There are ghosts in black Atlanta, some eminent, some friendly, all findable and worth getting to know, but they are not all what they seem to be at first.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was named for his father, the prominent Atlanta Baptist minister known in later life as Daddy King. But Martin Luther King Sr., it turns out, was named not for Reformation leader Martin Luther, but for his father's two brothers, Martin and Luther. Anyway, Daddy King reported in his autobiography, published in 1980 by William Morrow & Co., "Mama always insisted that she'd named me Michael, after the archangel."
The richest black man in Atlanta at the turn of the century was Alonzo Herndon, founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. It surprises few to learn that the wealthy Herndon was a member of Booker T. Washington's Negro Business League, exemplar of a conservative approach to the social and economic transformation of a black America for which slavery was within living memory. It startles others to discover that Herndon, with radical-reformer W.E.B. DuBois and others, was also a founder of the Niagara Movement, the predecessor of the NAACP that in its time was seen as revolutionary.
And Uncle Remus, the famed fictitious raconteur of the Br'er Rabbit stories, was the creation not of a black man, but of a white of the same generation as Herndon: Joel Chandler Harris.
All three of those families have monuments of sorts in the city that serve as delightful and instructive introductions for those minded to become better acquainted with the ghosts of this black Atlanta.
This week, when much of the country commemorates the birthday of the martyred Martin Luther King Jr., is not the time to seek after the more sublime realities of black Atlanta. There are too many ceremonies and concerts and memorial services going on just now for the genius loci -- the spirit of the place -- to let the unadorned voices of the past be heard clearly.
But some other week, any other week, visitors would do well to start their se'ance near the corner of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard, in the middle of the national historic district known as Sweet Auburn.
Sweet Auburn was the first middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, at the turn of the century. Within a short walk of Boulevard on Auburn are the burial site of Martin Luther King Jr. at a center and museum dedicated to his memory, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King's father and grandfather were pastors before him, and the house in which King Jr. was literally born and in which he lived until age 12.
But first head east along the north side of Auburn Avenue, where typical workers' houses of the turn of the century are being restored by the National Park Service. They are labeled a trifle quaintly on the markers as "shotgun residences." In fact, the Southern phrase for such structures -- the poor man's, employer-owned house -- was "shotgun shack." According to my long-dead grandmother, they were called shotgun shacks because a gun blast could pass through the front door and out the back of the tiny one-room structures, without hitting anything, because they had no interior walls.
Today the houses seem to be rather better painted than they probably ever were when poor black workers lived there. Plans call for making them available as low-cost residences for senior citizens, but even in their gussied-up glory they're worth a gander to get an idea of how most urban blacks lived at the time.
Having seen the shotgun shacks, one is better prepared to appreciate just how middle-class the 12-room King house, half a block east on the other side of the street, was.
Built in the Queen Anne style in 1895, the two-story frame house was bought by Martin Luther King Jr.'s maternal grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, in 1908 for $3,500. (Around the same time, Sinclair Lewis made the richest man in Gopher Prairie, Minn., in the novel "Arrowsmith," the earner of the magnificent sum of $5,000 a year.)
"Mike" King was the son of sharecroppers in Stockbridge, then a small town outside Atlanta. After graduating from Morehouse, he married Rev. Williams' daughter Alberta (whom he called "Bunch") and they lived in the big house here with her parents. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in an upstairs bedroom of the house in 1929.
Today you can just stroll up to the door and ring the bell, and a park ranger will give you a free tour. Most of the furnishings in the house are from the period, but didn't belong to the Williamses or Kings. Still, the flower-patterned linoleums and dark parlors evoke the feeling that the Nobel Peace Prize winner came from a serious and upright family.
Having seen one pillar of King's foundation, return westward along Auburn Avenue, passing the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change on the left, to Ebenezer Baptist Church.
This is the church where King Jr.'s grandfather Williams and Daddy King, between them, were pastors for all but the most recent years of this century. "Mike Jr.," as his family called him, returned to be associate pastor here in 1960, after successfully leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
The Ebenezer Church, where the private funeral for King was held after his 1968 assassination, is a simple structure whose midweek quiet scarcely suggests it has been the locale of sermons that shook a nation. It has been recently painted, so you can no longer see the bullet-holes behind the organ, where a mentally deranged man shot and killed "Bunch" one Sunday morning in 1974 as she played the organ during services.
An elderly deacon recommends that would-be worshippers arrive by 7:15 a.m. to "get a good seat" for the 7:45 a.m. Sunday service and merely notes that the doors are opened at 10:30 a.m. for the 10:45 a.m. service "to give everyone an equal chance." Ebenezer still packs 'em in.
Retracing your steps a half-block up Auburn Avenue takes you into the King Center proper. In the lobby are various memorabilia from King's life, including his Nobel Peace Prize medal. Against one wall is a time-line that traces events in King's life and the course of the civil rights movement in the 20th century.
Out the back door and across the plaza is a screening room where two videotapes are shown: one on the civil rights movement, the other a birthday tribute to King narrated by James Earl Jones.
The tapes provide the proper mood for approaching King's grave site, a marble sarcophagus in the middle of a reflecting pool on the plaza. Like the home and church whence King came, his final resting place is simple, but moving.
To seek out the second of these ghosts of black Atlanta, you must head west by bus or car. The Herndon Home is near another of black Atlanta's totems, the Atlanta University complex of five predominately black colleges, off Martin Luther King Drive in the western part of the city.
What a glory this beaux-arts mansion is.
Alonzo Franklin Herndon was born a slave in Social Circle, Ga., in 1858. As a child, he worked in the fields with his grandfather, but as an adult he became first a barber and then a real-estate mogul in Atlanta.
In 1905, he organized the Atlanta Life Insurance Co., one of the oldest and largest extant black businesses in the nation. In 1910, he completed construction of his 15-room mansion, which was designed by Herndon and his first wife, Adrienne, and built mostly by black craftsmen.
It is an elegant columned residence with parquet floors that is furnished mostly with items acquired by Herndon's son Norris during his travels all over the world. The tastes of Norris Herndon, who is said to have been the first black millionaire in Atlanta, ranged from classical Roman bottles and Greek vases to art nouveau.
The tour entrance is through the rear of the house into a basement exposed on that side. Visitors can examine the photographs here at leisure until a videotape on Herndon's life and times kicks off the tour.
Upstairs on the first floor, there's a grand entrance hall with a tiled fireplace and hearth that in fact were never used, but are said to have reminded Herndon of his humble beginnings in rural Georgia. Directly opposite the front door is the music room, complete with grand piano. The Louis XVI furnishings there were added later by Norris Herndon, who established the house as a memorial to his parents.
Of special interest in the living room is a mural along three walls, above eye level, that depicts Herndon's history in American primitive style. As he saw it, the tale began in west Africa, stretched through slavery to freedom in the United States and culminated with the former slave building the grand home on University Place.
The Herndon Home is of interest architecturally and for its furnishings, as well as for a splendid collection of photographs that reveal a turn-of-the-century upper-class black existence that many do not know existed. The photographs also include such important black contemporaries of Alonzo Herndon as poet and diplomat James Weldon Johnson and author and professor DuBois.
About 1 1/4 miles south of the Herndon Home is Wren's Nest, the sprawling eclectic Victorian home of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution and author of the Br'er Rabbit stories, bought the home in 1880 and named it Snap-Bean Farm. It was then well outside the city of Atlanta.
Later Harris noticed that a wren had built its nest in the little-used mailbox; hence the home's name change.
Now on a busy artery, it nevertheless remains an island of peace. And one of the charms of Wren's Nest is that it has grown a bit tattered at the edges. Amble up the walk and onto the porch, which wraps around one side of the house.
The furnishings here are mostly made from the dark, polished hardwoods so favored at the turn of the century. From the fireplaces to the kitchen, you can see how the well-to-do really lived at the time.
What is especially striking in the photographs that form part of the record of the Harris family is how much alike the Herndons' and the Harrises' life styles were. Both Herndon and Harris were self-made men from the same part of Georgia, one born black and a slave, the other born white and free, both born poor.
Black people as they appear at Wren's Nest were much more likely to have lived in the shotgun shacks back at the corner of Auburn and Boulevard, if not in the servants' quarters here.
So it's the kitchen and scullery here that harbor the ghosts most relevant to this special search for black Atlanta. But the juxtaposition at Wren's Nest of gracious living in the main rooms and quiet labor deeper within is worth savoring for those who care to remember the past as it was.