East Atlanta was historic before Columbus set foot in the new world. Flat Shoals Ave was already a major trade route for the Native Americans. It was called Sandtown Trail and connected the coastal area near Savannah with the Chattahoochee River area near present day Six Flags. 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) 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 the 1830s when Andrew Jackson's treaty forced their removal from all of North Georgia.
Afterwards 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 out 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 fast becoming cleared of their first frown forest for farming and timber.
Because during the Civil War, Atlanta became a major supply hub of the southern war effort, the city also became 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 that place the Confederate lines there, General McPherson place his Yankee 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, the only one on this side of town, 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 works if necessary. 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. By the late 1890's the store had grown to encompass five different businesses including a dry goods, a feed and seed, a black smith, a livery stable and a grocery under one ownership. 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 Zube, 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. The house is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 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 was owned by former Georgia Governor Joseph Emerson Brown. Soon 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 people 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.
After World War II 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. 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 (as low as $1,500 for a 3 bedroom). The new Interstate 20 highway that cut through the neighborhood removed some houses and allowed easy access to areas farther out. Slumlord investor bought many of the available houses.
During this time many hardworking black families achieved the dream of homeownership in a nice neighborhood with yards for the children and good schools nearby. Many white families remained refusing to give-in determined to live in harmony with their new neighbors. Twenty years after the first blockbusting integration in East Atlanta, their neighborhood, unlike others that had resegregated entirely, remained integrated with a 60% black and 40% white/other racial mix.
However property values had become depressed during the panic of transition, and slumlords allowed their houses to deteriorate. This made real estate values much lower than other areas of town. The neighborhood's appearance and reputation suffered. The perception of crime, if not the reality, was large. 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 good people continuing to raise their families and go about their lives in admirable ways. There were also merchants both white and black who stuck with it, providing goods and services as well as employment of the 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 in the last 25 years thanks to the efforts of many dedicated residents and businesses. As we move forward, part of the challenge will be to maintain the diversity of East Atlanta - economically, socially and racially - celebrating our differences while working together to achieve a better life for all who live and work here.