“The Right Kind of Neighbors”: Race and the Origins of Avondale Estates

This is second in a series of posts about the history of Avondale Estates, Georgia.

In my last post I mentioned that racism and white supremacy were baked into Avondale Estates’ identity at its origin. This was both a function of the founder and his times. Avondale Estates was founded in the mid 1920s by George Francis Willis, a self-made millionaire who made his fortune hawking patent medicine through his company International Proprietaries, Inc. specifically a concoction called Tanlac, a “splendid effective stomachic tonic” that was basically an elixir of wine, herbal bitters, a laxative, and glycerin, amounting to 17% alcohol.[1] Willis was a master promoter, and a self-described “capitalist and human benefactor.” After making his fortune in patent medicine promotion he turned to real estate, building apartments in Atlanta. In 1924 he purchased substantial acreage in the farming community of Ingleside, GA, with the aim of creating a model planned community.

George Willis
George F. Willis, founder of Avondale Estates. Photo from the Reeves  Studio Collection at the Atlanta History Center

Along the road to white supremacy

Local history has it that Willis discovered the land that would become Avondale traveling along Covington Highway, from the tony neighborhood of Druid Hills to Stone Mountain, where Willis attended meetings as a member of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association. The Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association was founded in 1916, spurred by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with “the purpose of perpetuating the memory of American valor fortitude and patriotism by the creation at and adjoining the great Stone Mountain in DeKalb County, Georgia, of a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the Southern Confederacy, and to the women of the south of that period, to serve as an inspiration not alone to the south, but to the reunited country.”[2] The timing is important; the formation of the Association is coincident with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, which met at Stone Mountain, and the release of “Birth of a Nation,” (funds were raised for the memorial through screenings of the film in Atlanta). It is also during what US historians call the “nadir of race relations,” nine years after the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, and during the same period as 1919 “Red Summer” of race riots around the nation, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, and the 1924 passage of the National Origins Act restricting immigration from all but northern European countries.

The Association membership and officers consisted of many prominent Atlantans of the time (bankers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and politicians, including Atlanta Mayor J.N. Ragsdale) as well as governors of Southern states and prominent Klan members such as Nathan Bedford Forrest and Samuel Venable. As a member and officer, Willis was in the company of men like Hollins N. Randolph, the general counsel for the Federal Reserve of Atlanta, William Candler, Vice President of the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel, JJ. Haverty, president of Haverty furniture Co, Willis A. Sutton, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, and several bank presidents.[3] Willis seems to have worked primarily as a fundraiser, becoming SMCMA President in 1929. Willis, who worked in  advertising and product promotion, might have been drawn in by Edward Young Clarke of the Southern Publicity Association, which took over solicitation of funds for the memorial after 1923. Clarke was also, with colleague Elizabeth Tyler, the primary publicist for the Klan, promoting the Klan as an organ of law and order, public morality, and a guardian against Catholic and Jewish immigration and white Protestant fraternalism.[4] Willis’ connection to the world of banking, which underwrote his development ventures, might also have played a role as so many prominent bankers were also members.

According to local lore, it was George Willis who arranged for sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who had been hired by the Association, to reside in Avondale Estates during his time on the memorial project. Borglum, who later went on to create Mount Rushmore, was an avowed white supremacist and sporadic participant in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.[5] The son of polygamist Mormons from Idaho, Borglum had no ties to the Confederacy per se, but was influenced by ideas of eugenics, scientific racism, and nativism. In a letter to Klan leader Dave C. “Steve” Stephenson in September 1923, Borglum reflected on the ”evils of alien races,” after reading Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race. Madison Grant was one of a number of eugenicists who promoted ideas of racial hierarchy, measured by physical and genetic attributes, promoting superiority of the “Nordic” race. Borglum wrote: “While Anglo-Saxons have themselves sinned grievously against the principle of pure nationalism by illicit slave and alien servant traffic, it has been the character of the cargo that has eaten into the very moral fiber of our race character, rather than the moral depravity of Anglo-Saxon traders.” For Borglum, “We the Klan are in truth the great non-partisan amalgam that will reunite and rebuild the broken course of our original Nationalism.” Borglum embraced both the racism and the nativism inherent in Grant’s ideas, writing against the threat of “Alien manned city industries, and the mongrel hoard that is … bringing disease, ignorance, immorality, and contempt for our laws, our language and our customs.”[6]

Although the sculptor and the Association had a falling out in 1925, Borglum has left his mark on the commemorative landscape of Avondale Estates in the form of a Georgia state historical marker for the “Gutzon Borglum House,” located at 10 S. Avondale Plaza. The marker, erected in 1983 with the support of a local group known as Avondale Community Concern, reads: 

Gutzon Borglum, the world-famous sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and the first man to work on the Confederate Memorial carving on Stone Mountain, lived in this house from 1924 to 1925. He had begun the Stone Mountain carving in 1923 with his plan that included Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and an army of Confederate soldiers on horseback, fading into the granite. In 1924, Borglum became an early resident of the city of Avondale Estates, one of the first planned communities in Georgia. George Willis, the city’s founder and Borglum’s close friend, had urged him to live here while working on the Stone Mountain carving. Borglum accepted because Avondale Estates was convenient both to Atlanta and to his work on Stone Mountain. In a controversial funding dispute with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, Borglum destroyed his models for the carving and left Avondale Estates in 1925 to begin his monument work on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Borglum died in 1941.[7]

Times change: The Gutzon Borglum House marker at 10 Avondale Plaza. Photograph by Lionel Laratte.

That Avondale Estates claims Borglum as an early resident is a stretch since he was at best a temporary lodger. The fact that the only state historical marker in Avondale Estates is a tribute to a white supremacist is maybe no accident.

Race, class, and the Anglo-Saxon suburb

George F. Willis planned Avondale Estates as a white-only, Anglo-inspired enclave at a time when race relations were at their historic “nadir.” The landscape designed for Avondale Estates was based on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English gardens and villages. Local history has it that Willis was inspired by his wife’s love of Stratford upon Avon after a vacation together in England. But Willis’ attraction to the English village style would also have had resonance with contemporary scientific ideas about race, Anglo-Saxon superiority, nativism, and the kinds of ideas of which Borglum was a fan.

Avondale Estates Tudor Revival commercial block, promotional brochure

As a model suburb, Avondale Estates was designed to convey a pastoral feeling inspired by the city’s agricultural setting, with modern progressive ideas of suburban life. Combining the best of city and country, Avondale Estates represented an “Old English” country ideal, married with modern progressive urban planning, and no little hint of elitism. The Society pages of The Atlanta Constitution routinely reported on the comings, goings, and gatherings of Avondale residents in the 1930s, so perhaps there was some truth in that. Above all, Avondale Estates was “scientifically planned and soundly restricted.”[8] The development retained a sense of connection to its agricultural surroundings, particularly in the early decades: the city was provided with fresh food by a dairy and vegetable nursery and many residents kept and rode horses. The initial plan called for 30,000 shrubs and trees, and 253 abelia bushes occupying 3 city blocks, which still maintain a physical boundary between the commercial and residential areas of the city. Recreation and green space were likewise central; Willis planned a city featuring several parks, a pool, tennis courts, and a lake, as well as stables and many bridle paths.

man and woman riding horses
Amenities for the horsey set: Sketch detail from a full page ad for Avondale Estates in The Atlanta Constitution, April 24, 1927.

Residents enjoyed boating, fishing, swimming, field sports, golf at the Forrest Hills course, and “healthful play” at modern playgrounds. A 1927 Atlanta Constitution article about Avondale Estates pointed out, “Avondale Estates, where charming parks, trees and flowering shrubbery, wind-rippled lake and swimming pool and shadow-haunted club beckon restful pleasures.”[9] Willis consistently marketed Avondale Estates as an “ideal land of homes” offering “wholesome growth and healthful development of children,” a picturesque  “Old English” environment “far removed from the grime and noise of the clattering city.”[10] In advertising his new development, Willis added testimonials from buyers. One, in a April 24, 1927 ad in The Atlanta Constitution, praised Avondale Estates for having the “Right Kind of Neighbors,” claiming, “The youngsters have a big playground with swings and slides, wading pools and sand-pits…Off the streets. Out of the dust and danger of the city. And they will play with companions whose families I know — I meet them at the Community House where we have bridge games and parties right along — whose training is the same as my kids get, whose standards are high.”

Model playgrounds for healthful recreation, from Avondale Estates promotional brochure

This idyllic existence was predicated fundamentally not just on class exclusion but on racial segregation. I have yet to determine whether Avondale Estates’ deeds included racial covenants (county archives are closed due to Covid). During the 1920s and 30s, new housing developments in the city of Atlanta often contained racial covenants, stated explicitly in deeds and real estate auctions. I’ve seen examples of these for suburbs on the westside of Atlanta, such as Westview, where new developments abutted already established or emerging Black neighborhoods. None of the advertisements for Avondale Estates included such language, but there might not have been a perceived need for it as most suburban expansion for Blacks during this period was west of downtown, not east. The silence in the advertising, amidst explicit class claims, indicates deep assumptions about who would be purchasing Willis’ model homes. But more research is needed here in real estate and city documents when local archives reopen.

There’s also evidence that the leadership of Avondale Estates did actively maintain the city’s exclusive status subsequently, either through practice or policy. In 1941, for example, the Avondale Estates Board of Mayor and Commissioners passed a resolution that no real estate should be sold to “persons of nationalities who do not or cannot intermarry or congenially associate with a very large majority of those now resident in Avondale Estates.” The reasoning: the “natural result” of admitting “nationalities of widely divergent views and standards that prevent their assimilation, and which makes congenial relationship impossible,” would be “civic degeneration.”[11] Who this resolution referred to is open to speculation, but given the time period and language, it likely referred to religion (Jews, maybe Catholics) and ethnicity as well as race. The language is eerily reminiscent of Madison Grant and his ilk, with his concerns about non-Nordic assimilation,  miscegenation, and degeneration of the white race.

While Avondale Estates’ early homebuyers were white, their community and lifestyle depended on the labor of people of color who maintained their gardens, worked the stables, cleaned their houses, and served in or ran local stores. Black people also did live here; look for more about Black history in Avondale in my next post.

[1] Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 64, Issues 18-26, May 1, 1915. Tanlac came under investigation for the inflation and even outright fabrication of its health claims, primarily testimonials published by Willis as the Southern distributing agent, documented in Arthur Joseph Cramp, “Patent Medicines, The Nostrum and the Public Health : Truth in Advertising Drug Products,” 1922, 107-110.

[2] The Tennessean, July 31, 1927

[3] The Tennessean, July 31, 1927

[4] Taliaferro, John. Great White Fathers : The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore. New York: Public Affairs, 2002, 187. On Clarke and the Southern Publicity Association, Harcourt, Felix, “White Supremacists Within: The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Atlanta,” Atlanta Studies December 12, 2017. Accessed July 3, 2020.

[6]Taliaferro, John. Great White Fathers, 192-3.

[7] Georgia Historical Society, https://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/historical_markers/county/dekalb/the-gutzon-borglum-house-avondale-estates-1924-1925. Accessed July 3, 2020.

[8] The Atlanta Constitution, October 11, 1925. Avondale Estates was typical of the “romantic suburbs” created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. See John Archer, “Country and City in the American Romantic Suburb,” Journal of the Society of American Architectural Historians 42:2 (May 1983), 139-156; John Archer, “Ideology and Aspiration: Individualism, the Middle Class, and the Genesis of the Anglo-American Suburb,” Journal of Urban History 14:2 (February 1988), 214-253; John Archer, Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000 (Doubleday, 2009); Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford University Press, 1987).

[9] “The Home Lovers Paradise: Avondale Estates,” The Atlanta Constitution: April 10, 1927.

[10] “Some Plain Cold Facts about Avondale Estates,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 11, 1925

[11] Avondale Estates City agenda and minutes, July 1941.

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