Clark University was founded in 1869 by the Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. An early benefactor, Bishop Gilbert Haven visualized Clark as ‘the university’ of all the Methodist schools founded for the education of freedmen. In 1877 Bishop Haven facilitated the purchase of 450 acres in south Atlanta. The school officially moved to the site in 1883 and established Gammon Seminary Theological Seminary the same year. The school remained at this site until 1941 when it joined with the Atlanta University system
Clark University designed and created the Brownsville – now known as South Atlanta – Neighborhood with the campus anchoring the northern tip of the community. And thanks to the University Brownsville would become an “elite” African American community during segregation. In his book The Clark College Legacy Dr. James P. Brawley described the relationship between Clark and the community:
Like a magnet, as Clark University developed on its new site in south Atlanta, it drew the Summerhill and Pittsburg communities to it and continued to have large influence on these two sections of the city, as well as other sections, as it literally bilt the South Atlanta community in close proximity to the University campus… Thus, a dream became a reality in the South Atlanta community. It was the influence of the University that helped to develop their community solidarity, through common interests and kindred relationships of some of the most outstanding and influential families in the city of Atlanta for a period of more than half a century.
The impact of the University might again be noted from the naming of the streets in the South Atlanta community. The naming of the streets was for the presidents and some professors at Gammon Theological Seminary.
Clark’s cultural impact upon the community was immeasurable. The University was the center for the assemblage of outstanding leaders of the church and nation. It was the center for religious services, the Sunday Vesper Services being largely attended by people of the community along with students. It was the place for musical concerts, where renowned concert artists of national and international repute performed. The campus as a community center may be seen as most important when it is recognized that black people did not have access to the educational and cultural facilities and affairs of the white community except occasionally on a segregated basis. And the nationally and internationally known black artists and performers had virtually no opportunity to perform in the South except on the campuses of black colleges. Thus, Clark University, like other black colleges, assumed the role and responsibility of providing for the utilization of black talent for the cultural life of the black community at larger as well as for the campus.
The relocation of Clark University in 1941 removed its direct and active influence from the South Atlanta community. Most members of older families joined the black population shifting to the West Side… When it moved in 1941, several parcels of land were given to the City of Atlanta and/or Fulton County for public school sites. Four schools were provided for black people: 1) Georgia Washington Carver Vocational High School; 2) Luther Judson Price High School; 3) the Thomas Heathe Slater Elementary School; and 4) the Jessie Mae Jones Elementary School… [And] in 1946 the old campus of Clark University and adjoining land of approximately 100 acres were made available to the City of Atlanta for the nominal price of $110,000.
In the early part of the 20th Century Jonesboro Road was a major north south corridor linking communities to the south with downtown Atlanta. The streetcar line was introduced in 1901 and ran along nearby Pryor Road to the west, as well as along Lakewood Avenue and Jonesboro Road. Like most streetcar lines, the trolleys serving Southside Atlanta were abandoned for other forms of transportation by the 1950s.
Between the period of 1894-1915, the South Atlanta neighborhood also grew in prominence, as did the neighboring communities with the development of Lakewood Park and the introduction of the Southeastern Fair Association. The Lakewood area to the south of the South Atlanta neighborhood became recognized as the center for agricultural fairs. The first fair was held in 1916 and continued annually until 1975.
Historic South Atlanta has a rich history of higher education, performing arts and community development.
Having served as the home to Clark University and Gammon Theological Seminary for more than sixty years, South Atlanta was influenced by some of the most important African American families, university and seminary professors and concert artists of its time.
Further still, it was a well-planned urban neighborhood comprised of low- and middle-income residents.
South Atlanta lost its anchor in 1941 when the university and seminary relocated to the West End of Atlanta.