Is Atlanta the new Black Mecca? With its affordable housing, livable pace and reputation for encouraging entrepreneurship, Atlanta is the “go to” city for enterprising African-Americans

Is Atlanta the new Black Mecca? With its affordable housing, livable pace and reputation for encouraging entrepreneurship, Atlanta is the “go to” city for enterprising African-Americans

Charles Whitaker

This is the first in a series of articles on African-Americans in major cities with a population of 100,000 or more Blacks. Each article will spotlight leading personalities and institutions, and major attractions. The next article will feature Los Angeles.

NEARLY 25 years ago, when Shirley Franklin, the new mayor of Atlanta, was cutting her political teeth in the administration of Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, the city that is now considered the crown jewel of the New South was just beginning to shine. For all its cosmopolitan pretensions, Atlanta, pre-Maynard, was a largely provincial town, hemmed in by its insular and racially divided social and political structure and its lack of big-city amenities.

But with the push of the Civil Rights Movement and the leadership of a cadre of Black mayors, Atlanta has undergone an amazing transformation, becoming a booming international metropolis and a magnet for the legions of upwardly mobile, young Black professionals who flock there each year.

Franklin, a Philadelphia native, has had a hand in building the reputation that has made Atlanta the Black mecca it is today. Though her successful campaign for mayor was her first run at public office, her career in government includes stints as Jackson’s commissioner of cultural affairs and chief administrative officer in the mayoral administration of Andrew Young. She has guided the development of Hartsfield Airport, the expansion of which played a major role in the growth of Atlanta, and she was a key member of the committee that brought the 1996 Olympic Games to the city, a feat that many–incorrectly –thought Atlanta was poorly equipped to pull off.

Now Franklin stands squarely at the helm. She is the city’s first woman mayor. In fact, Atlanta now is the only city with four women in high-profile public jobs. Chief Beverly Harvard leads the police force and Jackie Barrett is the Fulton County Sheriff. Cathy Woolard, who is White and gay, was just elected city council president.

The Atlanta that they lead is a city poised to undergo yet another transformation. White residents are returning to the inner city, reclaiming older neighborhoods and driving up housing costs. The result is a concurrent political shift. Woolard, the first White city council president in over a decade, defeated Michael Bond, son of civil rights activist Julian Bond, for city council president in a runoff that split along racial lines. Some even predict that Franklin may be Atlanta’s last Black mayor, a scenario she dismisses.

“I’ve heard that,” she says, “but to me that prediction is short-sighted and a little insulting. It says that people don’t believe that there are other smart, young Black people who will come along after me who will have the talent and the broad appeal to be elected. I just don’t believe that’s the case. My campaign wasn’t about race. It was about appealing to people with a message of fair and open and honest government. I’m confident that other Black mayoral candidates will come along after me with a similar message and they, too, will be elected.”

At any rate, talented young Black people will be elected to public office in Atlanta, and they will continue to migrate there.

No matter what is happening on the political scene, Atlanta–one of the incubators of the Civil Rights Movement, cradle for a host of historic Black businesses–is still viewed throughout the country as a city teaming with promise and opportunity, especially for young, trained African-Americans. With its hilly, tree-lined enclaves of grand, yet moderately priced (by Northern standards) homes, its historic and galvanizing churches (including some megachurches with congregations approaching 10,000), its cache of esteemed Black colleges and universities, its overlay of Southern gentility and its deceptively easygoing pace, Atlanta has taken on the aura of an African-American haven.

“There is the feeling that if you can’t make it in Atlanta, you can’t make it anywhere,” says former Mayor Andrew Young, who helped spearhead the drive that brought the Olympics to Atlanta. “That’s what keeps people coming here–rich people, poor people. They come from all over because they believe that anything is possible in Atlanta.”

Though Census figures show that Atlanta’s Black population has dipped slightly (it peaked at 282,911 in 1980 and stands at 255,689 today), more than 150,000 African-Americans still moved into the city during the 1990s. The real boom was in the surrounding bedroom communities in DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties. More than half a million Blacks swelled the population of those communities in the 1990s. In fact, more Blacks moved to metropolitan Atlanta than to any other metro area in the country during the last decade.

Even in once-segregated strongholds like DeKalb County, which cuts a small swath through the city of Atlanta, Blacks have changed the face of the social and political landscape. In November 2000, DeKalb residents elected 41-year-old Vernon Jones as the county’s first Black chief executive. “The times are definitely changing in and around this metropolitan area,” Jones maintains. “The whole area is just much more diverse, and that’s changing things. There are some glass ceilings, too. We still don’t have a Black senator or a Black governor. But the population is growing. More and more Black people are moving here, affluent Black people. That is making a difference.”

So great is metro Atlanta’s appeal that some continue to call it home even when their corporate headquarters are elsewhere. LaVan Hawkins and his wife, Wendy, owners of Detroit-based Hawkins Food Group, the nation’s 12th-ranked Black business *, have homes in Atlanta and Detroit and commute between the two by private jet.

Despite the explosion of opportunity at its upper levels, Atlanta is still beset by the problems that plague every urban center in America: a crime rate that has inched up with the downturn in the economy, a critical budget shortfall that threatens city services, drugs, crime and pockets of nagging poverty.

“The fact that there is opportunity here does not negate the fact that there are areas of concern as well,” says Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is headquartered in Atlanta. “Atlanta is battling the same problems as any other big city. It’s important not to get so caught up in the notion of the Black Mecca that we lose sight of that.”

Still, the “Black Mecca” label sticks. The fact that Atlanta continues to attract enterprising young Blacks is both widely accepted, and a continuing source of wonder. “Some people look at us and they say, `How did you do it?'” says Franklin. “People just don’t understand how little old Atlanta keeps pulling off all these major coups. How did we get the Olympics? How did we become a major transportation center? It just amazes people. But there is a can-do spirit here, a belief that anything is possible if you work at it. That’s what makes things happen.”

And one cannot underestimate the influence and impact of the city’s major educational institutions. “The schools of the Atlanta University Center and the other major universities here have helped set the stage and played a major role in attracting young people here and painting this as a city of opportunity,” says William Clement, chairman of the board of directors of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co.

In recent years, Atlanta also has developed a reputation as a city in which entrepreneurial dreams are nurtured. “I would not say it’s easier to start a business here,” says Detroit native and Morehouse College alumnus Steven Holland, who with his wife, Deirdre, owns a real estate firm and mortgage brokerage, A-House, “but you have this sense here that it can be done because there are so many examples around you.”

Indeed, Atlanta has always been a major Black economic center. “This city is the birthplace of so many successful Black businesses that you can’t help but be inspired by it,” says William E. Simms, president and chief executive officer of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., the national community service agency whose national headquarters are located on historic Auburn Avenue in the heart of Atlanta’s Black business district. “I walk out the door here and you see businesses started 80 or 100 years ago and you feel the history as well as the potential.”

Today, Atlanta boasts more Black-owned companies per capita than any other city in the nation except Washington, D.C., according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is home to the nation’s second-largest Black insurance company, Atlanta Life. Citizens Trust Bank, the fourth-largest Black bank, also is based there.

“There are business role models here like Jesse Hill and Herman Russell who allow young people to see what the possibilities are,” says Thomas Dortch, national chairman of 100 Black Men of America.

But the new economic landscape produced by the labor, lobbying and civil rights leadership of Atlantans such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Congressman John Lewis also has created scintillating opportunities in areas where Blacks previously were shut out. As Atlanta has grown, so too have the fortunes of scores of Black businessmen who have participated in its amazing development. With the backing of Maynard Jackson, who is credited with initiating the building boom that put Atlanta on the map (some call Hartsfield airport “the airport that Maynard built”), business owners like construction magnate Herman J. Russell, whose H.J. Russell & Co. is the 14th-largest Black business in the country, literally paved the way for the unprecedented success of the Black businesses that followed.

Using aggressive affirmative action initiatives, Jackson ushered in an era in which the percentage of the contracts Black businesses received from the city grew from less than one-tenth of 1 percent in 1970 to more than $250 million today. It is said that 90 percent of the contracts that go to minority-owned firms that do business with American airports are at Hartsfield. Herman Russell, along with his partner, pioneering restaurateur James Paschal, operate several of those concessions, but many young Black business owners also have broken into this lucrative territory.

Yet it is not just in the realm of city contracts that Black businesses have flourished. Among the other players on the national scene are Nathan R. Goldston III, CEO of the Gourmet Companies, a firm that provides food services for schools and businesses. It is the nation’s 32nd-largest Black business. On the automobile dealership side, there is H. Steve Harrell, CEO of the Harrell Companies, dealers in Chevrolet, Toyota, Dodge and Kia models, and the fifth-largest dealership in the country. And while home run king Hank Aaron’s car dealership is a relative newcomer in Atlanta’s fleet of luxury import businesses, he, too sits among the top 100 auto dealerships in the country, a testament to both his business acumen as well as the profit potential in the Atlanta consumer market.

Added to this mix, and heightening Atlanta’s reputation as a hot spot is fact that a host of hip-hop entertainers and entrepreneurs also call the city home. Ever since the 1980s, when superstar producers Antonio (L.A.) Reid and Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds based their LaFace Record label in Atlanta (they’ve since gone Hollywood), the city’s star power has been rising exponentially. It now has unquestionable Generation X appeal, with established stars and newcomers like Toni Braxton and OutKast and new wave music moguls like Jermaine Dupri choosing to make Atlanta–not New York or L.A.–their base of operation.

“I’m very excited to see these young people and the level of energy and excitement they bring to the city,” says Franklin. “It’s just one more example of the way in which Atlanta is growing and changing and getting better all the time.”

Franklin’s mayoral charge is to manage the current growth without dampening the city’s development. “There are some interesting challenges ahead,” she admits. “But that’s why I wanted to get involved on this level. I want to make sure that Atlanta, the city that attracted me 30 years ago, continues to be an attractive city for other people like me and for my children and grandchildren.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Johnson Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group