In the early decades of the fledgling American republic, Thanksgiving was celebrated only in New England. It became a national holiday after the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would be National Thanksgiving Day.
Since then, Thanksgiving has spread to every corner of the country, and remains one of America’s favorite celebrations. In this year’s NielsenIQ survey, 91 percent of respondents said they plan to celebrate this week. (76 percent reported they would wear elastic waist pants rather than fancy clothes.)
Georgia is home to some unique Thanksgiving stories and traditions. Check out these vintage photos of Thanksgiving past:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dining with First Lady Eleanor, 1939
Here, the jolly Roosevelt enjoys a Thanksgiving turkey dinner in Warm Springs, Georgia. The president was a frequent visitor to the resort town, where a plunge pool helped relieve chronic pain from childhood polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
This 1939 Thanksgiving was celebrated a week earlier than usual because Roosevelt, hoping to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression, impulsively shifted the holidays a week earlier to make more days for the Christmas shopping season. Chaos ensues: poultry producers complain that they will run out of turkeys, college registrars argue that the course schedule is fixed, and half the country remains mutinous, celebrating Thanksgiving on its original date. Republican Alf Landon, who was easily defeated by Roosevelt in the previous election, sullenly stated that the president had behaved “with the omnipotence of a Hitler”.
Judging by the enthusiasm with which he spears the bird in this photo, Roosevelt doesn’t seem overly irritated by the bad press. But in 1941, with the new date still wildly unpopular, economic reports indicated it did little to boost Christmas sales either, and Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back to its original date, where it has remained ever since. The famous three-year interval is known as “Franksgiving.”
Unsolicited Turkey Facts: The bits of paper stuck to the drumsticks are out of date, but they’re meant to obscure the unsightly leg bones on a handsome roast turkey. What pleases them, they are called “turkey boots”.
Children pray before a Thanksgiving meal at the United Methodist Children’s Home, 1954
United Methodist Children’s Home opened in 1871 on a farm in Norcross before moving to Decatur in 1873. Still operating, now under the name Wellroot Family Services, it is one of the longest running faith-based child welfare organizations in the state.
In this photo, from left to right, are Martin Towe (age 5), Jimmy Manesa (age 5), and Becky Cornelius (age 4), bowing their heads before tucking into a giant roast turkey. (Jimmy did his best to focus on the prayer, but understandably got distracted by the bird.)
This photo was taken by Bill Wilson, a famous photographer for Atlanta Constitution, where he worked for nearly forty years. Wilson, who won several national awards for his photograph of a Korean prisoner of war reunited with his family, captures many of Atlanta’s historical moments, from sports to politics to the everyday encounters pictured here.
Georgia Tech played Auburn College at Grant Field on Thanksgiving Day, 1917
These days, Auburn has a more high-profile rivalry with Georgia and Alabama, but a hundred years ago, the football feud between the Tigers and the Yellow Jackets was legendary. Here they play at Grant Field, Georgia Tech’s first 5,600-seat arena. It was built in 1913, mostly with its own workforce of Technology students (this was long before OSHA created workplace safety regulations).
The Auburn-Tech rivalry dates back to the 1890s. In 1894, Auburn claimed the team’s biggest win of 92 games, defeating the Yellow Jackets 94-0. Adding insult to injury, Auburn pulled off an epic prank against Tech two years later, which is now hailed as one of the greatest pranksters in collegiate sports history.
Here’s what happened: On November 7, 1896, the Yellow Jackets took a train to Alabama for an Auburn home game later that day. Unbeknownst to them, the Auburn students had taken to the railroad tracks the night before, carrying buckets filled with lard and soap, which the prankster used to line 400 yards of railroad tracks. As the Georgia Tech train arrived at Auburn station, the slippery tracks prevented the conductor from breaking, and the train slid for five miles down the tracks, finally stopping near Loachapoka. The team had to get him to the Auburn stadium on foot, taking all of their kit with them. Needless to say, Auburn beat them again, 45-0.
But Tech seems to have the last word. The annual competition ended in 1987, and the teams have only played each other twice since then; Georgia Tech won both hands easily.Another Turkey Day classic: Morris Brown v. Clark College
A few miles away, University Center Atlanta has its own historic rivalry. For many families in Atlanta, Thanksgiving morning means cheering on the Turkey Day Classic, Morris Brown vs. Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University). Morris Brown’s old student newspaper, the Wolverine Observer, reported at the annual games, offers a fairly biased assessment of a team’s competence. “Morris Brown Slaughters Overrated Clark” headlined 1959. “’We eat our turkey and (CC) pie, too’” was the summary for 1978. Enhancing the drama, of course, was the beat of the university’s legendary marching band, which inspired hit movie of 2002 drum line.
After being built in 1948, the 15,000-seat Alonzo Herndon stadium at Morris Brown frequently hosted the Turkey Day Classic. Previously, the rivals frequently met at Ponce de Leon Park, which used to be opposite the Sears Roebuck building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, now Ponce City Market.
For more photos of Morris Brown and Clark College’s legendary rivalry, head to the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library’s digital archive, which is free to search and open to the public for in-person reference appointments!
Joseph E. Lowery leads a Thanksgiving Eve event in Winn Dixie to protest the sale of South African products, 1984
Legendary civil rights activist Joseph E. Lowery was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1977-1997. Lowery helped found the SCLC in 1957 after the Montgomery Bus Boycott; by the 1970s, following the triumph of the civil rights movement, the SCLC had broadened its advocacy to include the suffering of oppressed and marginalized people in other countries.
During the 1980s, SCLC focused its global advocacy on South Africa, where white leaders brutally suppressed the power of black South Africans under the system known as apartheid. Around the world, activists are coordinating boycotts of South African goods, students are urging their universities to ditch investment shares of South African companies, and governments are issuing sanctions against the white supremacist South African government.
In 1984, an eagle-eyed black shopper at a Winn Dixie grocery store—a chain often touted for its popularity in the black community—noticed that much of the canned and frozen goods it sold were manufactured in South Africa. He told Lowery’s wife, Evelyn, who is the president of SCLC Women. On the night before Thanksgiving, 1984, the Lowery family staged a sit-in at Winn Dixie on North Decatur Avenue to protest the sale of South African products and the discrimination in recruiting and promotion practices the SCLC had recently discovered. Lowery, photo above, was arrested with 19 other people. “We cannot in good conscience allow the Winn Dixies’ aid of apartheid in this country without a fight,” he is quoted in this article. Atlanta Voice article.
When Winn Dixie ignored these protests, the SCLC stepped up their efforts, organizing year-long pickets and boycotting the grocery chain. It worked: a combination of bad publicity and lost revenue from black shoppers terrified the Winn Dixie leadership, and in 1985, they pulled South African produce from their shelves once and for all.