Most residents of Atlanta are aware that John Wesley Dobbs was a prominent citizen of Atlanta because a downtown street bears his name. What is not well known is that Dobbs’ house still stands in the Old Fourth Ward and that a poignant relic from Dobbs is visible to any car driving by: a marble stepping stone with his name engraved into it.
To see this stone and the home, drive east on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, past Boulevard, and stop in front of the first residential building on the left [540 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue]. Four steps rise from the sidewalk to a walkway. On the front of the top step is carved “540 Houston St. N. E.”
Houston Street was the old name for John Wesley Dobbs Avenue, which was renamed for him in 1994, 33 years after his death. On the top of this marble step is carved “J. W. Dobbs,” marking the approach to his solid, upper middle-class home which has recently been renovated. An African American, Dobbs accomplished much in the segregated South in which he lived.
Mr. Dobbs lived his entire life under laws and customs that were sometimes called “Judge Lynch and Jim Crow.” Many believe that life for an African American in the South at that time was just slavery by another name. But even oppressed people have leaders and J.W. Dobbs became a powerful and effective leader of the people in his community, Sweet Auburn.
Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia has been known for more than a century as a center of African American business success, entertainment, and accomplishment of every type, and it was J.W. Dobbs who named this district Sweet Auburn. In honor of Dobbs a large statue of his face, in the form of a mask, was installed at the intersection of Auburn Avenue and Fort Street [commissioned for the 1996 Summer Olympics here in Atlanta].
Mr. Dobbs’ success was first founded on a career with the U.S. Postal Service. Once established as a solid citizen, he became the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons and was responsible for building an impressive Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue. He is most well-known, however, as a political leader. Unable to seek meaningful public office himself because of the prejudiced political system in the early 20th century, Dobbs instead became a “king-maker,” wielding a block of up to 10,000 African American votes that would reliably be cast for the candidate endorsed by Dobbs.
With his block of votes, Dobbs was able to successfully get commitments for community improvements such as black police officers [read about Atlanta’s first eight African American police officers here], street lights on Auburn Avenue, playgrounds and fairer treatment for blacks by city officials. He forced attention to needs in the black community that had been ignored by the white power structure. Most importantly, he made working with the black community a requirement for political success in Atlanta.
There is much more to be learned about J.W. Dobbs and his many accomplishments. One of the best books on the subject is Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz. Certainly Dobbs’ efforts for political influence dovetailed with his activities in support of Civil Rights. Just as the promise of fairer and freer treatment for African Americans dawned with the integration of the Atlanta public schools in August of 1961, John Wesley Dobbs died, having lived his entire life subjected to segregation.
Editor’s Note: The Fulton County Board of Assessors lists the 540 John Wesley Dobbs Avenue structure being built in 1920. However, 1920 was the year where the City of Atlanta was rezoned. I have been told that this rezoning in 1920 had racist priorities, and that if a structure in an African American neighborhood is listed as being built in 1920 to view that date with skepticism.
Compiling the story of John Wesley Dobbs, such an accomplished individual and a major influence on Atlanta history, requires an encyclopedia-sized book. So to fill out his story a bit I have compiled a list of significant milestones in the life and legacy of John Wesley Dobbs:
- March 26th, 1882: Born in Marietta, Georgia.
- 1897: Moved to Atlanta. Worked at Dr. James McDougal’s Drugstore on the corner of Houston Street (now named after Dobbs) and Piedmont Avenue while starting classes at Atlanta Baptist College, now Morehouse College.
- 1903: Passed the U.S. Postal Exam and became a postal clerk, a major accomplishment during a time of extreme racism for African Americans in Atlanta history.
- 1906: Dobbs marries Irene Ophelia Thompson. They would have six daughters.
- 1911: Dobbs is accepted into the Prince Hall Masons. He eventually becomes Grand Master, a post he would hold until his death.
- February 12th, 1936: In a two hour speech at Big Bethal, Dobbs lays out a plan to create the Atlanta Civic and Political League with a goal to register 10,000 voters.
- 1946: Dobbs’ efforts over the past ten years come to fruition, with the Atlanta Negro Voters League and the All Citizens Registration Committee offering 18,000 votes to politicians willing to work with the Atlanta African American community. It is a powerful tool. With this support Mayor Hartsfield, facing a tough reelection, agrees to hire Atlanta’s first eight black policemen. They are hired in 1948. As a part of this deal street lights come to Auburn Avenue in 1949.
- 1948: Dobbs travels with Ray Sprigle, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Pittsburg Post-Gazette reporter, throughout the South while Sprigle is disguised as an African American. The result was Sprigle’s popular newspaper series I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days that was later released as an equally successful book, In the Land of Jim Crow.
- August 30th, 1961: John Wesley Dobbs dies the same week the Atlanta Public School System was desegregated.
- 1974: Dobbs’ grandson Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. becomes the first African American mayor of Atlanta.
- January 10th, 1994: Houston Street, on which the Dobbs family home resides, is renamed John Wesley Dobbs Avenue.