To Build Our Lives Together
Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875–1906

Allison Dorsey

How a community rooted in the culture of slavery adapted to the promise of freedom


"Allison Dorsey's deftly crafted history of the complex society black Atlantans created against the backdrop of a racial order of enforced subjugation is an important achievement. To Build Our Lives Together illuminates the independent agenda black people pursued in order to survive and thrive within the veil. This book transforms how we look at southern urban race and class politics and the 1906 Atlanta riot."
—Darlene Clark Hine, author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas

"Dorsey pulls together a wealth of sources on black Atlanta and for scholars unfamiliar with the city she seems to have left no stone unturned. Through careful examination of newspapers, city directories, church records, civic documents, and manuscript collections, the author has weaved a detailed and multifaceted picture of black elite life and culture in one Southern community. . . . Bold, authoritative, and comprehensive."
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After Reconstruction, against considerable odds, African Americans in Atlanta went about such self-interested pursuits as finding work and housing. They also built community, says Allison Dorsey. To Build Our Lives Together chronicles the emergence of the network of churches, fraternal organizations, and social clubs through which black Atlantans pursued the goals of adequate schooling, more influence in local politics, and greater access to municipal services. Underpinning these efforts were the notions of racial solidarity and uplift. Yet as Atlanta's black population grew--from two thousand in 1860 to forty thousand at the turn of the century--its community had to struggle not only with the dangers and caprices of white laws and customs but also with internal divisions of status and class.

Among other topics, Dorsey discusses the boomtown atmosphere of post-Civil War Atlanta that lent itself so well to black community formation; the diversity of black church life in the city; the role of Atlanta's black colleges in facilitating economic prosperity and upward mobility; and the ways that white political retrenchment across Georgia played itself out in Atlanta. Throughout, Dorsey shows how black Atlantans adapted the cultures, traditions, and survival mechanisms of slavery to the new circumstances of freedom.

Although white public opinion endorsed racial uplift, whites inevitably resented black Atlantans who achieved some measure of success. The Atlanta race riot of 1906, which marks the end of this study, was no aberration, Dorsey argues, but the inevitable outcome of years of accumulated white apprehensions about black strivings for social equality and economic success. Denied the benefits of full citizenship, the black elite refocused on building an Atlanta of their own within a sphere of racial exclusion that would remain in force for much of the twentieth century.

Page count: 256 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9

Read more about the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot at the New Georgia Encyclopedia.


List price: $26.95

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Allison Dorsey is an associate professor of history at Swarthmore College.