Oakland Resident Spotlight: James G. Woodward and the New South Crisis of 1908

By Andrew Fowler, Education Program Intern

“CRISIS, crisis is the only word that expresses the present situation in regard to the mayoralty of Atlanta,” read the first words of the November 10, 1908 issue of the The Atlanta Georgian newspaper. This alarming headline refers to the 1908 mayoral election, a political event that gained national attention and made a name for Atlanta Mayor Jim Woodward.

James G. Woodward was born January 14, 1845. He worked as a printer for several newspapers, including the morning Atlanta Constitution and the afternoon Atlanta Journal. With an interest in politics and the backing of many labor unions in the city, Woodward launched a successful campaign for mayor in 1898, championing the causes of the working and middle classes of Atlanta. According to Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett, Woodward’s election was a “distinct recognition of the growing power of organized labor in the city.”

Woodward served as mayor from 1899 to 1901 and again from 1905 to 1907. He was a divisive figure, viewed both as a hero to the working class and a threat to the Atlanta elites. To benefit the working classes and the city as a whole, he expanded city services, advocated for Atlanta’s first public library, oversaw the construction of many of the downtown viaducts, and added a ‘public comfort’ building to Oakland Cemetery.

While the city was becoming more modern with these additions, it was Mayor Woodward’s public manner (including his public displays of intoxication) and handling of city affairs that worried Atlanta elites. Prominent Atlanta businessman Joel Hurt criticized Woodward’s managing of the city as “unruly and in disarray,” and labelled his administration as corrupt. Hurt and other city leaders viewed Mayor Woodward as a threat to Atlanta’s growing reputation as the leading city of the “New South” order. They were concerned that he could damage the city’s optics as it vied for investment from Northern industrialists. After the carnage and catastrophe of the infamous Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 in which dozens of African Americans were killed, the city’s image as a progressive leader of the New South was in jeopardy.

A comment from The Atlanta Constitution, dated November 29, 1908:
“If Atlanta elects Woodward she will say by her actions that she prefers for the head of her city a drunkard and a habitue of the brothel. Here’s hoping that those that favor civic righteousness will prevail”

In 1908 Woodward once again ran for mayor and won the three-man Democratic primary with a 25-point margin. Since the “Solid South” voting bloc essentially made Georgia a one-party state in the early 1900s, the winner of the Democratic primary was seen as a shoe-in for Mayor and the general election a formality. The seemingly inevitable prospect of another Woodward tenure frightened Atlanta business leaders. They envisioned the city’s reputation plummeting, and their fears soon became reality. On the night of November 5, 1908, Woodward was arrested under the Washington Street viaduct after a night of heavy drinking and raucous behavior. The news of his arrest spread quickly.

The arrest received a mention in the New York Times, and a Columbia, S.C. newspaper asked “Will Atlanta swallow ‘Jim’ Woodward again?” The Atlanta Georgian noted that such a time called for the city to “abandon old customs and act as this crisis demands.”

City leaders scrambled to find a solution. At the Kimball House Hotel, 25 of the city’s most influential leaders created a commission to find a replacement for Woodward. Robert F. Maddox, a Fulton County commissioner, was enthusiastically selected during the four-hour meeting. One commission member stated, “this is the first case of the office seeking the man rather than the man seeking the office.” The city leaders then led an impromptu parade through the city streets, rallying support for Maddox to face Woodward. However, Woodward had no plans of halting his campaign in the upcoming general election. When the dust finally settled and all the votes had been counted, Maddox came out ahead with 7,719 votes to Woodward’s 4,570 votes.

His defeat in the 1908 mayoral election did not deter the persistent Woodward. He maintained his popularity with the working classes and within his native Third Ward district, which then consisted Summerhill, Grant Park, and Cabbagetown. Woodward rallied enough support to win both the 1912 and 1914 mayoral election. Mayor Woodward continued to be a thorn in the side of many New South advocates and Atlanta elites during his final years as mayor, which included supporting the textile workers during the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Strike in 1914-1915. His term ended in 1917, and Mayor Woodward ran unsuccessfully for a fifth term in 1922. He died the following year in September 1923, and is buried at Oakland Cemetery.

To learn more about Mayor Jim Woodward and other Oakland mayors, attend our one-time-only tour, “From Moses to Maynard: Oakland’s Legacy of Atlanta Mayors” on Sunday, November 5 at 3 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. Capacity is limited and tickets are available in advance only, by clicking here.