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Column: Horse Guards called to keep peace amid violence in 1906 Atlanta
Johnny Vardeman

Groups in Atlanta recently have been remembering the racial disturbances in September 1906 that killed 25 Blacks and two Whites.

Some refer to the weekend violence as riots and others as a massacre of Black people and destruction of many of their businesses. Either way, it was a blot on the history of Georgia’s capital city, though downplayed for many years.

Gainesville’s Horse Guards were called to Atlanta after the worst of the violence to relieve state militia and other law enforcement that had been on duty for days.

The Horse Guards were a local militia group that was organized in 1901 to help keep the peace, respond to disasters or disturbances. They were summoned to help in recovery efforts after the 1903 tornado that struck south Gainesville, called to help Forsyth County calm things down in 1912 after Whites forced Black residents out and even were sent to help guard the border during the Mexican Revolution in 1915.

The Horse Guards became part of the Georgia militia, and some were called into World War I.

The governor’s race in 1906 was one of the reasons for the racial violence that September in Atlanta. The candidates were Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, and Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Journal. Both stoked racial tensions in the newspapers as well as in campaign rhetoric trying to out-segregation each other.

There were proposals to take the vote away from Blacks. The Atlanta Georgian newspaper went so far as to suggest branding Black men with an “R” on their foreheads if accused of rape. Assaults on White women, whether true or false, supposedly set off the violent weekend in September 1906.

In the aftermath of the Atlanta violence, the Gainesville News reported no incidents in its area, but referred to “much uneasiness” between the races. In an editorial aimed at easing the tension, it wrote: “The law-abiding people of both races are determined that there shall be no outbreak, and ample provision has been made for the protection of both black and white. We cannot afford from any viewpoint to have any mob violence and lawlessness, and we’re not going to have any. “The people of both races stand to each other and help each other to keep down any outbreak to have law and order and to continue to get along peaceably and harmoniously.”

Yet in 1922, Jesse Murphy, secretary of the League for Enforcement of Law, complained, “Hall County Courthouse’s doors are propped open with tombstones broken from the sod of a Negro graveyard, and the Negroes have been told they have no right to gravestones over the graves of their dead.”

Racial tension wasn’t confined to Atlanta. The same month the violence erupted in Atlanta, White County hanged a Black man accused of molesting an 8-year-old White girl. A White mob tried to take the man from jail before his trial, but was thwarted. More than 2,000 people watched when the hanging eventually took place just outside Cleveland.

No elephants

Gainesville High School’s football team has been known as the Red Elephants or Big Red for years. Before that it was called the Red and White. But the 1906 version of the team was referred to as the Black and White. 

The GHS team’s first game that season was at Chattahoochee Park on a Monday afternoon instead of today’s traditional Friday night. Chattahoochee Park was at the end of Riverside Drive, the site of today’s American Legion Post 7.

Gainesville’s football opponents that year included North Georgia Agricultural School, Stone Mountain University and Locust Grove. Coach was Walter Smith, and captain John Byers. Admission to games was 15 cents for children and a quarter for adults.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.