The Black Mecca 50 Years Later: Did Black Atlanta Get to the Promise Land?

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    A one-way ticket to anywhere in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina brought a vast number of displaced New Orleanians to the hotbed of the South – Atlanta – where Black political power precipitates African-American entrepreneurship, and where a cultural melting pot begets the crux of artistic expression from Mozart to hip-hop.

    Even since the 1970s, and still today, Atlanta has been Christened as the Black Mecca and for many and is a city where African Americans are believed to have the best opportunities for prosperity or for reinventing themselves. Fifty years after of the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, what has Black Atlanta achieved, and is it still a place for African Americans to thrive?

    “It’s no doubt about it,” said Herman J. Russell, chairman and founder of H.J. Russell and Company, which is a 50-year-old construction and real estate empire based in Atlanta. Russell started his construction business at 16 years old and is one of the living icons of Black business. “Atlanta is still the anchor for Black entrepreneurs,” said Russell. “Just for all phases of Black leadership. To be in education, to be in contract business, or to just be a doctor – whatever you may [want to] be. Atlanta is one of the greatest cities in the world to have your enterprise.”

    For decades, educational and employment opportunities have historically drawn African Americans to the Bible Belt South. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of African Americans in the Southern region increased by 18 percent from 2000 to 2010, bringing in an additional 3 million, and in 2010, the State of Georgia ranked fourth for the highest number of African Americans in the United States.

    President of Clark Atlanta University Carlton Brown agrees that education continues to play a key role in luring people to Atlanta. He also stated that Clark Atlanta, the only independent graduate institution in the entire Historically Black College and University network, frequently has Fortune 500 companies from all over the world visiting the institution looking for employees with a firm mindset toward diversity.

    “We have them coming all the time,” he stated. “The range of talent that arrives here is very, very strong. Of course [Atlanta has] 100,000 college students in the city — that’s never a bad thing — and the proportion of them that are African Americans is increasing, particularly with the focus of the Atlanta University Center with Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse.”

    Atlanta, the bedrock of the Civil Rights Movement and birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also attracts African Americas who want to stay connected to the “Black experience.” Elder Bernice A. King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of The King Center, which serves thousands of visitors each year, concurs that Atlanta’s unique history of African-American life and culture, especially related to civil rights, is a magnet for people color.

    “I think when people come here they find progressive-minded people,” said King. “They find a hodgepodge of creative and gifted individuals who are doing substantial stuff. I think because I think it has a lot to do with the history and the spirit that emerged from Auburn Avenue in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and I believe it’s a carryover from all of that and the fact that there are a number of African Americans in important places in leadership, although we still have a great deal of work to do in terms of power, leveraging true power in Atlanta.”

    None the less, more than 40 years after Dr. King made strides to improve the social, political and economic conditions for the poor in America, Atlanta seems to have experienced a seesaw effect in its seat among progressive cities as people moseyed in and out of the city when the recession came in its purview.

    In 1996, the Olympic Games brought Atlanta unarguably its highest level of visibility on an international scale, and Atlanta was the place to be regardless of race. During this time and the years following, Atlanta’s business sector reached a solid financial footing and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce reported that the Olympics made a $5 billion impact on the city

    Untouchable – Business Opportunities for African Americans

    Businessman and entrepreneur Tommy Dortch, who is CEO of TWD Inc. and founder of the Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, said that in spite of Atlanta’s challenges, it is still one of the best a places for African Americans to reach success.

    “I’ve traveled to every state in the U.S. except for two and I’ve been in all of the urban centers and I have worked with so many different people. It’s a city where people work together. There are many people who have a difference of opinion. Once you leave Atlanta, you know the difference. When you look at [Washington] D.C., when you look at New York, when you look at Chicago – they don’t have the kind of cohesive coming together that we have,” he stated.

    Dortch also stated that based on the track record of entrepreneurial success among African Americans in Atlanta, one has to admit that Atlanta is likely the number one “Black Mecca” in the nation, not only in the South. In addition, Atlanta has had an African-American mayor for nearly 40 years, starting with Maynard Holbrook Jackson in 1974.

    “When you look at the legacy that Maynard Jackson left us, there is not another city in this nation that has a commitment to diversity and inclusion. For African Americans in this city to gain almost 38 to 40 percent of all the procurement opportunities in this city, there is not another place in this nation. When you consider this point, we’ve done almost $6 billion in the expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson [airport]. One billion [dollars] of that $6 [billion] has gone to African American-owned businesses. There is not another city that can touch that,” said Dortch.

    Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s view parallels Dortch’s premise.

    “Atlanta has an undeniable legacy and long-standing tradition of supporting urban entrepreneurs. Many of the world’s greatest business ideas and ventures started here in Atlanta, which was named by Forbes magazine as the No. 1 city in the United States for minority entrepreneurs,” said Reed. “That’s a sign that opportunities for emerging urban entrepreneurs and women and minority-owned businesses in Atlanta remain unparalleled. I don’t believe there is any place better than the city of Atlanta to help develop and nurture talented and innovative African-American business owners, and minority and women-owned businesses.”

    James Bronner of the world-renown Bronner Brothers, who helps run the International Bronner Brothers Hair Show, recalls how his friends who moved to other places continue to view Atlanta as a great place for opportunities.

    “It’s still true, but you still have to work hard and be excellent at what you do in order to make it in Atlanta,” he said. “It’s not just a shoe-in. You still have to be innovative and push the envelope to succeed because of the economy. No matter what city you’re in now, you really have to be doing something extraordinary to be at the level you used to be.” In 2012, Bronner Brothers celebrated its 65th anniversary in business with the second generation of Bronner brothers in charge.

    Dortch contends that while people “love to hate” Atlanta and that at times, it’s a “tale of two cities,” when looking at the top five places for African Americans in the U.S., Atlanta far exceeds the others, especially when considering the level of generational success. “You look at the leaders like a Herman Russell, whose family now is a second generation, really almost a third generation,” said Dortch. “You look at the Bronner Brothers, you go down the line, and you look at what happens in this city. There’s nothing like it.”

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