John Wesley Dobbs was an African-American civic and political leader in Atlanta, Georgia. He was often referred to as the unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue, the spine of the black community in the city.
Dobbs co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League with civil rights attorney A.T. Walden, leading voter registration efforts that registered 20,000 African Americans in Atlanta from 1936-1946. This new political power helped gain the hiring in 1948 of the first eight African-American police officers in Atlanta, the same year that the federal government began to integrate the armed services. In 1949 the city finally installed lighting along Auburn Avenue, the main retail street of the African-American community.
Early life and education
Dobbs was born and grew up in Atlanta, where he attended segregated public schools. He was African-American but has European ancestry, as his maternal grandfather was a white slave-owner who owned his maternal grandmother, and his paternal great-grandfather was a white slave-owner who owned his paternal great-grandmother. He was a voracious reader but never graduated from Morehouse College where he attended for two years because he had family obligations to care for his mother. But, he passed a civil service exam and became a railway mail clerk for the Post Office in 1903, a position he held for 32 years.
Dobbs married Irene Ophelia Thompson in 1906. They had six daughters together, all of whom graduated from Spelman College. One daughter, Mattiwilda Dobbs, became a notable opera singer based in Europe, while daughter Josephine Ophelia Dobbs Clement was later elected to the city board of education in Durham, North Carolina. There she led integration and discussions about race. Dobbs became a member of the Prince Hall Masons in 1911. In 1932, he was elected Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons (a post he held for the rest of his life).
Believing that enfranchisement was the key to overcoming segregation, Dobbs started a voter registration drive in 1936 with a goal of registering 10,000 black voters in Georgia. That year, Dobbs founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League, and in 1946, along with A.T. Walden, he co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League. During the 1930s and 1940s, laws keeping blacks from voting, by raising barriers to voter registration or to voting in primaries, were found by the US Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Between 1936 and 1946, 20,000 African-American voters were registered to vote in Atlanta for the first time. With the power of the black vote behind him, Dobbs convinced Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield to integrate Atlanta’s police force in 1948; the first eight black officers were hired. The next year, 1949, the mayor ordered the installation of gas lights along Auburn Avenue, the spine of the black retail district.
In 1948, when Dobbs was 66, he accompanied Ray Sprigle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when the reporter disguised himself as a light-skinned black man and traveled for 30 days in the Deep South. They had coordinated the trip with the NAACP and kept Dobbs’ role secret, as it was dangerous to challenge the Jim Crow customs and color line. Dobbs, who passed the 61-year-old newspaperman off as a cousin from Pittsburgh doing fieldwork for the NAACP, was Sprigle’s guide, host and mentor. Sprigle’s 21-part syndicated newspaper series, entitled I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days, shocked the white North and started the first debate in the national media (print and radio) about the future of legalized segregation. The series was turned into a 1949 book, In the Land of Jim Crow. Dobbs’ role was not revealed to the general public until 1998 by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Steigerwald. The story of Dobbs’ collaboration with Sprigle is told in detail in Steigerwald’s 2017 history book “30 Days a Black Man.”
John Wesley Dobbs died on August 30, 1961, aged 79, the same week that the Atlanta city schools were desegregated.