My newest book project, which got underway in August 2017, is provisionally titled “Black Belt Boosters: Metropolitan Ambitions in Georgia’s Fall-Line Cities.” It examines three cities–Augusta, Macon, and Columbus–in the 20th century. These cities have been largely neglected in urban history scholarship. Indeed, Richard Harris’s recent essay, “A Portrait of North American Urban Historians,” in the Journal of Urban History suggests that rather few historians are currently concentrating on southern cities or smaller cities regardless of region.
The Fall Line, the natural slope that separates the Piedmont from the Coastal Plain, furnished water power for industry and marked the head of navigation on the Savannah, Ocmulgee, and Chattahoochee Rivers. Until the late 19th century, any of the cities that grew along the Fall Line in Georgia and in the Carolinas seemed capable of taking their place alongside older seaport cities such as Savannah and Charleston, but the rapid rise of upland cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated the Fall Line cities to second-tier (if not third-tier) status in the Southeast. The Fall Line also overlaps closely with the so-called “Black Belt,” a region within a region that relied heavily on cotton into the 20th century and continues to have an African American population that ranges from about 40 to 60 percent of the overall population.
This comparative study explores how the three cities strove to be more than small urban hubs for processing agricultural products (first cotton and then other commodities ranging from peaches to pigs). Each carved out a niche for itself as the market for perhaps a dozen and a half rural counties. All three cities, starting with Columbus, succeeded in securing permanent military installations. Each sought to develop its river, whether for hydroelectric power, industrial development, or navigation (or all three), none more so than Augusta. Much more than Columbus and Macon, Augusta also led the way as a regionally significant tourist destination and medical center. The distances that separated each city from the others, combined with Atlanta’s growing dominance, may have diminished leaders’ resolve to compete head to head with other Fall-Line cities. Nonetheless, I am interested in the ways these cities sometimes treated each other as rivals. I am also interested in the degree to which they emulated Atlanta’s forward-looking growth agenda and, eventually, Savannah’s efforts to harness history and culture. All three cities experienced substantial growth, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, but for most of the 20th century their growth lagged behind the region. In addition, after World War II, as was true in many other cities, the older urban centers declined as suburbs grew. However, thanks to aggressive annexation and successful consolidation, Columbus managed to grow along with its metropolitan expansion while Augusta and then Macon eventually succumbed to population loss once their ability to annex waned–until they also ultimately consolidated with their counties.
Thus far, I have made three research trips to Augusta and one to Macon (with two more planned during my current sabbatical) to collect extensive primary materials and have been mining the online archives of the Augusta Chronicle, Macon Telegraph, and Columbus Enquirer. As I’ve done with past book projects, I dug in with an initial paper titled “Making ‘The Garden City of the South’: The Transformation of City Planning in Augusta, Georgia,” that I presented at the Urban History Association 2018 conference in Columbia, South Carolina. Although the focus was narrow (how city leaders tried to lend credence to Augusta’s longtime slogan through an increasingly interlocking effort to bring city beautification, historic preservation, and downtown revitalization), this work helped me become acquainted with people, places, organizations, and my primary sources. While I continue to cast a wide net in collecting materials and to imagine various ways to organize the book, I plan to submit the long version of my UHA paper to a journal in late spring. My next conference paper will compare city planning approaches to a distinctive urban feature shared by Augusta, Macon, and Columbus–their extraordinarily wide main downtown streets, which along with New Orleans’s Canal Street are among the widest main streets in the United States.