth Ward area. Construction displaced residents and businesses, and divided neighborhoods. I’ve highlighted the iconic Big Bethel church on Auburn Avenue (with the “Jesus Saves” lighted sign) to help show where this is.
Author Ronald Bayor has noted the historical evidence that displacement was an intention of some of Atlanta’s highways:
Interstate 20 on the west side of town is a particularly egregious example of race-based road-building. Bayor wrote: “In a 1960 report on the transitional westside neighborhood of Adamsville . . . the Atlanta Bureau of Planning noted that ‘approximately two to three years ago, there was an “understanding” that the proposed route of the West Expressway [I-20 West] would be the boundary between the white and Negro communities.’” (Source)
Post-freeway segregation and the election map
Now let’s look at the racial divide of the city today (or at least from 2010 census data, assuming things haven’t changed dramatically in the last few years). The image below shows the incredibly sharp divide that segregated the city on a geographic level, post-interstate construction.
Compare that map to the next one that shows how Atlanta voted in the recent election. Mary Norwood (a white candidate) took the northern neighborhoods, Keisha-Lance Bottoms (a black candidate) took the south, and Cathy Woolard (white and more liberal than Norwood) took the east.
It’s tempting to consider what voting patterns — and our general race divide — might look like in Atlanta if the interstates hadn’t divided the city. Would we be less segregated?
This is a difficult and uncomfortable topic to explore. What we need to do as a city is discuss these things and understand the way that very intentional plans have helped to create the demographic character of Atlanta today.
Our patterns of racial segregation are not a simple matter of like-skinned people choosing to live together in fairly homogeneous districts. These were largely imposed upon Atlanta through decisions made during a time when racial discrimination in housing and urban design was legal and accepted as policy.