On New Year’s Day, Buckhead passed a significant milestone with little fanfare.
Given the war of yard signs, it was surprising. Certainly, someone should have seized the moment to make a speech.
Apparently history is not our strong suit.
On Jan. 1, 1952, the city of Atlanta officially annexed Buckhead, formerly a community in unincorporated Fulton County. Overnight, the city tripled in size and added 100,000 residents.
Mayor William B. Hartsfield achieved his long-sought goal of bringing the densely-populated northern suburbs into the city 70 years ago. His rivals, who had fought him tooth and nail, threw up their hands, exhausted by the long-time mayor’s doggedness.
He tried to annex Buckhead twice before, in 1938 and 1947; voters rejected the latter attempt two to one.
Undeterred, Hartsfield, who served as Atlanta’s mayor from 1937 to 1941 and from 1942 to 1961, switched tactics.
The benignly named Local Government Commission of Fulton County, on which my grandfather F.M. “Buster” Bird served, studied the governmental structures of Fulton County, the city of Atlanta and “other municipalities” in Fulton County.
The Plan of Improvement was the result of the committee’s work.
On one of the first pages of the plan under “The Plan in Brief,” item No. 1 is “Extend the city limits of Atlanta.” The first chapter under Plan of Improvement spells out how the city of Atlanta should expand, including through Buckhead.
The committee submitted the plan to the state legislature in 1951.
The state put a referendum before the voters in the impacted areas. But, of course, it wasn’t a straight annexation this time. The Plan of Improvement included the consolidation of city and county services, among other things.
It was controversial, which Hartsfield knew. He and his supporters avoided the term “annexation.” Perhaps it didn’t poll well. An Atlanta paper went so far as to write the plan was not an annexation.
Several groups including the Buckhead Fifty vocally and publicly opposed the plan.
In her book, “Buckhead: A Place for All Time,” Susan Kessler Bernard related a story about Buckhead residents being surprised to see Atlanta police officers on their streets on Jan. 1, 1952. They didn’t realize the Plan of Improvement expanded Atlanta’s boundaries past their community until it was too late.
However, several individuals — roughly 2 to 1 — told the historian they were in favor the annexation, indicating they and their contemporaries knew city expansion was in the plan.
And several articles published before the referendum vote referenced the expansion, including one from the Atlanta Constitution in 1950, “Area Extension Part of Improvement Plan.”
“The new limits as they shaped them would extend straight across Fulton County on the north about two and a half miles north of Buckhead,” the article said.
It appears pleading ignorance was sour grapes.
What was less well known was Hartsfield’s motivation and the urgency behind his actions. White families were moving to the suburbs in droves, and African-Americans were gaining more clout downtown.
Hartsfield made his concerns known in a letter sent to a few Buckhead residents in 1943.
“Our negro population is growing by leaps and bounds…Our migration is good white, home owning citizens,” Hartsfield wrote. “With the Federal government insisting on political recognition of negroes in local affairs, the time is not far distant when they will become a potent political force in Atlanta.”
This wasn’t publicized at the time.
On June 28, 1951, voters approved the plan “overwhelmingly,” 23,135 to 5,622. On Jan. 1, 1952, Atlanta’s black population fell from 41% to 33%.
In its front-page article on the referendum, the Atlanta Constitution wrote, “Buckhead, which previously has turned thumbs down on all plans of annexation, approved the Plan of Improvement by an almost 2 to 1 vote.”