How History Made Atlanta’s Buckhead a Secessionist Battleground

Some residents of the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta want a divorce. For more than a year, a secessionist movement has been brewing in Buckhead, a wealthy neighborhood of about 100,000 people on the north side of Atlanta. The movement claims to have raised millions of dollars, secured the support of Georgia gubernatorial candidate (and former senator) David Perdue, and deeply angered a city already divided by race and class.

On her first episode as co-host of Today Explained, reports Noel King from Atlanta, where she spoke with supporters and detractors of the secessionist movement. Along the way, Noel explores the claim that secession would have profound implications for Atlanta’s economy and public school system.

Listen to the full episode:

The Buckhead City movement mirrors other secession campaigns in recent American history. In Louisiana, residents of an unincorporated portion of Baton Rouge Parish that is wealthier and whiter than the city of Baton Rouge voted in 2019 to leave the parish and form a separate city with a separate school district. . In Alaska, a conservative community in Anchorage seeks to break away and form its own town. And in rural Oregon, some residents hope to reach Idaho.

Those seeking to keep Atlanta together argue that the secession movement is partly motivated by racism, which King explores in interviews with campaign supporters on Today explained.

In preparation for the episode, she also spoke with historian Dan Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, who explained Buckhead’s rise as Atlanta’s most privileged community. Their conversation helps us answer the questions: Why this community? Why now?

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

christmas king

What do you know about Buckhead these days?

Dan Immergluck

Buckhead is a very wealthy part of the city of Atlanta. It’s on the north side, the far north of the city, and a good part of it is mostly very large, very expensive houses on large lots, houses that were built mostly before the 1940s and often a little before that. There are some that I would call mansions. It is traditionally the district of the biggest movers of the city and sometimes of the region; CEOs, dear lawyers, it’s a very affluent community. And on the east side along the highway is an intense commercial district that has large office buildings and a significant number of apartments also known for a lively nightlife, let’s put it this way. And a big mall, too: The city’s main high-end mall is in Buckhead.

christmas king

Besides the CEOs, I understand some of the Real Housewives live in Buckhead?

Dan Immergluck

Yes. Lots of drama – and also houses of influence. Some of these expensive homes have generated some controversy. You know, sometimes music stars, but also influencers who will rent a house and create a hubbub in the community.

christmas king

Very well. So we have an idea of ​​what it is now. It has a special story. Tell me about Buckhead’s story.

Dan Immergluck

Well, Buckhead was an upmarket white suburb for much of the 20th century. The white power structure really lived on in Buckhead, mostly in the 20th century, and to some extent it still does. And during the 1940s, longtime mayor William Hartsfield recognized that he could build a coalition between the highly educated and affluent white power structure and the black power structure, often made up of ministers, leaders blacks and black businessmen. And he developed this coalition that Atlanta became famous for later in the century, which some people called the Atlanta Urban Diet. The city grew, the metro grew, and more and more the suburbs grew and the white flight began. But also the suburbs were where people moved around the region – straight to the suburbs, especially white people.

christmas king

And they didn’t care about the rest of town?

Dan Immergluck

Yes. More and more, they were not coming to town. It was about 10 years ago Brown v. Board of Education. Hartsfield recognizes that he needs to think about expanding the city to keep the kind of balance of power in his favor so the city doesn’t go all black.

And then in 1944, something really important happened. The Supreme Court banned what had been an all-white Democratic primary, so black people were not allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primary. And of course, this is the south in the 1940s so the Democratic Party is the dominant party. And when that’s reversed, all of a sudden, black voting power becomes a lot more important. And the threat of the black power structure taking over the mayor’s office and the city council becomes a real threat to Hartsfield. He argues that what could also happen is that the white working class community could somehow expand Atlanta in a way that would take power from that coalition. But really, it’s about preserving white corporate power. And so he wants to expand the city quite dramatically.

Buckhead is the real prize. This is before the commercial district was so big, but still wants to include it because of the tax base. It also expanded Atlanta westward and, in 1952, the city tripled in size.

christmas king

I think what you’re telling me is how Buckhead became part of Atlanta. Tell me how it went.

Dan Immergluck

Sure. Thus, in the 1940s, particularly with the Supreme Court’s decision giving blacks the possibility of voting in the Democratic primary, Hartsfield put forward a number of proposals to expand the city in order to annex suburbs. A few townships, but mostly white suburbs and mostly Buckhead. And he fails a few times, but in 1950 he comes up with this big expansion plan. And in 1951, it passed, and the city officially annexed more or less what it is now. The city therefore tripled in size.

christmas king

And when Hartsfield annexed Buckhead to Atlanta, how many people would that have added to Atlanta’s population?

Dan Immergluck

It added over 100,000 people.

christmas king

And almost all of them were…

Dan Immergluck

White. Almost all of them, well, a very large percentage of them were white.

christmas king

How does this change the balance of power?

Dan Immergluck

Well, he added half a dozen white city councilors to the city council, to start with. It gave [Hartsfield], at least for the next 20 years, iron control of the city. So it kind of got locked into the urban black/white regime. It also empowered this regime for a very important part of the 20th century, didn’t it? The mid-20th century is this time when cities are growing, the middle class is growing. And unlike some cities of this period, Atlanta retains this large high-income population. What they don’t remember so much about the mid-20th century is the bourgeois, working-class kind of white population. This population is definitely fleeing the city. They go to the suburbs, they go to the suburbs and they create a set of white working-class and bourgeois suburbs.

christmas king

Well, that’s interesting. Hartsfield annexes a wealthy predominantly white area. Other white people come out of Atlanta and go to the suburbs. How did the people of Buckhead feel when Hartsfield annexed them to this town of which they had not been a part? Was there any resistance?

Dan Immergluck

There was some resistance, but usually it’s a period of time…and there was resistance that made it fail in the 40s the first few times. But in general, Hartsfield is basically saying, “Listen, if we leave town on this trajectory, it will be a black-run town and that will create more problems. So he basically scares Buckhead by saying (and it’s ironic considering what’s going on, considering how fear is now being used in the opposite direction), “Do you want the main town metro in Georgia is run by blacks?”

christmas king

It’s an extraordinary role reversal when you consider what’s happening now. It should also be noted that Atlanta is a black-ruled city.

Dan Immergluck

It is, and it has been since Maynard Jackson. But it has now, for a few years, been a black minority town. So it’s always Black led. But to some extent the question is how much longer? Because the city is about 52% non-black at this point. But it’s a real reversal of roles because the annexation was motivated by racism, and the desire for secession is motivated by racism.

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