There is no major metropolitan area that has a better-organized black upper class than the city of Atlanta. Exerting its power in the worlds of politics, business and academia, Atlanta’s black elite sets the gold standard for its counterparts in other cities.
“We’ve had three black mayors with national reputations,” says my friend Janice White Sikes of the city’s Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, the nation’s best collection of black Atlanta history documents. “We are home to the best-known historically black colleges. And in addition to hosting the Olympics we have some black-owned companies that are the oldest of their kind in the country.”
Although she has spent most of her career researching and writing about an older, more rural Georgia, it is obvious that what excites Sikes most as we sit in the dining room of the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton is talking about the new Atlanta and how the black community has played a role in making it one of the most popular destinations for elite blacks in search of a city where they are in control.
“This city produced older civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and Congressman John Lewis,” she adds while looking over some notes describing her uncle, a black class-of-1933 Harvard graduate, “but Atlanta has also elevated people like Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, and Johnetta Cole to national standing in recent years.”
Unlike other cities of its size and sophistication, Atlanta has seen a black elite forge strong enough ties between blacks, whites, and the business communities of both groups to elect three consecutive black mayors. What is also interesting is that Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, and current mayor William Campbell are solidly representative of the black upper class—a characteristic that historically has not been welcome in black electoral candidates in cities like Washington, Chicago, or Detroit. In fact, when Marion Barry and Coleman Young of Washington and Detroit, respectively, were campaigning in mayoral races, they bragged about their ties to the urban working-class community. In Atlanta, good lineage, money, and top school credentials are appreciated by the black mainstream.
In addition to excelling in political clout, black Atlantans outstrip other cities’ elite in the area of college ties. Atlanta’s black academic community is larger than any other city’s because of prestigious schools like Spelman, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Clark Atlanta. When former Spelman College president Johnetta Cole received a $20 million gift from Bill and Camille Cosby (she is a Spelman alumnus) in 1993, other cities and their black colleges took notice of the strong black university consortium that was growing on the southwest side of Atlanta.
And further reinforcing the role and place of the black elite in the city are its black-owned businesses. While it does not outnumber New York or Chicago in black entrepreneurs, the city does claim the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company (Atlanta Life), the largest black-owned real estate development firm (H. J. Russell), and some of the country’s top black-controlled investment firms, law firms, auto dealerships, and food service companies.
SOURCE: Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 321-322