130th Annual Meeting
Immigrant Atlanta: How Newcomers Have Enriched the City
Marni Davis, December 2015
At a press conference last April, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed responded to the Republican legislators of Georgia who had denounced President Obama’s immigration policies. As the Journal-Constitution reported, Reed bypassed his political adversaries, reaching out to immigrants directly: if you’ve found yourself in a part of the state where you feel unwelcome, he urged them, consider making Atlanta your home. “Folks that don’t embrace [immigrant] communities,” he announced, “are on the wrong side of history.”
This level of enthusiasm and welcome from Atlanta’s leadership to the foreign-born was historically unprecedented. But immigrants have always been integral to the life and culture of the city, even as almost everything about their numbers, origins, and residential patterns has changed over the years.
European newcomers—mostly from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany—settled in Atlanta as early as the 1840s. On the eve of the Civil War, 6 percent of the city’s white population was European-born. Immigrants had organized a few religious institutions by then: an Irish missionary helped found the city’s first Catholic church, which served immigrant and native-born alike; and local Jews, most from central Europe, had organized the Hebrew Benevolent Society and established a Jewish section of the municipal cemetery.1
After the war and for decades to follow, some Atlanta legislators and business leaders sought to expand and modernize the local economy. They banded together with other white southern progressives who regarded African Americans as undesirable workers, and proposed to increase the industrial and agricultural labor pool by persuading Europeans to move to the region. But this effort met with more opposition than support; in a 1911 meeting of southern immigration advocates, former Atlanta mayor Robert F. Maddox referred to white Georgians’ “prejudice . . . against the foreigner” and suggested that they avoid using the word immigration in their efforts.2 Accordingly, Atlanta’s foreign-born communities remained small, never constituting more than 3 percent of Atlanta’s population during the first several decades of the 20th century.
But the number of immigrants in Atlanta did in fact grow, nearly doubling between 1900 and 1920. Hundreds of them hailed from Greece, Syria and Lebanon, or Turkey and Rhodes, creating ethnic communities new to Atlanta’s immigrant population. But by far, most of the foreign-born in Atlanta at the time were eastern European Jews. In 1920, nearly 1,800 Jews from Russia and Poland called Atlanta home—more than all of the foreign-born from England, Ireland, and Germany combined.3
The vast majority of these newcomers settled in ethnic enclaves in and near downtown. As petty entrepreneurs and employees of small-scale, immigrant-owned businesses, they frequently catered to both black and white customers as well as to their fellow immigrants. One usually doesn’t imagine ethnic neighborhoods, much less multiethnic neighborhoods, in southern settings, but by the turn of the century, most southern cities had one, and Atlanta’s was larger and more diverse than most. In 1913, a local reporter referred to Decatur Street, the main drag of downtown Atlanta’s working-class, mixed-race residential and commercial district, as “the melting pot of Dixie.”4
Today, few remnants of that period of Atlanta’s immigrant history can be found downtown. As residents of early 20th-century immigrant enclaves achieved economic mobility, they moved into segregated white areas in northern Atlanta and the suburbs. By midcentury, most had left the urban core, taking their churches, synagogues, and community centers with them. Huge swaths of their old neighborhoods in southeast Atlanta were targeted for urban renewal. What were once vibrant and diverse residential districts are now parking lots for Turner Field or lanes of the Interstate Highway System. Those seeking the few remaining vestiges can visit the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, on the site of the city’s first Catholic church, a block from the Georgia State Capitol, or the several Jewish sections of Oakland Cemetery, the first of which dates to 1860.
Though stigmatized by laws and regulations directed at undocumented aliens, new immigrants have developed their own bustling neighborhoods.
But 21st-century Atlanta is a more diverse city than it has been at any time in its history. After the liberalization of American immigration policy in 1965, people from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America began to settle throughout the South. By the time the 1996 Olympics came to town, Atlanta was known as a “gateway city” for a new wave of immigration to the United States. Today, the Metro Atlanta region—which includes nearly two dozen counties surrounding the urban core—is home to the second-fastest-growing foreign-born population in the United States. Nearly 14 percent of Atlanta’s current residents were born in another country; the rise in the city’s immigrant population has outpaced the growth of the general population over the past several decades.5
Atlanta’s ethnic and national diversity is most robust at its margins. Currently, 95 percent of Atlanta’s foreign-born live on its outermost edges, in Atlanta’s suburbs.6 Though stigmatized and marginalized by laws and regulations directed at undocumented aliens, these new groups have developed their own bustling neighborhoods, and in some locations have come to constitute a sizable population in metro-area towns and school districts. Perhaps most famously, Buford Highway is one of the most intensely concentrated ethnic-owned business corridors in the Southeast, known for its Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Mexican restaurants and groceries. The small, vibrant city of Clarkston, just outside the eastern edge of the perimeter, has become a locus of American refugee resettlement, hosting immigrants from more than 60 nations; it has been referred to as the “Ellis Island of the South” and “the future of America on steroids.”7
Clearly, the arc of Atlanta’s history bends toward ethnic and national diversity and will likely continue to do so. But will it be a city of increased equality of opportunity for the foreign-born? Racial and economic segregation continues to isolate working-class immigrant communities and, in fact, has intensified since the 1990s. At the same time, more than 20 percent of the metropolitan area’s entrepreneurs are immigrants; as business owners, workers, and consumers, they are undeniably vital to the local economy. What role will immigration play in Atlanta’s future? If Mayor Reed is correct, that role will only grow in every way.
Marni Davis is associate professor of history at Georgia State University.
1. Franklin M. Garrett, Atlanta and Environs, vol. 1 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969), 240; Steven Hertzberg, Strangers within the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta 1845–1915 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1978), 23.
2. Proceedings of the Southern Settlement and Development Organization, Baltimore, MD, 1911–1912, 23–24.
3. US Census of 1920: Population of Fulton County.
4. Atlanta Journal, May 18, 1913, quoted in Clifford M. Kuhn, Contesting the New South Order (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 48.
5. “The World in Atlanta: An Analysis of the Foreign-Born Population in Metro Atlanta,” Atlanta Regional Commission, March 2013.
6. “Immigrants in 2010 Metropolitan Atlanta: A Decade of Change,” Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute, October 2011, 6.
7. T. J. Raphael, “America Will Become Majority-Minority in 2043,” PRI’s The World, October 3, 2014, http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-03/america-will-become-majority-minority-2043-many-ways-new-america-has-already.
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