Friday, June 9, 2017

The death of Solomon Luckie: Lamppost to move, shine new light on arduous lives of free blacks in Civil War South

Ambrotype of Solomon Luckie (Courtesy of Atlanta History Center)

Amid the bustle of Civil War Atlanta, 40 residents were an anomaly. Neither white nor enslaved, they were free blacks -- but they were not free in the fullest sense of the word. The residents toiled under restrictions and were always under a cloud of uncertainty.

And yet some of them thrived, particularly if they were judged more for their business success and property ownership than their place in a racial hierarchy.

Solomon “Sam” Luckie and his wife, Nancy Cunningham, were among the tiny number of free African-Americans in Atlanta. Luckie was a barber at one of a half dozen hotels surrounding Atlanta’s railroad lines, which ferried vital supplies and troops for the Confederacy.

Luckie made a good living and is among the city’s first successful black entrepreneurs.

“He is prominent enough to have his image taken and that of his wife,” said Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center. “He is well-dressed and wearing a little pinky ring.”

Lamppost at Underground Atlanta (Picket photo)

Luckie’s success story ended on Aug. 9, 1864, when one of thousands of Union artillery shells raining on besieged Atlanta hit a lamppost. Shrapnel struck the businessman, who was conversing with white businessmen at the intersection of Whitehall (Peachtree) and Alabama streets. He died hours later.

This week, the Atlanta City Council voted to donate the 1855 gas lamppost, one of 50 installed in what is now downtown Atlanta, to the history center, which will tell the story when the new Cyclorama wing opens in 2018.

The damaged post – for years located inside Underground Atlanta -- will be relocated this summer to make way for the redevelopment of the moribund shopping and entertainment venue.

Lamppost is in Underground Atlanta, in section below white fence (Picket photo)

“It is a very significant artifact. It tells a great story,” said Jones. “It starts out as a damaged lamppost, has the story of Solomon Luckie, a free black barber, and (became) a Lost Cause symbol after that. It was celebrated as what Sherman did to us.”

While Luckie had children, it’s unknown where he was from, his age at death -- or even where he was buried.

And he’s not remembered at the lamppost: A sign and two markers bolted to the post make no mention of Luckie. But his story is about to be retold.

Living in a 'between' space in Southern society

Atlanta was a boom town in the early years of the Civil War. The population more than doubled, from 9,500 in 1861 to 22,000 in 1864.

It wasn’t your traditional Southern city. Many businessmen hailed from the North and there was some Unionist sentiment during the 1860 election that put Abraham Lincoln into the White House and further fractured the nation.

Wendy Venet, a history professor at Georgia State University, said Atlanta didn’t have a plantation elite – It had a business elite.

Nancy Cunningham, Luckie's wife (Courtesy of AHC)
Sam Luckie worked at the Atlanta Hotel, behind railroad cars (Library of Congress)

Luckie, listed as Solomon Luckey in an 1859 directory, operated the Barber Shop and Bathing Salon out of the Atlanta Hotel. Free people of color and slaves were actively involved in the trade. (The hotel can be seen in a well-known George N. Barnard photograph, taken in September 1864, showing the Atlanta Intelligencer newspaper office and rail cars with Union soldiers sitting on top.)

While the barber’s family prospered, living in the city came with a price, said Venet, author of “A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta.”

Free people of color faced many restrictions, and there was always the issue of having to prove their status.

“They were required to have a white sponsor. They were charged $1,000 for the right to live in the city, although it is unclear whether efforts were made to enforce this,” Venet told the Picket. “They were required to ask permission of the City Council to entertain visitors from out of town. A black businessman was turned down by the City Council when he asked for a permit to vend ice cream in 1856.”

“Slaves Without Masters,” written by Ira Berlin in 1974, recounts free blacks’ struggle for liberty and opportunity amid restrictions.

Atlanta Hotel is the first building on left (Library of Congress)

Why so many lived in the South

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., in a 2013 article for The Root, addressed the question of why so many free blacks – more than 200,000 -- lived in the South.

Slave owners sometimes freed slaves by last will and testament. Slaves who accumulated money through trading or by hiring their time sometimes were allowed to purchase their freedom. Some came from other states or countries. One-third of the state’s tiny free black population lived in Charleston in 1860, on the eve of the war, says the South Carolina Encyclopedia.

Gates writes of uncertainty on whether life would be better in the North. “But comparative dread was not the only reason that most free blacks remained in the South. At the top of the list was family unity. After all, when a slave family was split up, often the free members remained close, attempting to raise the funds needed to buy the remaining members of the family.”

Solomon Luckie’s circumstance is unknown.

Map shows Atlanta Hotel center left (Courtesy Georgia Battlefields Assn.)

Gates cites Berlin’s research in saying some free blacks stayed for economic opportunity. Among the trades they learned were ones that whites did not want to perform or for which they would accept lower wages. In Richmond, Va., 19 percent of skilled free blacks were barbers, followed by plasters and carpenters.

As Venet has pointed out, by late in the war African-Americans in the South – freed or enslaved – were pushing boundaries. And the Great Migration north was only a few decades away.

Desperate life in a war zone

But in the summer of 1864, free blacks in Atlanta were literally fighting for survival.

As the war dragged on and Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman tightened his siege on the city, food and supplies became scarce. Terrified citizens dug homemade bomb shelters as Federal forces lobbed 35,000 artillery rounds over one month. Eventually, Confederate troops evacuated Atlanta in early September.

Venet has written about Sam Richards, a British-born bookseller in Atlanta who kept a diary for decades. He estimates about 20 people died from shelling. No one knows the exact number, though Jones believes there were about 50 overall casualties.

Stephen Davis, author of "What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman's Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta," said some of the shells didn’t go off and lay among the rubble. “As unexploded shells were being tinkered with by ... kids and adults, they blew up.”

By late July, as battles swirled around Atlanta, the populace felt a sense of chaos. “The thing people miss is that most of the residents were already gone,” said Jones. “Those who could have done so had already gone.”

Damage to lamppost base (Picket photos)

A rush to rescue wounded businessman

Luckie ventured out on August 9, 1864, the worst day of Federal shelling, when an estimated 5,000 rounds were fired on the city. (Jesse Garbowski, Cyclorama digital interactive project manager at the AHC, shared details of that day).

The businessman, perhaps in his 30s, walked about a block from the Atlanta Hotel to Whitehall and Alabama.

As the barber leaned against the cast-iron lamppost in conversation, a shell ricocheted and burst, the fragments likely striking his leg. The base of the post has at least one hole caused by the shell.

Prominent white citizen Thomas Crusselle and one or two others carried the Atlantan into a store. Luckie was taken to the Atlanta Medical College, where Dr. Pierre-Paul Noel D’Alvigny amputated his leg. Luckie, who had been administered morphine, died from shock a few hours later.

His burial location is unknown, but Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett speculated that he is buried in Oakland Cemetery, in one of many unmarked graves. His wife, Nancy, died in 1910 and is buried at South View Cemetery, according to Find a Grave.

Whitehall and Alabama streets (Library of Congress)
Current view south (Jesse Garbowski/AHC)

Barnard took a photograph (above) that shows a lamppost at the corner of Whitehall and Alabama. It’s possible this is the same fixture, but it is difficult to discern any damage and Luckie may have been standing at another corner.

'Eternal Flame of the Confederacy'

Venet, the historian and author, has written and lectured about how quickly Atlanta leaders embraced the opportunity to rebuild after the war’s end in 1865.

“Atlanta was aided by the conscious decision not to fight federal Reconstruction policies,” she told the Saporta Report in 2014. “The city decided the best way was to cooperate rather than fight.”

Many whites in the South adopted the “Lost Cause” view, that the conflict wasn’t about or mostly about slavery -- but instead a Northern assault on state’s rights and liberty. Confederate troops, they reasoned, fought a heroic fight against great odds, defending a way of live. This narrative has been challenged by many historians.

Lamp when it was at street level (Georgia Archives)

The lamppost was kept as a memento of the war and displayed in City Hall until 1880, says the Georgia Archives. It was returned to its original spot and the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a plaque honoring a general. Another plaque was affixed in 1939 for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”

The post was designated the “Eternal Flame of the Confederacy.” At some point, it was moved a short distance during construction for the Underground Atlanta in the 1960s.

Its bright flame flickers below the original street level, next to escalators and restrooms.

Plaques affixed to lamppost (Picket photos)

Exhibit will open next year

To those who may question why the lamppost is being moved from near its historic location, Jones said it will be more secure at the AHC, which he says has the space and wherewithal to tell the story of Civil War Atlanta.

While the AHC has another lamppost, the Luckie artifact provides a lens into African-American life in Atlanta during the Civil War period, officials say.

“It is a curator’s dream,” said Jones.

Davis, the historian and author, said Luckie should have been recognized by the city years before -- perhaps with a downtown statue.

Details are still being finalized, but history center officials plan to place the lamppost near the locomotive Texas (famous for the Great Locomotive Chase) and the colossal Atlanta Cyclorama (Battle of Atlanta) painting that is being restored.

Editor's note: Some of you may wonder whether Luckie Street is named for Solomon Luckie. I'm told the downtown street is named for  Alexander F. Luckie, who died in 1854.

(Picket photo)


  1. Great scholarship. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Chad. It was fun to work on.

  3. Nice read. Thanks for sharing this story.

  4. Thank you for the great article. My 2X great-grandfather was Tom Crussell. I love seeing his name in print and I would love to learn more about his friendship/relationship with Sam Luckie.
    Thank you for the research you did and shared!
    Melanie DiBiase

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