In the second half of the century, Georgia State grew in lockstep with its city
Great metropolises beget great universities and Atlanta is no exception. As Atlanta ascended in the second half of the 20th century, it fueled the growth of Georgia State University. At the end of World War II, Atlanta had a metropolitan population of around half a million. Much of it was centered on a downtown that had changed very little since the onset of the Great Depression.
After World War II, Atlanta began to build its expressway system that powered suburban expansion and radically changed downtown. Georgia State played a critical role in the transformation of downtown when, in 1946, it relocated into Kell Hall, a repurposed a parking garage, as it expanded to accommodate demand from veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill.
However, neither the city nor the university could have continued to prosper without an end to racial segregation.
In the 1950s, Atlanta gained national recognition through its relatively peaceful integration. Georgia State quietly admitted its first African-American student in 1962 amid demonstrations by Atlanta University Center students picketing nearby segregated restaurants and lunch counters downtown.
By the late 1960s, the city boasted a population of more than 1 million and was home to the Braves, Hawks, Falcons and Flames. In 1973, the city elected Maynard Jackson as its first African-American mayor.
While Peachtree Center created a new skyline downtown in the 1970s, the major banks and law firms remained in office towers arrayed around Five Points. Georgia State was growing, but was not to compete for office space in the central business district. The first master plan created a five-block campus linked by bridges and plazas that raised much of student and academic life above the streets of the downtown.
Building on its base as a business college near the firms in the heart of the city, Georgia State established programs in education to prepare teachers for jobs in the expanding region. The university also rode the wave of federal funding focused on the urban crisis of the 1960s by creating a College of Urban Life and attracting faculty with expertise in urban issues. A new law school in 1982 increased visibility in the legal community and the General Assembly, where Glenn Richardson (B.A. ’81, J.D. ’84), a graduate of the first class, was elected Speaker of the House in 2005.
The entrepreneurial spirit that fueled Atlanta’s growth also helped Georgia State grow. Using the power of the University Senate, talented faculty who came to the university in the 1970s and ’80s were instrumental in establishing policies that rewarded those who received external research grants. Among the results were two new science buildings and the 1995 establishment of Georgia State as one of four research universities among the units of the University System of Georgia.
By the 1990s a new Atlanta was emerging. Suburban downtowns of offices, hotels, shopping and entertainment were growing around malls like Lenox and Phipps, Cumberland and Perimeter. The banks and law firms began to relocate from the heart of downtown, giving Georgia State the opportunity to fill the vacancies. The College of Education moved into the Lawyers Title Building and the Robinson College of Business into the C&S Bank Building. The 1996 Olympic legacy for Georgia State was the Olympic Village. Its 2,000 beds transformed the student body with a dramatic expansion of a residential population.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Atlanta had grown to be the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Its urbanized region reached into 10 counties. Much of this growth continued to drain businesses from the historic downtown where the university filled the void by expanding onto more office towers and hotel complexes. Fueled by a growing student body that made it the second largest unit in the University System, Georgia State established a housing corridor along Piedmont Avenue and a classroom-office concentration around Five Points. Five colleges occupy or will soon move into five former banking or insurance buildings.
Looking back at its second half-century, Georgia State mirrors the explosive growth of metropolitan Atlanta. Since the end of World War II, each experienced a tenfold population increase. The population of the Atlanta region now exceeds five million, and the university boasts an enrollment of more than 32,000. In its second century, Georgia State will continue to grow with Atlanta, if not in numbers, then, because of its foundation of the past 50 years, in the quality and extent of its academic and research programs.
Tim Crimmins is professor of history and director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State, where he has been on the faculty since 1972.