What is now Flat Shoals Avenue was a major trade route for the Native Americans. It was called Sandtown Trail and connected the coastal area near Savannah with the Chattahoochee River. The Sandtown Trail crossed the Peachtree Trail at what later became Five Points in downtown Atlanta. Soapstone bowls crafted from boulders mines on the ridge just south of East Atlanta were brought up the smaller trail (Bouldercrest Road) that joined the Sandtown route. By tribal trading they found their way as far north as Minnesota. The Creek tribes to the south and east of the Chattahoochee and the Cherokee tribes north of the river were the dominant cultures until implementation of the Indian Removal Act forced them from all of North Georgia.
Small farms and large plantations grew and the area’s many creeks were dammed to mill grain and lumber. The old Indian trail became know as the Flat Shoals Road, because it served the farms past the flat shoals on the South River near Panola Mountain. Terry’s Mill Pond was a large 30-acre lake that skirted present-day East Atlanta (in the I-20 right-of-way/Sugar Creek flood plain). The area was characterized by sparse population and rustic accommodations, contracts of land that were cleared for farming and timber.
The Civil War
Atlanta became a major supply hub of the southern war effort and consequently a major target of the northern war effort. Lemuel P. Grant designed the city’s fortifications to protect his plantation on the eastside of the city in what is now Grant Park. Because they placed the Confederate lines there, General McPherson place his Union forces on the high ground about a mile to the east in what is today East Atlanta. The Union troops were encamped along what is now Clifton Road at I-20 and a front line was dug in along Flat Shoals Road in what is now the East Atlanta Village.
A Union cannon was placed in a pivotal position at Glenwood and Flat Shoals Road to protect the flank of the front line as well as return fire to Grant’s defense. The Confederate forces were able to attack from behind, however. Because of that, the Battle of Atlanta, which culminated the Atlanta Campaign and sealed the fate of the Confederacy, was fought in the East Atlanta behind the Union lines. Over 12,000 men lost their lives, many in bloody hand to hand combat, on one hot, afternoon in July of 1864. Today many historic markers dot the neighborhood including two upturned cannon at the spots where Confederate General Walker and Union General McPherson were killed.
After the Civil War, East Atlanta recovered quickly becoming a developing unincorporated town – a suburb of Atlanta. Moreland Avenue was little more than a dirt path along the county line, while Flat shoals and Glenwood Avenues were the major highways that brought the farmers and their goods to town. The Marbut and Minor Mercantile Store was established at the crossroads of these two thoroughfares to effectively capture this trade before it reached downtown Atlanta.
The Metropolitan Streetcar Company was founded by Asa Candler, Joel Hurt, Frederic Patterson, and Aaron Haas. These men became developers of the McPherson Park subdivision to provide ridership for their new electric streetcar line as well as housing for the clerks in the new stores that were springing up in the area. In 1905, William Zuber, a lumber and railroad baron, built a large white columned frame mansion as a wedding present for his new bride on acreage that fronted Flat Shoals Avenue. The house is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1909, East Atlanta had been annexed as a neighborhood of the City of Atlanta. The East Atlanta Banking Company entered the East Atlanta community in 1911, moving into its new building at Flat Shoals and Glenwood – shaped like an old fashioned “flat iron”. A post office, a newspaper, a silent movie theatre and a carriage dealership were also added to the commercial district. The Baptists and the Methodists both established congregations in the area that immediately began to grow.
The land to the south of Glenwood Avenue was owned by Governor Joseph Emerson Brown. With his cooperation, a grid of streets was laid out around a 13-acre public green space, a model for “urban utopian living” that was being touted at the time. After 1915, in a series of votes, the residents chose to be annexed into the city limits of Atlanta in order to gain access to fire protection and public education. A side benefit was water and sewer service, which enables the residents to enjoy indoor plumbing.
Post-War and Civil Rights Eras
The undeveloped center of the neighborhood was subdivided and developed by the Williams brothers who were born and raised in East Atlanta and had build a lumber and concrete business nearby on Glenwood Avenue. As the residential area boomed, new banks, several super markets and drug stores, hardware stores, and a five-and-dime thrived. The Madison Theatre talking picture show and a new public library were built with the help of public donations.
In the 1960s, the civil rights struggle was at its peak across the country. Because the Grand Dragon of the KKK lived in an adjacent neighborhood, East Atlanta was targeted by civil rights groups to be an example of racial integration of housing. Under the protection of the Fair Housing Act, middle class black families were assisted in efforts to purchase houses in the area. Some real estate agents seized the opportunity to fan the flames of fear and racial prejudice. At their urging, many white families fled the area selling their homes at a loss. The new Interstate 20 highway that cut through the neighborhood removed some houses and allowed easy access to areas farther out.
During this time many hardworking black families achieved the dream of home ownership in a nice neighborhood with yards for the children and good schools nearby. Many white families remained refusing to give-in to social pressures and determined to live in harmony with their new neighbors.
Twenty years after the first blockbusting integration in East Atlanta, the neighborhood remained integrated with a 60% black and 40% white/other racial mix. Property values had become depressed during the panic of transition, however, and slumlords allowed many houses to deteriorate. This made real estate values much lower than other areas of town. The neighborhood’s appearance and reputation suffered. The name “East Atlanta” almost disappeared as a neighborhood reference by 1980. Over 60% of the shops in the East Atlanta Village were boarded up or used to store old tires. Even so, the neighborhood remained stable, with many people continuing to raise their families and go about their lives. There were also merchants both white and black who remained in East Atlanta, providing goods and services as well as employment opportunities to residents of the neighborhood.
In 1981, the East Atlanta Community Association was founded to bolster a sense of community in the neighborhood and work to improve the quality of life. Many improvements have been made since then, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated residents and businesses.