History of Art and Activism in Atlanta


It’s difficult to imagine Atlanta’s art scene thriving without African Americans who grease its wheels. From slam poetry to art installations on the Beltline, African American artists have long reflected not only their individual opinions and experiences but also their historical and cultural ties with the past. For us, Emory students, we tend to take diversity and inclusion for granted, and we are often oblivious to the hidden racist history of Atlanta. Particularly for Atlanta, art has been influential in dismantling the strength of racism and has aided generations of African American artists in their collective and progressive efforts to integrate all citizens, black and white, to promote the equality and diversity that we enjoy today.

Until the 1950s, arts and culture were adversely affected by the restrictive nature of legalized segregation. Even till 1959, African-American musicians could play to white audiences, but could not intermingle at intermission (Tate, 2012). In the very worst days of Atlanta’s ugly past, Carlton Molette, Neighborhood Arts Center’s first chairman of the board recalls, “Georgia Tech used to invite us to their dress rehearsals because it was illegal for them to sell us tickets” (Tate, 2012). The weed of Jim Crow policies had not been completely laced till the end of the 1960s and it was suffocating the arts of African Americans.

Slowly and gradually, however, the art climate in Atlanta was moving towards integration. With the King Center established in 1968 and Atlanta Center for Black Arts in 1971, Black Arts Movement flourished in the late 1960s and marked the transitional era for African American artists in Atlanta. By 1970s, there were deteriorating section of downtown Atlanta as segregation had given way to integration, suburbanization and the abandonment of many social support structures innate to a system of racial separation (Tate, 2012). After the national Black Power Movement that was prominent till the late 1970s, in 1970s and 1980s, Atlanta became a reflection of a national black art scene. There were, of course, many white American that were interested in the advancement of all the arts, regardless of the artist’s race. Lomax, who was once an Emory professor in his dissertation explains how Atlanta was, “one of the few spaces where blacks and whites came together because artists were always marginalized” (1986).

As Franz Fanon states, “revolutionary art is both a product of struggle and a reflection of it”, Atlanta’s history is filled with stories of prominent African American artists and their journey of growth, acceptance, innovation, and hope. It is through their collective efforts, that current African-American artists and artists of every color can enjoy the liberty of art and readily combat the urban blight of society.

Author: Youjean (Ivey) Hwang

(1): Tate, Rachanice P. “Our Art Itself Was Our Activism: Atlanta’s Neighborhood Arts Center, 1975-1990.” PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012.

(2): Lomax, Michael L. “Countee Cullen, ‘From the Dark Tower’.” PhD diss., Emory University, 1984.


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