My own family history is intertwined with this story: my grandfather, Marque Leslie Jackson, was Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctor (he once removed King’s tonsils) and he often threw himself into the melee of activists, picketing segregated department stores like Rich’s. . Meanwhile, my grandmother’s brother, RE Thomas, Jr. (we called him Uncle Edwin) was an attorney working to desegregate Atlanta’s public golf courses in a case that went all the way to Supreme Court. Later, he and his wife, Mamie, helped the activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, providing them with food, money and accommodation. My mother, who grew up with Maynard Jackson (no relation) was a lobbyist for the Georgia NAACP in the 80s, where she worked under Bond and helped pass anti-Klan legislation in the Georgia Legislature. Georgia. I remember that she had received death threats.
They never made much of it, it was something that casually fell into conversations, and then we moved on. They were just facts of life, nothing more, nothing less.
There is a dark side to all this black privilege. The pressure to excel, to constantly overcome, can be too much of a burden to bear. Friends, the offspring of Atlanta’s black elite, fell and did not rise again, beaten down by drugs, suicide, despair. Often there wasn’t much generational wealth to pass on, thanks to a legacy of redlining and discrimination.
And then there’s this: Atlanta is — was — a kind of “who are your people” city.
Privilege, black privilege, was not exactly a monolith. The old guard, where my parents came from, were the product of generations of fusion, light-skinned black people who got ahead of the racial scale with a combination of hard work and a parent well-placed white slave owner or three who (occasionally) bequeathed freedom, land and, if you were lucky, an education too.
Guarding the gates of the Old Guard, doyennes obsessed with hair color and texture and family lineage passed on this sense of superiority from generation to generation.
So. There was the old guard of true middle-class gatekeepers like my maternal grandmother, Ruth, “club women” whose mission was to “uplift the race” – while holding the keys to black bourgeois kingdom in the 30s, 40s and ’50s. Think of the Links, the Girl Friends, Jack and Jill, the Ball, the Guardsmen, all bastions of black excellence and black exclusion. But the 60s and 70s brought the New Guard of the black bourgeoisie, people who might be a darker shade, people who might not have had a great-great-grandfather who owned a white slaves who was apparently okay with owning Black people, but maybe had enough conscience to think owning your own blood was maybe a little messed up, and so they gave a little something to their black children.
The New Guard might have been a little darker, they might not have that white closeness, but they had money. They are the ones who got rich through courage and medical school or a construction company that made a boatload of ducats or a really cool way to design a funeral home with a drive-through visitation. (Yes, it really happened.) And that meant they had money – lots and lots – and it brought a certain power that even the colorful deans of the old guard couldn’t deny.
Not everyone was connected – or happy – with this great cultural revolution. Atlanta, after all, was a major strategic city for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and some Atlantans were still fighting that fight. My parents, big believers in the best education possible, enrolled me in Westminster Schools on the northwest side of the city. Specifically, Westminster, with its privilege amenities (luxury dormitories, rolling lawns, Olympic swimming pool) was located in Buckhead, the home of the Old Money and Old Southern families. (It would be the same neighborhood, still the whitest in the city, that in 2022 is trying mightily to separate itself from the rest of Atlanta.)