Summerhill began as Atlanta’s first African- American real estate development soon after the Civil War, when attorney William Jennings subdivided the property and it was settled by freed slaves. During the early 1900s, the neighborhood was home to a diverse group of residents, including African Americans, Jews, and Greeks. Over the years, many influential people have called Summerhill home, including developer Herman Russell, boxer Evander Holyfield, and singer Gladys Knight. The neighborhood continued to thrive and grow through the first half of the 1900s and, in the mid-1950s more than 20,000 residents, primarily African-American and Jewish, lived there.
During the 1950s and 1960s, as many of Summerhill’s more affluent residents began to move to the developing northern sections of the city and to the western neighborhoods around the historically black colleges and universities, the neighborhood began to decline. The construction of Interstate 20 and the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium led to the demolition of numerous housing units and the exodus of many residents and neighborhood businesses.
The area where the stadium was built, called Washington-Rawson, had once been home to wealthy families living in ornate homes. City leaders viewed the area as a “buffer zone” between Summerhill, where many African-Americans lived, and the commercial business district downtown. While African-American leaders pushed for much-needed housing for black residents to be constructed there, white business leaders were nervous about having blacks living so close to downtown. Building the stadium became a way to compromise and for then-Mayor Ivan Allen to fulfill a campaign promise to build a stadium to attract a major league baseball team.
Even before the stadium became a part of the neighborhood, groups of residents had been organizing demonstrations, calling for public services such as street cleaning, health and educational facilities, improved housing, and increased employment opportunities. Frustrations increased when highway and stadium construction in Summerhill crowded more than 10,000 people into 354 acres. Officials sought increased city services and federal funding for Summerhill, but by the summer of 1966, residents began street protests against the conditions. On September 6, 1966, tensions heightened when an African-American resident fleeing arrest was shot by a white policeman. The ensuing riot lasted for several days.
In 1967, in response to the frustrations in Summerhill, the Episcopal Church founded Emmaus House in neighboring Peoplestown as a neighborhood mission committed to civil rights and working with the poor. Today, Emmaus House continues to provide services for the area’s seniors and children, including monthly shuttle bus service to the Reidsville State Penitentiary for friends and family members of inmates.
In 1988 residents came together at a neighborhood reunion to form the Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corporation (SNDC), a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved nonprofit corporation. SNDC develops, owns, and manages affordable rental housing and promotes economic revitalization. When Atlanta constructed the Olympic Coliseum in Summerhill to host the 1996 Olympics, residents gained funding and support to construct 100 new townhomes and houses. As of the 2000 Census, the population of Summerhill had begun to rebound, totaling 4,320 people, up from 4,201 in 1990.