Grant to help Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project uncover Atlanta’s racial history

By April Hunt | Feb. 5, 2021

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The ties between Emory and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will be strengthened as they share in a grant supporting efforts to uncover Atlanta’s racial history.

Emory’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project will work with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights on uncovering Atlanta’s racial history as part of a $17 million grant announced Thursday.

Construction of a three-story expansion of the Atlanta museum will take up about $15 million of the gift from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

The Cold Cases Project, an undergraduate course led by Pulitzer Prize-winning professor Hank Klibanoff, will share in the remaining funds to continue research into the Atlanta Race Massacre of 1906, when a white mob inflamed by sensationalized and unsubstantiated media reports of crime killed at least 25 African Americans.

The exact amount of funding was not released for the work, which will become the basis of new programming at the Center, which opened in 2014. The focus will be on creating a clearer look at the attack, especially on those who died.

“Who were these people? What did they do, how did they live, how did they die? We know enough from our preliminary research to see the victims were people living on the right side of the law, but they became political pawns, expendable because of their race,” says Klibanoff, a professor of practice in Emory’s Creative Writing program.

“We’ll be seeking to animate their lives to give them the historical justice that was denied them by law enforcement and the judicial system in 1906,” he adds.

Klibanoff launched the cold cases course in 2011, teaching students how to conduct in-depth research into racially motivated murders that went unpunished in the Jim Crow South. The effort mixes journalism with history and African American studies, similar to Klibanoff’s own work in “The Race Beat,” the book that won him the Pulitzer.

He hopes to assemble a team made up of researchers in the community and undergraduates and alumni who have taken the course, to capture more details of the 1906 attack, which civic leaders tried to disguise and minimize almost immediately after it occurred.

The Blank Foundation gave the Center and the Cold Cases Project $25,000 in seed money last year, to see if more could be unearthed.

Working with Sonam Vashi 15C and Katherine Dautrich 19C – who exceled in his course – and Kera Lamotte, the Center’s public engagement coordinator, Klibanoff found enough in 115-year-old records to convince him they could tell victims’ stories, reveal details about the perpetrators and trace the descendants of both.

“Atlanta should not be allowed to pass on this myth as ‘the city too busy to hate’ until it sets the record straight,” Klibanoff says.

Details of how the research will be done will be hammered out in the months to come, with a possible summer start.

There have been no discussions yet whether the findings will be turned into a series for “Buried Truths,” the Peabody Award-winning podcast that emerged from Klibanoff’s course.

Other project partners include the Emblematic Group, for virtual reality storytelling, and Equitable Dinners, for community conversations, according to a press release.

“The most effective way to make progress together as a community is to shine a light on the issues that exist and to then do something about them so that everyone can feel a sense of understanding and support. We believe in the power of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to educate, include and transform the whole of this community and this country so that together, we can create tangible, positive change,” Blank says in a prepared statement.

The Blank Family Foundation has donated more than $20 million to the Center, including the initial $1.5 million to begin construction in 2013, to connect the Civil Rights Movement to the global struggle for human rights today.

Center CEO Jill Savitt says in a press release the latest gift allows the museum to expand that vision, something Klibanoff echoes for his part of it.

“Emory has been excellent at encouraging and supporting the scholarship to uncover these stories that might otherwise be lost to time,” he says. “Working with the Center and Jill Savitt elevates the significance of our work, to get at the truth.”