MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Atlanta was burning. Throughout the Fourth Ward, houses and businesses were aflame. Ordinarily the neighborhood bustled with life—lunch counters and banks, doctors and dentists, stores and churches, saloons and back alleys, all thick with the burgeoning middle class of the darker nation. But on this violent night, colored families huddled in back rooms behind drawn shades. Lamps were doused. Pistols and hunting rifles were solemnly distributed among wives and children, because at any minute the angry white mob might break down the door. Rumors flew from house to house: Negroes pulled from the streetcars on the bridge and beaten to death on the tracks below. Negroes shot to death while trying to protect their property. Most of the rumors were true. It was late September of 1906, and the complacency of black Atlanta had been shattered.
Among those waiting for the mob to come were William and Addie Hunton, along with their two young children. Eunice was seven years old. William Junior had just turned three. The family’s home at 418 Houston Street was several blocks from the epicenter of the violence, but the Huntons were as frightened as everyone else. What Addie would later call the “pent-up hate and envy of a dominant group” had burst whatever shaky norms of civility and decorum had previously managed to hold it in check. The riot had taken everyone by surprise. The commercial classes of black and white Atlanta were deeply intertwined through networks of loans, services, and trade goods. Slavery had been dead for four decades. Civic leaders touted the city as an example of what the South could be. To be sure, just two years earlier Atlanta had accepted the Supreme Court’s invitation in Plessy v. Ferguson and imposed racial segregation on its streetcars. To be sure, the local papers had for several days run screaming headlines about nonexistent assaults by Negro men on white women. To be sure, rival Democratic candidates for governor were competing over whose program would more thoroughly disenfranchise the darker nation. To be sure, a white neighbor had recently told Addie that she was very sorry but their children couldn’t play together anymore: people were beginning to talk. In short, all black Atlanta must surely have felt something wicked brewing. But nobody knew it would be as bad as this.
The violence continued for two days. The mob has been estimated variously from the middle hundreds to the middle thousands. Negroes were beaten. Many were killed. The precise number is disputed because nobody in those days kept careful count of dead Negroes, least of all in the South. The deaths may have numbered over a hundred.
Yet the main target was not people. The main target was property. The riot began on lower Peachtree Street, at that time the heart of the Negro business district. Black-owned banks and insurance companies, barbershops and restaurants, real estate agents and newspapers, all had premises there. Many subsisted heavily on business with white customers. The mob did not care who the customers were. The mob cared who the owners were. For years worried whites had been exchanging whispered half-truths: The Negro middle class was taking over Atlanta. Negro workers were taking white people’s jobs. And at lower wages. The politicians refused to act, so the rioters took matters into their own hands. The Fourth Ward was where the well-to-do of the city’s black community lived; the Fourth Ward, therefore, would be the target.
Family legend holds that the rioters stopped one house away from the Hunton residence at 418 Houston Street. Possibly the tale is even true. The block on which my great-grandparents lived was half black and half white, neatly segregated down the middle, and their house sat precisely on the border. (In case the mob wondered which homes to attack, the city directory helpfully appended next to the name of each colored family the symbol “(c).”) A white neighbor had offered to hide the Huntons should they be driven from their home, but they chose to stay and guard the house. There is no family story on whether William and Addie armed themselves against the mob, but they might well have. At this time, owning a firearm was still a signal of manhood, and despite efforts to restrict gun possession among Negroes, most colored households would have had weapons of some kind. The guns, as it turned out, were needed. When the rioters grew bored of burning and killing in the environs of Peachtree Street, they tried to leave the business district and swarm into the residential areas, spilling onto the tree-lined lanes amongst the stout houses, searching for fresh targets. They were greeted with a hail of gunfire as Negro families protected their own.
The mob fled.
I have little trouble imagining the family’s relief.
* * *
Of course the police eventually arrived, followed the next day by the state militia, which made several hundred arrests. And in a mighty show of egalitarianism, a handful of those locked up were even white. But most of those arrested were black men with guns, trying to protect their homes and businesses. In the Brownsville neighborhood, near the city’s great Negro colleges and universities, a combination of mob and militiamen went door to door, searching for weapons. Men who resisted were shot dead. Many of the rest were dragged off to Atlanta’s dreaded stockade. Nobody was surprised. Negroes were constantly being arrested in the city, for crimes they committed and for crimes they did not, for rudeness or talking back or looking at a white woman, for being in the wrong neighborhood or being suspected of being in the vicinity of the wrong neighborhood. Upon conviction, many of these men were, in the words of one historian, “literally sold to the highest bidders.” Convicts were much in demand as workers, and the state, not the convict, got the wage.
After the wave of arrests, local newspapers assured their white readers that the city was now safe from marauding Negroes with guns. The newspapers, of course, had the facts backward, probably on purpose. Atlanta’s black middle class realized that its tranquil existence in the midst of Jim Crow was a lie. The riot had shaken the general sense of security. Among those shaken were the Huntons. William’s work took him away frequently. He was an international secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association, and his duties led him all over the world. He had lunched at Buckingham Palace. In a few weeks he was scheduled to give a speech in Tokyo. Addie, too, was frequently out of town. She was a popular writer and speaker on issues of race and womanhood. She lectured all over the North. She taught part-time at a Negro college in Alabama. When both parents were away, a maid or a friend looked after the children. Now that seemed inadequate protection. William and Addie made their decision. Atlanta was no longer safe. They would take their children and move north.
The Huntons were not alone. The emigrants numbered in the thousands. Black and white leaders alike begged the Negro middle class to stay, and begged those who had left to return. Scant weeks after the riot, President John Bowen of Gammon Theological Seminary would write an essay assuring those who had fled that order had been restored and the community was safe. Booker T. Washington himself wrote to the New York Age, an influential Negro paper, urging students at Atlanta’s several black colleges to head back to the city, where “the dangerous period, I am sure, has passed.” But the exodus continued.
The migration frightened Dixie. The South was losing both cheap labor and skilled professionals. Hoping to keep Negroes put or lure them back, Southern states began running newspaper advertisements in the North touting their virtues. The ads spoke of wonderful colored schools and plentiful land for cultivation, available at low prices. Some counties bragged that they had never had a lynching. A few states even sent commissions to Northern cities to make the case for return face-to-face. Few of the emigrants listened—and William and Addie Hunton were not among the few. “With the Huntons’ departure,” one historian has written, “black Atlanta lost two of its most influential black activists.”
* * *
Actually the family’s life in Atlanta had been rounded by violence. Their arrival in the spring of 1899 happened to coincide with the lynching of Sam Hose, a particularly brutal murder that made worldwide headlines, not least because for the next few days you could buy pieces of the mutilated Negro in the city’s shops. After the lynching, the Huntons considered leaving but decided that duty required them to stay. The themes of duty and hard sacrifice, learned at her parents’ feet, would become a constant of their daughter’s life.
When the family arrived in Atlanta, Addie was pregnant. Two earlier children, Bernice and William, had died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis. The third pregnancy proved difficult. The Huntons worried. So cautious were they that William did not so much as mention Addie’s pregnancy to his protégé and close friend Jesse Moorland until June. Before that, William had only dropped hints. “Have lots to tell you,” he had written in April. “But must wait.” When their third child, a girl, arrived on July 16, 1899, her parents did not give her a name. Not at first. They wanted to make sure that she would survive. As late as August 8, in a letter to Moorland, William would refer to his daughter only as “Sugar.”
Two weeks later, Sugar finally had a name. On August 22, William wrote to Moorland from Atlanta: “Wife, Eunice Roberta and I are well and send regards to Mrs. Moorland. Our house is going up nicely.”
She had a name. She had a house. “Eunice came and bound our love more closely,” her mother would write years later.
* * *
In October of 1899, when Eunice was three months old, the family took possession of “their handsome new home” at 418 Houston Street—an event recorded in a popular Atlanta Constitution column called “What the Negro Is Doing.” The house no longer stands, and no images have survived, but photographs of other dwellings from the neighborhood in that era show gabled Victorians with wide, ornate porches. The Hunton home is usually described as “modest.” This should not be taken to mean that it was small. Thirty years later, Eunice would recall that the family “lived quite comfortably, in a 12-room house staffed by a cook and a maid and a man to tend the furnace and garden.”
The property lay at the less expensive end of Houston Street. Farther west were the larger and more impressive homes of the truly well-off of the darker nation. It is a peculiar irony of our history that it cost less to build nearer to the white precincts of the Fourth Ward. Down at the better end of Houston Street lived the Whites, George and Madeline, whose son Walter would grow up to become the revered head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Whites and the Huntons were friends. Their children knew each other. George White was a mailman. Federal jobs like his were precious and highly sought after. On the night of the riot, the White home was specifically targeted by the rioters. They tried to burn the house, shouting, “It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!” But the Whites were among those who returned fire, driving the mob away.
Just beyond the White home lay Peachtree Street, with its increasing number of Negro businesses. One popular destination was the Gate City Drug Store, a black-owned pharmacy and lunch counter that “served as a busy gathering place for working- and middle-class black Atlantans.” (One of the grievances of the mob, later, was the transfer of the store from white to black ownership.) Gate City proudly advertised its soda fountain as “the most costly one in the south.” Nearby was the Freedman’s Bank. At 66 Peachtree Street was the “elegant and palatial” barbershop owned by the legendary Alonzo Herndon, at that time the city’s preeminent barber, whose employees were all black and whose clientele was exclusively white. The neighborhood where the Huntons built their house was home to many of the great institutions of colored Atlanta. The family worshipped at First Congregational Church, led by the Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor, at that time perhaps the most prominent Negro preacher in America. And just around the corner from the Huntons’ home was the most revered institution in the Fourth Ward—the Houston Street School, the place where their precious Eunice began her formal education.
The Houston Street School, properly known as the Gate City Colored Public School or the Fourth Ward Grammar School, was located at 399 Houston. It was one of only three schools for colored children in the entire city, and, when it opened, the only one staffed by black teachers and run by a black principal. “[T]he colored people insisted on having persons of their own race teach their children,” noted the head of the school board in apparent perplexity. The school was the pride of the community. In the midst of the Fourth Ward, the middle classes of the darker nation were creating a world in the teeth of a system that, to say the least, had other plans for Negro education. The Houston Street School, by all accounts, represented exactly what the segregationists feared. It was a place where the darker nation could raise its own children to its own values. Its commitment to excellence would be lauded for decades in the memoirs of leaders of the race. Assuming the Huntons followed the same model as other parents in the Fourth Ward, Eunice most likely enrolled in 1904, just after her fifth birthday.
By this time, the family had a fourth member. William Alphaeus Hunton Jr. was born in September of 1903. He was named after his father, of course, but also after the brother who had died in infancy. To avoid confusion, William Junior soon became known as plain Alphaeus. Both children struggled with bouts of illness. So did their mother. William sometimes described Addie as sickly, and perhaps she passed on this trait to her children.
* * *
Despite the cook and the maid, Eunice’s family was far from wealthy. Her father William, born in Canada, was the only black international secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA of the early 1900s had not yet been reduced to running health clubs and providing inexpensive accommodations; the association of that day was a rich and powerful organization with chapters around the globe. Her father’s constant travel was in service of the organization’s goal of building strong and virtuous Christian men. William was responsible for creating almost from scratch the network of colored YMCA branches in the United States, a necessity at a time when the Christian warriors who ran the group countenanced the widespread racial segregation by the local branches. (A branch in Norfolk, Virginia, still bears his name.) And because the International Board was headquartered in Switzerland and held conferences all over the world, William was frequently abroad.
He built the house on Houston Street for the family he and his wife hoped to have. The couple moved from Virginia to Atlanta, Addie would later write, because William considered the city “a very desirable center for the supervision of student work to which he then hoped to devote the major part of his time.”
Addie had attended a prestigious Boston high school. In Atlanta she taught penmanship and shorthand to girls. Sometimes she taught them at the local colored branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association. Sometimes she taught them in her home. At one point William complained to his friend Jesse Moorland that her students had started to overwhelm the household.
Eunice’s mother, Addie Waites Hunton, in the early 1900s. Addie was an activist and clubwoman, and famous throughout the community for her views on Negro motherhood.
HUNTON FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH
Eunice’s father, William Alphaeus Hunton Sr., an international secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
HUNTON FAMILY PHOTOGRAPH
The Huntons moved comfortably in Negro society. The family’s comings and goings featured regularly in the pages of the black press. Their future in Atlanta, in those halcyon days at the dawn of the century, seemed summery and bright.
William was a stern and often distant man, but he delighted in his playful and precocious daughter. In August of 1900, just after her first birthday, the ink was smudged in one of William’s letters to Moorland, his confidant. “Eunice caused the blots above,” he wrote indulgently. “She is into everything in a minute.” Two months later we find this: “Eunice is as sweet as sugar & it will be hard to pull away Monday for a two months trip.” Early the following year: “My stenographer [Addie] has gone to the Club. And this baby girl is a case. Anyway, she is a joy forever.” In February he urged Moorland to bring his wife to Atlanta: “She [won’t] believe how smart Eunice is, even when you tell her. She must come [&] see for herself.” There are more letters in the same vein. And this outpouring of delight is unique in William’s letters. On other topics he is either serious or grimly humorous. Nowhere else does he allow this simple joy to come to the surface. Plainly his daughter touched something in him that the rest of the family did not.
William was very much a man’s man. When he had worries, he shared them not with his wife but with Jesse Moorland. Moorland, an Ohioan with a divinity degree, had become the association’s second colored international secretary. The two men were the same age and had similar tastes and philosophies. Both were fired by a determination to build the YMCA within the darker nation even as they challenged its determination to maintain racially segregated branches. William’s many letters to Moorland are full of emotion. At home with his wife, however, he was a stoic presence. Addie occasionally grew frustrated by his preternatural calm. She would rage at him, and in response he would quote Japanese philosophy. She loved her husband but now and then must have felt a degree of relief when he went on the road.
Addie also traveled, even if not as often as William. She served for a time as principal of the Commercial Department at Alabama’s Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (now the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University), in the town of Normal. There, too, she taught secretarial skills. Sometimes at her many speaking engagements Addie would be referred to as Mrs. Hunton of Normal, Alabama, rather than Mrs. Hunton of Atlanta, Georgia. In his two decades of correspondence with Moorland, William, too, always referred to his wife as Mrs. Hunton. But little Eunice, the apple of his eye, he called Sugar.
* * *
The Huntons moved to Brooklyn early in 1907. As it happened, in May of the same year, Antonio and Rosalia Lucania arrived in New York City from Palermo, joining tens of thousands of immigrants from Italy who that year spread themselves among the rows upon rows of tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Salvatore, their third son, was nine years old. His parents enrolled the boy at P.S. 19, where he somehow picked up the nickname Charley. Soon he would begin playing hooky to run the streets with a wild and violent bunch.
The Lucania family arrived just in time to endure the New York garbage strike of 1907, which began when cart drivers on the Lower East Side walked off their jobs in late June. Within two days, most of the drivers in the city were on strike. The great heaps of refuse and the baking summer heat transformed the busy streets into a fetid, steaming mess. Residents began setting the garbage ablaze, creating huge noxious bonfires. New Yorkers walked the streets with scarves and handkerchiefs covering mouths and noses.
A principal cause of the labor strife was the corruption in the city Sanitation Department. Supervisors routinely used their authority to penalize drivers who supported the wrong political candidates. Drivers who annoyed their bosses were sometimes fired illegally, and had no recourse. Most of the drivers were Italian Americans. The city sent out strikebreakers to collect the garbage. Armed groups of men scattered them. Police guards were set up. They fought pitched battles with angry mobs. The police used their revolvers. In response, bombs were tossed from rooftops. The mob found ways to evade the police and get at the drivers. The police presence was strengthened. In Harlem, where colored cart drivers were also on strike, a riot broke out. The police clubbed Negro men and women indiscriminately. Officers accused the women of grabbing them so the men could attack. The public, by now, was in open revolt. People just wanted the garbage collected. With the city under pressure, the strike was soon settled. Both wages and conditions for the drivers were improved. Charley Lucania may have still been a boy, but these men were his family’s neighbors. He must have heard their stories. And he would surely have been impressed by the realization that city officials had no more integrity than anyone else. It was clear that there was money to be made from corruption, and in the decades to come he would make a great deal of it.
Across the East River, the black woman who would become his nemesis was also in grade school. Eunice was a year and a half Charley’s junior. And although she was smart and ambitious and would grow up to be a lawyer, there was nothing in the inauspicious beginning of her career to suggest that when, later on, the boy grew up to be Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia leader in history, she would be the one to take him down.
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen L. Carter