The Bar at the Center of Atlanta’s Deadly 1906 Race Riot
Fake news and trumped up charges about the Vendome Lounge set off a deadly rampage.
In 1906, Charles “Charley” Mosley was the only African American licensed to run a bar in Atlanta, Georgia. It was called the Vendome Lounge, and by all accounts he ran a superior establishment, catering chiefly to an upwardly mobile clientele. Mosley, described as a man of “considerable intelligence” by one contemporary, had an evident knack for marketing: he arranged to have live baseball scores transmitted to the bar to keep his customers up to date (and drinking). And he advertised that his was the only bar where local black people could try the famed “Champagne cocktail,” then popular in the better New York bars.
The Vendome Lounge sat at the corner of Auburn and Piedmont avenues. But in 1906, it also occupied a metaphorical corner, at least in the eyes of white Atlantans enflamed by fake news. They placed it at the corner of Brutish and Uppity, and on Saturday night, September 22, as many as 10,000 angry white men rampaged in and around the neighborhood, resulting in the deaths of between 25 and 40 people, all but two of them black.
The Vendome wasn’t the only option for thirsty African Americans in Atlanta. Indeed, most drinkers took their thirst to rowdy Decatur Streets, a few blocks away, where white-owned bars were happy to serve them, sometimes alongside white customers, sometimes behind screens separating “colored” from white patrons, and always in the alleys out back. A reporter from the Atlanta Constitution who prowled the area twenty years prior reported that “Negros of the very worst type would congregate there and play cards, smoke, and drink,” he wrote. “It was a fit place to bear a harvest of criminals and doubtless many daring crimes had their conception there.” One African-American Atlantan later recalled that, “No decent and respectable person would be caught dead or alive on Decatur St.”
So the “decent” African Americans migrated a few blocks away to Auburn Ave. A black middle class was emerging in Atlanta, and Jim Crow laws led to parallel urban enclaves. John Wesley Dobbs, a local civic leader called Auburn Ave the “richest Negro street in the world,” and the neighborhood around it was dubbed “Sweet Auburn”—home to dress shops, bakers, doctors, photographers, and the Gate City Drug Store, the latter overseen by Moses Amos, the first licensed African-American pharmacist in Georgia.
This neighborhood was a visible symbol of the steady rise of affluent African Americans. And so, it was viewed as a grievous affront by many white Atlantans, who saw it as a challenge to their place in the world. African Americans were taking their jobs, voting for people who did not have white interests in mind, and generally refusing to remain in their place at the bottom of the social pecking order. Pioneer muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells illustrated the perceived problem with a quote from a Memphis paper: African Americans “have got just enough of learning to make them realize how hopelessly their race is behind the other in everything that makes a great people, and they attempt to ‘get even’ by insolence.’”
So that insolence was met by widespread lynchings across the south—a form of domestic terrorism aiming to suppress an entire race. Lynching claimed more than 4,000 black lives between the Civil War and the middle of the 20th century.
Among the central justifications for beating or hanging was the charge that brutish black men were prone to attack and rape white women. “Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault,” the Equal Justice Initiative concluded after extensive studies. Yet these assaults—the belles of the south as victims of unbridled black passions—tended to be more fiction than fact. “The South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women,” is how Wells put it.
Bars were not helping—selling alcohol to African Americans was seen as adding oil to a smoldering fire. And then it came to the attention of alarmed whites that prominent bars often featured paintings of naked white women, an explosive mixture of liquor and libido. Mosley’s Vendome Lounge was no exception.
Paintings of naked putti and voluptuous nymphs had become a common sight in bars by the end of the 19th century. “It might be a flock of bacchantes reeling across a green lawn, or a Ganymede bearing a brimming cup to one of Zeus’s lady friends, or just plain ‘Spring,’ or the conventional young woman prone upon the sand,” wrote an observer in Literary Digest in 1920. Many such paintings—“large and as oily as possible”—were provided by the liquor salesmen, presumably to keep patrons lingering longer, and such art was welcomed by bar managers, the Literary Digest writer noted. “Why was a sword beside the lady’s couch? How came lightning to overtake yon undraped figure in the darkling wood? These inquires were always welcomed by bartenders or old-timers, who were glad to explain certain aspects of the feudal system and a tragic legend.”
But in a bar catering to African Americans, nude white women were regarded by whites as a bridge too far—a match tossed into pine shavings. “Lurid portraits of white women, according to the racist logic of whites, easily inflamed drunken, ‘low-life’ blacks,” wrote Allison Dorsey in her book, To Build Our Lives Together, on black Atlanta. For displaying paintings in his bar—one nude measured three feet by two—Mosley was hauled into court on trumped-up charges. He was fined ten dollars, with a “request”: “I’ll give you a comparatively light fine,” the judge said, “on your promise to burn up these pictures.”
Mosley’s deaccession of his collection did little to staunch the growing fear and rage among whites. This ferment was also fueled by two candidates for governor campaigning that fall. One was the former publisher of the Atlanta Journal; the other the current editor of the Atlanta Constitution. They both saw it to their advantage to fan flames of white outrage in their pages, and both ran frequent (often inaccurate) stories of white women assaulted by black men.
The constant drumbeat of outrages built to a fevered pitch on September 22. That weekend, “extras” spilled of the newspaper offices onto the streets breathlessly recounting four recent assaults against white women (none of which was ever confirmed). Alarmed white Atlantans felt they’d had enough, and moved into action. They began to assemble in loose mobs after nightfall. One among them climbed atop a dry goods box and waved the newspapers, decrying the assault on southern womanhood. The fever swelled.
The mob moved down Decatur Street, attacking unfortunate black Atlantans who crossed their path. They descended upon a barber shop owned by a prominent African American, shouting “Get ‘em! Get ‘em all!” as they rushed in with “heavy clubs, canes, revolvers, several rifles, stones and weapons of every description,” according to a newspaper account. One barber put his hands in the air, but was felled by a brick to the face. Both barbers were dragged out into the street and beaten to death.
Then a trolley pulled up with “negro men sitting not far from white women.” The mob poured in and dragged out the offending black men, beating them to death. “A pack of bloodhounds could not have shown more fierceness than did that mob when it beheld a crowd of negroes with white women,” reported the Atlanta Constitution in a story headlined “ATLANTA IS SWEPT BY RAGING MOB DUE TO ASSAULTS ON WHITE WOMEN.”
Angry whites continued to stream in from outlying neighborhoods through the night, chasing down and beating any African Americans they could find, and raiding their establishments. Mayor James Woodward hustled to the scene, and at one point stood above the crowd imploring them to disperse and leave “inoffending negroes” alone. “They cheered him and returned to their business of chasing and beating negroes,” the Constitution reported.
After midnight, Georgia’s governor called out the state militia to reclaim order. By dawn, the neighborhood around Decatur and Auburn had quieted. Many businesses were in ruins, and between 25 and 40 had lost their lives.
The city convened a committee to learn more about what had happened. (The committee’s first impulse was to close all bars patronized by African Americans, but decided this would look arbitrary and held off.) A month later, the city council passed resolutions that essentially codified Jim Crow laws—they segregated all bars in the city, set a minimum price of 10 cents a drink to keep out the penny drunks, and banned chairs and stools in bars frequented by African Americans so that customers couldn’t sit—the only option was to drink and leave without lingering. The number of Atlanta bars open to black people went from about 60 before the riot to around 20.
Mosley and the Vendome survived the 1906 riot, but not the backlash. African Americans had little political clout with white leaders, and he swam against an undertow from a handful of African-American activists who advocated for temperance. His earlier ten-dollar fine was arbitrarily increased to $1,000—and he was jailed when couldn’t pay up. The city opted not to renew his bar license.
So a white mob enflamed by fake news took lives and destroyed businesses and property of successful African Americans. They faced no punishment—only reward. Segregation was formalized and ratcheted up; thousands of black people left the city.
Yet from this neighborhood eventually arose new hope. A decade after the riots, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP was founded on Auburn Ave, and in 1929, about a mile from where the Vendome Lounge once stood, Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised. In his lifetime, Auburn Ave would become a hub of the modern civil rights movement.
It’s uncertain what became of bar owner Charley Mosley.