Westside History is Black History that Made American History: Vine City Neighborhood Historical Highlights

During #BlackHistoryMonth, Westside Future Fund is 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.

Vine City

1905: Alonzo Herndon founds the Atlanta Life Insurance Company

Formerly enslaved, Alonzo Herndon (1858-1927) is heralded as “Atlanta’s first Black millionaire.” He was a brilliant businessman who started as a barber, opening several shops across the city including one at 66 Peachtree Street that donned crystal chandeliers, gold fixtures and the reputation of being the largest and best barbershop in the region. He went on to start the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905 with $5,000 in assets — and by 1922, the company’s value had grown to over $400,000.

Using the wealth from his barbershops and life insurance company, Herndon purchased more than 100 properties worth more than $325,000. By his death in 1927, it was estimated that he was worth roughly $1 million — roughly $17 million today — making him one of the wealthiest Black people in the nation at the time. Herndon and his wife, Adrienne, designed, purchased and moved into a Beaux Arts home for the family in the southern part of Vine City that was constructed by Black Atlanta craftsmen in 1910. The structure still stands today and sits in close proximity to the Vine City MARTA station.

1923: Dorothy Bolden is born in Vine City

At only nine years old, Dorothy Bolden was already working as a domestic worker in a nearby Atlanta home, and she would continue in that work for the next 49 years. Her experience was tumultuous, and she was once arrested after an incident with her boss for “talking back to a white woman,” and she was submitted to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. These experiences led her to her calling.

A neighbor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Vine City, Bolden utilized their combined network to connect with families all over Atlanta, particularly women working as domestic workers. During the 1960s, domestic workers endured 13-hour workdays and received minimal pay. In 1968, Bolden began the process for the organization of a national union for domestic workers to improve wages and working conditions. She gathered more than 13,000 women from 10 cities to form the National Domestic Workers Union, an organization responsible for tremendous progress for domestic workers. Her work ultimately earned national recognition and earned her advisorships to the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

1966: Martin Luther King, Jr. moves to the Westside

Born in Atlanta in 1929, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved back in 1960 after years of studying theology in Boston and leading Civil Rights initiatives in Montgomery. His return came as he worked to expand the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and he preached alongside his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

In 1966, a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King and his family purchased the four-bedroom home at 234 Sunset Avenue in Vine City. He would spend the next two years in his Atlanta home, working tirelessly in the fight for equality and justice before being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Following his death, his wife Coretta Scott King remained at the home and founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a non-governmental, not-for-profit organization she led from the basement of their Westside home for years to come.

1967: Helen Howard founds the Vine City Foundation, Inc.

A resident of Vine City, Helen Howard saw a grave need for action to save the community from continued decline. Alongside fellow community members, Howard organized the Vine City Foundation, Inc. to provide urgently needed resources to residents including a free medical clinic, nursery, legal advice and a food cooperative.

1973: Maynard Jackson Jr. forms 1973 mayoral campaign at Pascal’s Restaurant

Facing the challenge of potentially being both the youngest and first Black Mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, Jr., knew he had to put together a world-class campaign for office. Tucked away in Vine City, Pascal’s was known as the gathering spot for political, religious and activist leaders. In 1973, Jackson gathered a small team to create a strategy to win the race to be Atlanta’s next mayor — their plan worked. Jackson went on to serve three terms (1974-1978, 1978-1982, 1990-1994) as mayor, second to only six-term Mayor William B. Hartsfield. Today, both men are the combined namesake of Atlanta’s airport, the busiest in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.