Dr. Maurice Hobson in "(re)Defining History: Uncovering the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre."
Dr. Maurice Hobson in “(re)Defining History: Uncovering the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre.”

With a new series called “(re)Defining History,” WABE Studios hopes to take a closer look at unexamined parts of Atlanta’s history. 

The first episode of the new series tells the story of the Atlanta Race Massacre. Over four days in September in 1906, dozens of Black people were killed and hundreds more injured in what today is one of the largest outbreaks of racial violence in Georgia’s history. 

But the story is somehow deeper and more insidious than that. The massacre grew out of a political battle between gubernatorial candidates Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Atlanta Journal, and Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. As Black people began to make economic gains and win voting rights, both candidates stoked fear into white Atlantans. Newspapers published sensationalized stories of Black men attacking white women, which helped lead to the events of the massacre.

The episode premiered on WABE TV on Sept. 24, but will be available streaming nationwide on Oct. 1 on wabe.org, PBS Passport, and WABE’s YouTube channel. Ahead of that release, Rough Draft spoke with producer Brianna Carr about the project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk a bit about the beginning of this project, and why you decided to make the Atlanta Race Massacre the first subject?

Brianna Carr: This project is actually a labor of love and a partnership between the National Center For Civil and Human Rights and WABE Studios. We were following an event called Equitable Dinners that the Truth & Transformation Initiative at the center was hosting. We were at the time kind of curious about that dinner, and we were shooting some footage and doing live streams, and one of the Equitable Dinners covered the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre.

From there, we started learning more about it, and … it is an unfortunately mishandled and misunderstood chapter in Atlanta’s history. We saw that it would be a great opportunity to really dig deep into the story and connect with some of the people on the ground who are doing research around the story, and to give it a platform – to kind of give it life again. To honor those victims, known and unknown, and to kind of tell the whole story. Because – I hope I’m not getting ahead of myself – but you’ll learn in the story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, which was formerly known as the Atlanta Race Riot, that media was a major component of it. Media was a major component of inciting the racial violence. They were publishing articles accusing Black males of raping white women, and that incited a lot of tension and ultimately violence in Atlanta. 

I felt that it was a redeeming moment for WABE, a news company, to retell that story and to do it with integrity and honesty – to confront a painful part of our past, but with honesty. It proved to be a great partnership that we had the opportunity to take up with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

I was going to bring up the media aspect of it. I feel like it’s rare you get such a blatant instance of that, and we both work in media, so I wanted to ask – how does WABE hope to reckon with that?

Carr: You know, WABE is an independent news company, and one of the things that we strive to do in addition to reflecting Atlanta and being the heartbeat of Atlanta, is we want to share news that empowers and inspires the Atlanta community. So what better way to do that than to bring healing to Atlanta communities through educating them on this unfortunate part of our past? 

Part of confronting painful parts of history … can be kind of hard, because why are we bringing this up now? It was so long ago, why bring this up? Because we’re in many ways, again, bringing healing. That’s what I love about the Truth & Transformation team at the center, is that they intentionally reflect back on parts of history that were mishandled, or not told, or swept under the rug, and say okay – it’s time for us to confront this so that we can move forward in healing. Because unfortunately, you’ll find that a lot of the racial terror that happened throughout history had social repercussions that are directly attached to that, right? So you understand in the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, there was an exodus of Black businesses that left Atlanta. So that directly impacts today’s economy. There may be some connection between the racial disparity of Black businesses in Atlanta. Because of the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, Black communities were pushed out of Downtown into the Sweet Auburn area – which in essence proved to be one of the cradles of the Civil Rights movement, and out of that burst so much progress for the nation as a whole. But there’s a direct correlation between some of these traumas of our past and what we see now in the modern day landscape. That’s why it’s so important for us to look back on our past and say, how did A + B = C? How did this impact where we are now? And maybe we need to go back and look and see if we can right some of those wrongs. 

Speaking of that, in the documentary, there are a lot of people represented who are helping to make those connections. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about some of the people who worked on this – like how did Dr. Hobson come on board, and how did you go about deciding who should be included?

Carr: We have of course, the Truth & Transformation team who lead in the Remembrance Days around the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre. There are several events that they host around the anniversary of that tragic event. They led in assisting with the development of the show, and then reached out to Dr. Clarissa Myrick-Harris, who has been on the ground researching. With her research and knowledge of the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, we were able to connect with Ann Hill Bond, who is a part of the Fulton County Remembrance Coalition, where they are on the ground with the descendants of some of the 1906 Race Massacre victims … or the descendants of those who may have been impacted by the 1906 Race Massacre. It was an honor to connect with them and to see what they’re doing in the community, and to speak with Ann Hill Bond. She is very knowledgeable about the impact and the history around what was going on in the community during that time, politically, socially – just very knowledgeable about that.

Dr. Maurice Hobson, who is a noted historian and Georgia State University professor – he recently wrote a book on the legend of the Black mecca, so he is very knowledgeable of Africana studies, very knowledgeable about Atlanta, about Black communities.  It was just fitting for him to take the lead on taking us on this journey to uncover the truth behind what led to the massacre. He’s very bold and dynamic in his delivery. 

As is the nature of the beast, we had to pivot so many times with producing this film. We were supposed to interview a number of descendants, but that didn’t come through. But Dr. Hobson was like – you know what? I have contact information for the niece of Walter White. And Walter White actually witnessed the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre when he was 13. His story is so phenomenal, because he exemplifies what can happen if you take the trauma of the situation and transform it to do something good. He used his platform. Although he was white passing, he made the intentional decision to let what he experienced motivate him to fight for what was right. We were so honored to interview his niece, Ms. Rose Palmer, and she was able to recount the stories that had been told to her, and just talk a little bit about his legacy with the NAACP, and how he went on to dedicate his life to investigating lynchings. And many historians will tell you that what happened between September 22 and the 25 was just numbers of lynchings around Atlanta. Public killings of Black people. [White] went on to investigate those lynchings. So what he witnessed inspired him to use his platform for good. He was like an undercover agent who went into the community. He was the perfect agent to go into these communities and investigate what was going on. 

This is going to be an ongoing series, correct?

Carr: Yes. “(re)Defining History: Uncovering the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre” was the pilot episode. We were able to do that because of the generous funding of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights. But we of course want to tell more stories like this. There are so many stories to be uncovered in Atlanta, and that can only be made possible through our viewership, and through funding and community partnerships. We are in the process of seeking funding so that we can continue to tell stories like this. 

And if I can also add that “Uncovering the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre,” that episode was created to spark interest. It was created to incite a curiosity for our viewers to go out and find out more. Because there was no way for us to cover all the details in half an hour – this story just unfolds, and unfolds, and unfolds again. They just recently discovered two more victims of the 1906 Race Massacre. They just recently discovered them, their names and everything. There’s so much to be added to this, and so I want to make sure that our viewers know that this story only scratches the surface. It is a seed that we wanted to plant in our viewers’ hearts, that they will go on the center’s website and get involved and learn more about events like Equitable Dinners, and learn more about Remembrance Days, where they can take part in honoring the victims.  We want to encourage our viewers to just go out and seek out the truth of history on their own. This is just a seed.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.