Ask anyone in Atlanta, there is no place Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is felt more than his birth neighborhood, the Sweet Auburn Historic District.
The neighborhood’s major thoroughfare, Auburn Avenue, was once named the “richest Negro street in the world” by Fortune magazine in 1956 for its legacy of Black businesses and congregations. It was also home to the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s first Black newspaper, and various social organizations.
The allure of Black entrepreneurship and wealth is what drew Dan Moore Sr. to Atlanta from Philadelphia to work as a filmmaker in 1957. It wasn’t until after attending a ceremony honoring the late Benjamin E. Mays, King’s self-proclaimed spiritual mentor and former president of Morehouse College, that Moore recognized the need for a Black history museum in a neighborhood that was known for the celebration of Black excellence on a global scale.
This idea would later become the African American Panoramic Experience Museum, more commonly known as the APEX Museum, which first opened in 1978.
“I thought to myself, in 10 years, who will remember all these great things he [Mays] did? No one,” Moore said. “I was a filmmaker and had no experience in running a museum, but I felt like preserving our history and our culture was far more important at the time.”
Though Moore continued to work in the film industry, he never let go of his desire to preserve Black history in a way that was meaningful to the community. Moore said the purpose of APEX hasn’t changed, despite major changes to the area over the years.
“The Auburn Avenue you see today isn’t the Auburn Avenue I know,” he said. “There used to be barbershops, hair salons, drugstores, and churches up and down this avenue. It’s hard to believe it has become what it is today.”
Nearly 21 years after his arrival, Moore secured a loan to purchase the building at 135 Auburn Ave. and the adjacent property that is now a parking lot for $2.2 million. The nonprofit organization is now the oldest Black history museum in Atlanta, operating for 45 years with the mission to present African and Black American history in a way that is understandable for members of every community and shows appreciation for the contributions that Black Americans have made to modern society.
Still in its original building, the museum hosts exhibits celebrating Black American and African history. There is also an exhibit that highlights Sweet Auburn’s rich history.
“We always want to showcase that we do have moments worth remembering,” Moore said. “It’s been our mission for over 40 years, and we are sticking to it.”
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, Auburn Avenue and the larger Sweet Auburn Historic District was placed on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places back in 1992 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, citing a downward trend for the area since the 1980s.
There have been some revitalization efforts in the past decade to preserve the historic aspect while enticing new opportunities for the area. In July 2022, the Atlanta-based nonprofit Historic District Development Corp. broke ground on a $30 million development, Front Porch. The development will feature 61 housing units — 35 affordable — a 9,000-square-foot rooftop event space, and a community garden. HDDC was co-founded by Coretta Scott King to protect and revitalize the area around the King Center.
The project is the first of its kind in over a decade on the historic block.
The new developments haven’t gone unnoticed by Moore, who says that the push, with support from the current businesses, can be done.
The curator still believes, however, that some changes have done irreversible damage to the legacy Black businesses that once stood there.
“Think about when they brought the streetcars down Auburn,” he said about the oft-suspended Atlanta Streetcar rail service. “They eliminated major sources of parking for businesses along the street, which destroyed a lot of businesses. Auburn Avenue has festivals every year, thousands of people come here every year with vendors all over the place. When the streetcar came, they couldn’t have it in the street anymore.”
Businesses aren’t the only thing that has been lost as the area declines over time.
In a 2019 study, the National Park Services found that nearly 47% of the buildings that were in the area of Auburn Avenue 45 years ago — when the neighborhood was designated as the Sweet Auburn National Historic Landmark District — are gone due to tornado damage, new construction, and neglect, and the remaining are in need of preservation.
And as developers begin to set their sights on the area, Moore believes that it is up to the legacy business owners to maintain the neighborhood as best they can while it’s still here.
“This used to be a beautiful place, a place of prosperity and wealth for our people,” he said. “We can save it, but it requires Black participation that hasn’t been present in a while. We need to wake up because think about it, when the money comes, we’ll see who gets grants and who gets loans.”
But, he isn’t giving up hope that Auburn Avenue will return to its heyday for generations to come.
“It will take work,” Moore said. “But we’re used to that. What we need is hope.”