The reason Buckhead will vote in the Nov. 7 Atlanta mayoral election — indeed, the reason the dirt beneath our feet is in the city — has a lot to do with race.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Atlanta was changing, something former Buckhead resident Mark Pendergrast notes in his new book about Atlanta and urbanism, “City on the Verge.” As white people were fleeing the city — the “white flight” — African-Americans were moving in droves to traditionally white neighborhoods like Mozley Park, West End, Adair Park and Grove Park.

According to the 1940 census, African-Americans accounted for 34 percent of the city’s population. By 1952, that number would rise to 41 percent.

This shift was taking place under the watchful eye of perhaps the shrewdest politician Atlanta has known, a man who was elected mayor a mind-boggling six times: William B. Hartsfield. He is considered by many to be one of the great Atlanta leaders. He served as mayor from 1937 to 1941 and from 1942 to 1961.

Hartsfield made his concerns known in a letter sent to a few Buckhead residents in 1943. Buckhead was not in the city at that time.

“The most important thing to remember cannot be publicized in the press or made the subject of public speeches,” he wrote. “Our negro population is growing by leaps and bounds. … Our migration is good, white, home-owning citizens. 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.”

He was right. It started in earnest soon after, when the U.S. Supreme Court found white primaries illegal, paving the way for African-Americans to vote in primaries in 1946. Immediately, the black community wielded more influence over the city than it had in the past.

Behind the scenes, Hartsfield worked with black leaders to give them a larger voice in the city, but it was only a matter of time before the tables were turned. Of this he was certain.

After a failed referendum in 1947, under the benevolent name Plan of Improvement, Hartsfield successfully incorporated Buckhead into the city of Atlanta, which came to pass in January 1952.

“Atlanta’s black population dropped instantaneously from 41 to 33 percent,” Pendergrast writes in “City on the Verge.”

Hartsfield assured a white majority for another nine years and beyond. Buckhead resident Ivan Allen served as mayor from 1962 to January 1970 and Sam Massell served from 1970 to January 1974.

It wouldn’t last. Massell was defeated by Maynard Jackson, an African-American, in 1973. Atlanta has not had a white mayor since.

The “white flight” continued, further shifting the balance of power, something Hartsfield continued to rail against until his death in 1971. Massell coincidently has said he is most proud of the peaceful transition of power, which occurred while he was captaining the ship. The same didn’t happen in other cities.

I called Massell to see if there was any validity to the idea race played a role in the incorporation of Buckhead. Yes, he said, unfortunately there was.

He was a friend of Hartsfield, knew him well and heard him warn against the growing influence of African-American voters and the need to expand the city in order to maintain a white majority.

Buckhead now constitutes 18 percent of Atlanta’s population, 20 percent of its land mass and, according to Massell, contributes more than 45 percent of the ad valorem taxes, a steep price to pay for a critical piece in a political “Game of Thrones.”


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