Westside History is Black History that Made American History: English Avenue Neighborhood Historical Highlights

During #BlackHistoryMonth, we are highlighting some of the places, people and events that form the rich history of our neighborhoods — English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights and Atlanta University Center.

English Avenue

1881: Captain James W. English elected Mayor of Atlanta

A revered Civil War Captain, James W. English is the namesake of the English Avenue neighborhood. After his election as mayor in 1881, his efforts as promoter-in-chief of Atlanta as an industrial hub included organizing the 1881 International Cotton Exposition directly adjacent to the railroad on the northeast edge of English Avenue. It aimed at “attracting Northern investment to Atlanta by demonstrating the virtually unlimited potential for economic development and capital growth in the New South.” In 1891 the ex-mayor’s eldest son, James W. English, Jr., purchased a large tract south of the exposition site and began the development of the contemporary area of English Avenue. It was designed for Atlanta’s White working class. Transportation was fundamental to the neighborhood’s early expansion. Many residents in the northern area of the neighborhood, near North Avenue, commuted to the nearby downtown business district along Peachtree Street via the several streetcars that connected the neighborhood to the downtown district until the 1960s. English Avenue School opened in 1910 to serve White, working-class students from the nearby community — but that would change several years later in 1950.

1950: City of Atlanta changes the racial designation of English Avenue School from White to Black

The population of English Avenue saw a significant change in demographics over the course of the first half of the 20th century. A once dominantly White, working class neighborhood, English Avenue had shifted toward a majority Black population by the middle of the century. Quickly, the white population began to migrate out of the community resulting in a gradual decline in the overall population and the disappearance of resources necessary for supporting residents.

1960: English Avenue School is bombed

In the wake of the mobilization of the Atlanta Student Movement, the English Avenue School was victim to a bombing in December of 1960. The act was interpreted as retaliation for the Atlanta University Center students’ desegregation campaign. A Chicago Tribune article reported that two “classrooms and an auditorium were smashed and windows were knocked out in nearby homes. The blast was heard 10 miles away.” Just the day prior, the auditorium had been used for a prayer session ahead of anti-segregation protests.

1995: English Avenue School permanently closes

With the community population having shrunk significantly since the school’s foundation, the City of Atlanta made the decision to close the English Avenue School in1995. Since the school’s closing, the building has remained unoccupied. In 2010, the building was bought by the Greater Vine City Opportunities Program, under the leadership of Mable Thomas, a graduate of the English Avenue School, with the intention of converting the building into a community center. On March 23, 2020, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. To date, Thomas’ ambitions of a community center have not been realized, but the building will remain protected for the foreseeable future.

1998 & 2011: Tom Wolfe publishes A Man in Full; Snow on tha Bluff airs in theaters

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the English Avenue community had fallen into decay. The outward migration from the community over the past 50 years had left vacant, blighted properties scattered throughout the neighborhoods and scarce community resources. As a result, some residents turned to crime and drugs to fund their needs — which in turn led to an outbreak of violence. With robberies, homicides and arrests quickly on the rise in the neighborhood, national media took notice. In 1998, Tom Wolfe would publish A Man in Full, a controversial, best-selling novel highlighting tensions between Atlanta’s wealthy White elites and a Black collegiate athlete and English Avenue resident accused of rape. Over a decade later, Snow on tha Bluff would air in theaters. The movie is a dramatization of the illegal drug trade in the English Avenue community, colloquially known as “Tha Bluff,” and the violence within the community.

2006: 92-year old Kathryn Johnson is murdered by three Atlanta Police officers

The brutal 2006 killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston – resident of Neal Street – by three Atlanta Police officers brought the use of excessive force and police brutality against black Atlantans to greater public attention and prompted a reorganization of the City’s drug investigation unit. Further, the killing prompted a renewed push for community mobilization and improvement. The incident sparked the modern movement for a national conversation surrounding police brutality and reform in the law enforcement system that continues to today.