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A Walking Tour of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Neighborhood

By Caroline Eubanks

02.07.20

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The Apex Museum has been open in Sweet Auburn since 1978.

Photo by Kevin C. Rose

The Apex Museum has been open in Sweet Auburn since 1978.

Even with all its history, there is more to this neighborhood than its past.

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Small but mighty, the historically African American neighborhood of Sweet Auburn is where some of Atlanta’s most important citizens have cemented their roles in history: Born into slavery, Alonzo Herndon opened a chain of barbershops before founding the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905; he would become the city’s first black millionaire, with his offices on Auburn Avenue. In 1889, Moses Amos became the first black licensed pharmacist in the state, later opening the Service Company Drugstore in the Odd Fellows Building. And back in the day, the Royal Peacock Club, with its art nouveau–inspired marquee, hosted such iconic musicians as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye.

All that aside, Sweet Auburn is primarily known for being home to Martin Luther King, Jr. during his too-short life. Within a few blocks, visitors can see King’s boyhood home, the church where he later preached his sermons, and the mausoleum that holds the graves of King and his wife, Coretta.

The neighborhood’s boundaries are debatable, but it’s generally considered to be east of downtown starting from Auburn Avenue and Courtland Street, running until Boulevard. It’s easily accessed on foot or via the Atlanta Streetcar that runs in a loop from downtown Atlanta (get off at stop 9). 

Tours from companies Atlanta Food Walks and Civil Bikes give more context on the neighborhood. But if you’re short on time or want to wander on your own, follow this self-guided tour of the neighborhood’s highlights.

Get a double dose of history

The Apex Museum, also known as the African-American Panoramic Experience, interprets the history of the African diaspora. Filmmaker Dan Moore, Sr. opened the museum in 1978 after being inspired by the life of Dr. Benjamin Mays, a local civil rights leader. Set in the circa 1910 John Wesley Dobbs Building, named for another prominent Sweet Auburn citizen, it has exhibits on the slave trade, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Codes, which were implemented to restrict the conduct of African Americans. There are also historic photos of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood and its African American–owned businesses.

Just down the street, the neighboring Auburn Avenue Research Library also has exhibits on African American culture and history, including one on the life and legacy of writer Toni Morrison. Although the modern library was officially founded in 1994, its core collection can be traced back to 1921, when it was dubbed the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta—the first library in the city open to African Americans. 

Refuge Coffee Company’s second location opened in Sweet Auburn this year.

Fuel up with coffee in a notable building

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The Atlanta Daily World was established in 1928 on Auburn Avenue, covering stories within the community and decrying the violence of the Jim Crow era. It still operates as the city’s oldest African American newspaper, but it moved to Midtown after a 2008 tornado damaged the building.

But the newspaper is only one part of the building’s history, which had previously been home to a coffee company (1918) and shared space with Club Poinciana, a jazz venue that welcomed Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong in the 1940s.

Today, the historic building at 145 Auburn Avenue has been renovated and has apartments on its top levels. Downstairs, visitors will find the second location of Refuge Coffee Co., which started in the suburb of Clarkston in a truck outside a former gas station. The company employs refugees from Somalia, Syria, and Kenya, and through job training and social networking, helps them make a home in the Atlanta area. 

Pick up a book 

Local artist Rosa Duffy opened For Keeps Books in 2018 to share the important books she’d grown up reading with the community. The store specializes in rare and used books by African American authors; peek through the stacks, and you might find a signed copy of Report from Part One by Gwendolyn Brooks, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, or The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin. You can also find records and back issues of magazines like Jet, which was first issued in 1951 but ceased publication in 2014.

Inside the space on Auburn Avenue, decorated with prints of notable people like former President Barack Obama, folding tables hold stacks of books and magazines that can be flipped through from the comfort of a midcentury orange chair. (Some of the materials aren’t for sale, but are supplied for in-store reading, like a community library.) Check the store’s Facebook page: For Keeps routinely hosts special events like book signings, coffee pop-ups, and DJs.

Congressman John Lewis has served Georgia’s Fifth District since 1987.

Check out some public art

Congressman John Lewis first came to Atlanta from Nashville as a student at Fisk University, planning freedom rides and protests with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was one of the speakers along with Martin Luther King, Jr. at 1963’s March on Washington. On “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, when leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, Lewis was brutally beaten by a group of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies and suffered a skull fracture. Since 1987, he has represented Georgia’s Fifth District, which includes Sweet Auburn and most of the city.

In 2012, a large-scale mural of Lewis was unveiled by artist Sean Schwab at Auburn Avenue and Jessie Hill Jr. Drive. For the “good trouble” Lewis continues to get into, the word “Hero” appears above his figure. (Lewis earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for his tireless work in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.)

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Lewis isn’t the only one honored with a mural. At Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard, one block from the King Center, there’s a portrait of former Georgia representative Stacey Abrams by visual artist Fabian Williams. Civil rights leader and activist Evelyn G. Lowery has her own “Hero” mural at Auburn Avenue and Bell Street. All are within a 15-minute walk of each other.

Shop for something savory

Since the Municipal Market’s opening in 1918, vendors here have sold fresh meat and produce. Also known as the Sweet Auburn Curb Market—a nod to its former policy of only allowing African Americans to shop at the curb, not inside—it’s the city’s only public market.

Inside, you’ll find vendors selling prepared foods, all of which are produced locally—think South African–inspired savory pies alongside traditional soul food. The market also serves as something of a restaurant incubator to get businesses off the ground: Sweet Auburn BBQ expanded from its stall to open a full-service location in nearby Poncey-Highland in 2014, and Grindhouse Killer Burgers—which started in the market in 2009—now has four locations in the city and an outpost at the world’s busiest airport. Both restaurants still have stalls at the market.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated with an eternal flame.

Learn more about MLK, Jr.

Most travelers come to Sweet Auburn to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District, a four-block radius containing several landmarks related to King. Start your visit at the National Park–managed Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site visitor center, which has interactive exhibits on the marches as well as artifacts like the wooden wagon that carried King’s casket through the streets of Atlanta.

Across the street from the visitor center is the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father both served as pastors. Visitors can step inside the worship hall where King’s funeral service was held.

Next door, the King Center for Nonviolent Change was created by Coretta Scott King in 1968, after her husband’s death. (The couple is buried here in tombs surrounded by water.) Exhibits feature important items from King’s life like his posthumous Grammy for best spoken word album, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” and the key from his room at Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where he was assassinated. 

The National Park System also oversees the yellow-and-black Queen Anne home where King spent his childhood, located just across Boulevard from the King Center. It was built for the pastor of Ebenezer Church and can be toured on a first-come, first-served basis. (No tickets are available in advance.) The home is furnished to resemble what it would have looked like when the Kings lived there.

On the same block is Fire Station No. 6, which was integrated in 1963. Now a museum, it contains exhibits on the desegregation of Atlanta’s fire department and artifacts like a rare 1927 American LaFrance fire engine.

>> Next: 15 Places to Learn About African American History

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