Recently, Mtamanika Youngblood spoke with rolling out about the importance of the historic fabric of Auburn Avenue in Atlanta and its background. Auburn Avenue is the reason Atlanta is the city it is today. Auburn Avenue, the historic “Main Street” of Black Atlanta, traces its roots to the 19th century. After the Civil War, freed Blacks established Shermantown, a neighborhood bordered on the south by Wheat Street, that attracted both Black and White settlers and the neighborhood expanded. In 1893, the city council voted to give Wheat Street a more sophisticated name: Auburn Avenue. At the turn of the century, the City Council passed segregation ordinances and Whites gradually left the avenue. In the face of segregation, Black citizens recognized the need to strengthen their community by establishing more businesses and homes. It was dubbed the “richest Negro street in the world” by Fortune Magazine in 1957.
The first annual Sweet Auburn Preserving the Legacy Gala was held the first Thursday in June at the Atlanta History Center, where they recognized preservation champions who have been stalwart supporters at the helm of the movement to keep the legacy of Auburn Avenue alive. The honorees were Youngblood, who for thirty years has led the Historic District Development Corporation, founded by Coretta Scott King in 1980; congressman John Lewis, Georgia’s congressman from the 5th District and a preservationist; and F. Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, who serves the city as a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which dubbed Auburn Avenue as a “national treasure,” and the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. The goal of the gala was to support the work of SAW by initiating a diverse and broad base of support, raise funds, and shine a spotlight on the work of SAW to preserve, restore and revitalize Sweet Auburn.
A nationally recognized community development practitioner and a strong proponent of equitable development and sustainability as the model for addressing both the human and physical development needs of revitalizing communities, Youngblood oversees the efforts of SAW, a nonprofit organization supported by a broad range of stakeholders committed to the revitalization of the Sweet Auburn commercial corridor and modeled after the successful national Main Street program.
Here’s what she had to say.
Are you a native of Atlanta?
I am originally from New York; however, I have been here for 40 years. I am not a native but I am an “Atlantan.”
How would you describe Atlanta as a brand?
Atlanta is a major southern city and given the right opportunities, you can accomplish a lot here. It’s also much easier to live in Atlanta because of the quality of life and the cost of living.
What is your role with the gala?
I am the director of the gala. I make sure that people are exposed and entertained every year at the gala.
Why is it important to preserve Auburn Avenue?
Auburn Avenue is the epicenter of African American history and businesses. It was the richest Black area back in the 1950s and we can learn a lot from the historic fabric of that [history] … We want to show how Blacks excelled here on Auburn Avenue when it was extremely difficult to do anything in this country.
Is new development feared?
It depends on what kind of development it is. Development that preserves the nature of the community is welcomed. Development that does not preserve the community and historic fabric, is not welcomed.
What should transient Atlantans know about Auburn Avenue?
The people that made Auburn Avenue were very instrumental in Atlanta’s history.
If you had a personality type, what would it be?
My personally type is the type of a leader; it is dynamic and culturally in-tune.