Throughout the modern history of Atlanta, the topic of annexation has been a delicate one, treated something like a sweaty bottle of nitroglycerin.
Suggest the expansion of the city’s puny boundaries, and race becomes the immediate, volatile subtext. We’re about to find out whether we’ve outgrown the reflex.
The trap has a biracial legacy.
Back in the 1940s, Mayor William B. Hartsfield publicly characterized annexation as an exercise in efficiency and good citizenship. In private, his message was different.
“The most important thing to remember cannot be publicized in the press, or made the subject of public speeches. Our Negro population is growing by leaps and bounds. They stay right in the city limits and grow by taking more white territory inside Atlanta,” he wrote a group of white business leaders.
Eventually, he warned, blacks would take political control of Georgia’s capital.
After two failed attempts later that decade, Atlanta’s boundaries were expanded in 1952 — north into Buckhead, but also south and west. The city’s footprint tripled, and the African-American share of Atlanta’s population dropped from 41 percent to 33 percent, according to “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta” by Ronald Bayor.
White control of Atlanta continued until 1973, when Maynard Jackson was elected mayor — and the annexation shoe shifted to the African-American foot. Expansion of Atlanta’s city limits, in many quarters, became a threat to black electoral control.
Which is one of the reasons that the petition from Emory University and five other landowners — including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to join the city of Atlanta is so important. The 744-acre addition would be the biggest change to the city’s boundaries in 65 years.
A final City Council vote is projected for Sept. 5, two months and two days before the election of Atlanta’s next mayor. But details of the package remain scarce.
On Wednesday, the DeKalb County Commission approved an attempt to push the annexation (the land is in unincorporated DeKalb) into arbitration.
The move “should not be seen as opposition to the proposed Emory annexation,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said. His county very much wants to see MARTA extend rail to the Emory campus — the primary motive for the annexation. Thurmond just wants “open, transparent negotiations with all parties.”
Two Atlanta mayoral candidates have begun to raise questions. Most of the property owners seeking entry into Atlanta are nonprofits unlikely to bring in significant property tax revenue.
“This seems to be moving very quickly, and no one that I’ve been able to talk to has been able to tell me what the cost of providing services to the area is — versus how much money we’ll receive in return,” said Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president.
She wants to know what — if any — side deals have been negotiated to offset the expense to the city.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, another candidate, has hit the same topic, but harder, leveling accusations that we haven’t been able to substantiate. And so we won’t repeat them.
Beyond that, Fort fears that a MARTA rail push up the Clifton Road corridor will come at the expense of his poorer (Senate district) constituents in southwest Atlanta. “Emory is exercising its muscle and City Hall is cooperating with it,” Fort said.
“I’m not saying it’s not related to race,” the senator continued. “But it’s mostly about wealth.”
Among mayoral candidates, that’s as close as public discourse has gotten to Atlanta’s historical reflex. The Emory University annexation request in and of itself includes little residential property, and so it would have little effect on the voting pool — although many acknowledge that requests from neighborhoods such as North Druid Hills could soon follow.
Nonetheless, the annexation has support among both black and white candidates for mayor. Councilwoman Mary Norwood and former Atlanta COO Peter Aman, both of whom are white, favor the idea.
Among African-American candidates, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves supports it, saying it could heighten the city’s prestige as one of the country’s “elite brain-belts.” Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell used much the same language. City Councilman Kwanza Hall is a co-sponsor of the annexation ordinance.
Councilwoman Keisha Lance-Bottoms is also a fan. “Anytime we have an opportunity to expand our borders and welcome in entities like Emory and the CDC — I think it’s fantastic for the entire city,” she said.
I asked Lance-Bottoms whether she was worried about the city’s racial balance. “It doesn’t concern me at all. We’ve always been the model for how a diverse group of people get along,” she said.
However, Lance-Bottoms was kind enough to allege that one of her rivals, Norwood, had in the past expressed concern about annexation to the south that would draw in more black voters. A spokeswoman for Norwood described the accusation as “patently false.” (And a new city of South Fulton now blocks that avenue.)
One reason why the racial aspect of annexation may have lost its volatility, at least in this instance, can be found in Atlanta’s voting population.
Voters who identify themselves as African-American make up 47 percent of the electorate. It is a spongy number. Add in a few who refuse to describe their race, and the number easily slips above 50 percent.
Even so, biracial coalitions are even more of a necessity than in 2009, when Kasim Reed beat Norwood. The number of white voters in the city has increased significantly in the past eight years, and the eastern expansion of Atlanta could enhance that trend.
The difference may also lie in the kind of white voters who could become part of a future Atlanta mix. Northern expansion beyond Buckhead, if at all possible, would bring in more Republicans. By growing eastward, enveloping more liberal voters, Atlanta may not be forever black or forever white.
But it would remain stubbornly Democratic.
In the current climate, partisanship may trump race as the more important form of identity.