Main articles: History of Atlanta and Timeline of Atlanta
Native American settlements
Prior to the arrival of European settlers in north Georgia, Creek Indians inhabited the area. Standing Peachtree, a Creek village located where Peachtree Creek flows into the Chattahoochee River, was the closest Indian settlement to what is now Atlanta. As part of the systematic removal of Native Americans from northern Georgia from 1802 to 1825, the Creek were forced to leave the area in 1821, and white settlers arrived the following year.
Western and Atlantic Railroad
Marietta Street, 1864
In 1836, the Georgia General Assembly voted to build the Western and Atlantic Railroad in order to provide a link between the port of Savannah and the Midwest. The initial route was to run southward from Chattanooga to a terminus east of the Chattahoochee River, which would then be linked to Savannah. After engineers surveyed various possible locations for the terminus, the “zero milepost” was driven into the ground in what is now Five Points. A year later, the area around the milepost had developed into a settlement, first known as “Terminus”, and later as “Thrasherville” after a local merchant who built homes and a general store in the area. By 1842, the town had six buildings and 30 residents and was renamed “Marthasville” to honor the Governor’s daughter. Later, J. Edgar Thomson, Chief Engineer of the Georgia Railroad, suggested the town be renamed “Atlantica-Pacifica”, which was shortened to “Atlanta”. The residents approved, and the town was incorporated as Atlanta on December 29, 1847.
By 1860, Atlanta’s population had grown to 9,554. During the American Civil War, the nexus of multiple railroads in Atlanta made the city a hub for the distribution of military supplies. In 1864, the Union Army moved southward following the capture of Chattanooga and began its invasion of north Georgia. The region surrounding Atlanta was the location of several major army battles, culminating with the Battle of Atlanta and a four-month-long siege of the city by the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman. On September 1, 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood made the decision to retreat from Atlanta, and he ordered the destruction of all public buildings and possible assets that could be of use to the Union Army. On the next day, Mayor James Calhoun surrendered Atlanta to the Union Army, and on September 7, Sherman ordered the city’s civilian population to evacuate. On November 11, 1864, Sherman prepared for the Union Army’s March to the Sea by ordering the destruction of Atlanta’s remaining military assets.
Rebuilding the city
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Atlanta was gradually rebuilt. Due to the city’s superior rail transportation network, the state capital was moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta in 1868. In the 1880 Census, Atlanta surpassed Savannah as Georgia’s largest city. Beginning in the 1880s, Henry W. Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, promoted Atlanta to potential investors as a city of the “New South” that would be based upon a modern economy and less reliant on agriculture. By 1885, the founding of the Georgia School of Technology (now Georgia Tech) and the Atlanta University Center had established Atlanta as a center for higher education. In 1895, Atlanta hosted the Cotton States and International Exposition, which attracted nearly 800,000 attendees and successfully promoted the New South’s development to the world.
Beginning of the 20th century
In 1907, Peachtree Street, the main street of Atlanta, was busy with streetcars and automobiles.
During the first decades of the 20th century, Atlanta experienced a period of unprecedented growth. In three decades’ time, Atlanta’s population tripled as the city limits expanded to include nearby streetcar suburbs. The city’s skyline emerged with the construction of the Equitable, Flatiron, Empire, and Candler buildings; and Sweet Auburn emerged as a center of black commerce. The period was also marked by strife and tragedy. Increased racial tensions led to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, which left at least 27 people dead and over 70 injured. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish-American factory superintendent, was convicted of the murder of a 13 year old girl in a highly publicized trial most see as having been deeply tainted by anti-Semitism. He was hanged in Marietta by a lynch mob in 1915 after having his death sentence commuted, an event which deeply impacted the Jewish community in Atlanta and across the country, and was part of what sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. On May 21, 1917, the Great Atlanta Fire destroyed 1,938 buildings in what is now the Old Fourth Ward, resulting in one fatality and the displacement of 10,000 people.
On December 15, 1939, Atlanta hosted the premiere of Gone with the Wind, the epic film based on the best-selling novel by Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell. The gala event at Loew’s Grand Theatre was attended by the film’s legendary producer, David O. Selznick, and the film’s stars Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, and Olivia de Havilland, but Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, an African American actress, was barred from the event due to racial segregation laws and policies.
Metropolitan area’s growth
Atlanta played a vital role in the Allied effort during World War II due to the city’s war-related manufacturing companies, railroad network and military bases, leading to rapid population and economic growth. In the 1950s, the city’s newly constructed highway system allowed middle class Atlantans the ability to relocate to the suburbs. As a result, the city began to make up an ever-smaller proportion of the metropolitan area’s population.
Civil rights movement
During the 1960s, Atlanta was a major organizing center of the civil rights movement, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and students from Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities playing major roles in the movement’s leadership. While minimal compared to other cities, Atlanta was not free of racial strife. In 1961, the city attempted to thwart blockbusting by erecting road barriers in Cascade Heights, countering the efforts of civic and business leaders to foster Atlanta as the “city too busy to hate”. Desegregation of the public sphere came in stages, with public transportation desegregated by 1959, the restaurant at Rich’s department store by 1961, movie theaters by 1963, and public schools by 1973.
In 1960, whites comprised 61.7% of the city’s population. During the 1950s–70s, white flight from urban areas led to a significant demographic shift. By 1970, African Americans were a majority of the city’s population and exercised new-found political influence by electing Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973. Under Mayor Jackson’s tenure, Atlanta’s airport was modernized, solidifying the city’s role as a transportation center. The opening of the Georgia World Congress Center in 1976 heralded Atlanta’s rise as a convention city. Construction of the city’s subway system began in 1975, with rail service commencing in 1979. Despite these improvements, Atlanta lost over 100,000 residents between 1970 and 1990, over 20% of its population.
1996 Summer Olympic Games
The Olympic flag waves at the 1996 games
Atlanta was selected as the site for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Following the announcement, the city government undertook several major construction projects to improve Atlanta’s parks, sporting venues, and transportation infrastructure. While the games themselves were marred by numerous organizational inefficiencies as well as the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the spectacle was a watershed event in Atlanta’s history that initiated a fundamental transformation of the city in the decade that followed.
During the 2000s, Atlanta underwent a profound physical, cultural, and demographic transformation. Suburbanization, a booming economy, and new migrants decreased the city’s black percentage from a high of 67% in 1990 to 54% in 2010. From 2000 to 2010, Atlanta gained 22,763 white residents, 5,142 Asian residents, and 3,095 Hispanic residents, while the city’s black population decreased by 31,678. Much of the city’s demographic change during the decade was driven by young, college-educated professionals: from 2000 to 2009, the three-mile radius surrounding Downtown Atlanta gained 9,722 residents aged 25 to 34 holding at least a four-year degree, an increase of 61%. Between the mid-1990s and 2010, stimulated by funding from the HOPE VI program, Atlanta demolished nearly all of its public housing, a total of 17,000 units and about 10% of all housing units in the city. In 2005, the $2.8 billion BeltLine project was adopted, with the stated goals of converting a disused 22-mile freight railroad loop that surrounds the central city into an art-filled multi-use trail and increasing the city’s park space by 40%. Atlanta’s cultural offerings expanded during the 2000s: the High Museum of Art doubled in size; the Alliance Theatre won a Tony Award; and art galleries were established on the once-industrial Westside.