1983-1999 Atlanta Freaknik: The Greatest Black Party Event Ever
It all started in the spring of 1983 with a picnic organized by students attending the Atlanta University Center. As at other historically black colleges and universities, AUC was home to “state clubs” made up of students with common home states. The clubs held social events during the school year and served as pre-Facebook clearinghouses for shared rides home. That spring, members of the DC Metro club threw a picnic in Piedmont Park for students who found themselves stuck on campus over spring break. It was a simple event—sandwiches, coolers, boom boxes, that sort of thing, recalls Sharon Toomer, then a Spelman College freshman and one of the organizers. “A lot of us came by bus; no one had cars back then,” she says of the gathering in the field at the corner of 10th Street and Monroe Drive. In those days, Piedmont Park was shabby, the picnic area little more than a vacant lot."
Sharon Toomer: It was a student named Rico Brown who suggested, "Let's call it Freaknic," putting together picnic and freak.
"Over the years, the spelling morphed into Freaknik and the event's timing shifted from spring break -- usually in early March -- to the "reading week"period before final exams, generally the third week in April."
Freaknik evolved from picnic to party to long weekend of concerts and cruising through Atlanta’s dogwood-shaded streets. Buzz rippled through the campuses of historically black colleges and universities, luring students who road-tripped to Atlanta for all the reasons college students congregate anywhere: music, dancing, drinking, love, lust, and the chance to just hang out. In Atlanta—with its black political and business leaders and rich history—they found a welcoming environment. “Growing up in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, where mainstream white middle-class culture pervades, the only understanding you had of college spring break came through a white filter,” recalls Ayanna Brown, who attended Tuskegee University in the early 1990s. An April pilgrimage to Atlanta proved “you could be black and academic and have fun—but it happened not at the beach but smack dab in the middle of the city,” says Brown, now a professor of education at Elmhurst College in Chicago. As Freaknik grew, weekend events spilled out from Piedmont Park and into clubs and concert venues around town, attracting performers and promoters. But for most attendees, the attraction was not so much going to events as getting there.
"Growing up in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, where mainstream white middle-class culture pervades, the only understanding you had of college spring break came through a white filter," recalls Ayanna Brown.
"Then came Freaknik 1993. That April, 100,000 students converged on the city - triple the number predicted by police chief Eldrin Bell. Gridlocked stretched from Cascade to Collier Road."
From hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands, Freaknik grew, but during its first decade, almost all white Atlantans—and many black Atlantans over the age of 40—were oblivious. Then came Freaknik 1993. That April, 100,000 students converged on the city—triple the number predicted by police chief Eldrin Bell. Gridlock stretched from Cascade to Collier Road. While trapped commuters seethed at the standstill, students got out of their vehicles and danced in the street. All weekend long, the party rolled from Piedmont Park to Peachtree Street to Lakewood to the West End, blocking residents in their homes and bringing business to a halt.
Ayanna Brown: By 1995, you had the airport locked up. People were coming from everywhere. So the tone of Freaknik started to change. I can remember seeing middle-aged men in their cars and thinking, "Why are you out here?
As complaints about rowdy behavior raged, then - city council member and mayoral candidate Bill Campbell defended the college kids, saying students he observed were "as innocent as those in Beach Blanket Bingo."
As complaints about rowdy behavior raged, then–city council member and mayoral candidate Bill Campbell defended the college kids, saying students he observed were “as innocent as those in Beach Blanket Bingo.” Campbell said with better policing and planning, he would “certainly welcome them back.” But in April 1994, just months after his inauguration and with the Olympics barely two years away, Campbell faced pressure on all fronts. If Atlanta couldn’t handle 100,000 college students over a long weekend, how would it host a million international guests over two weeks? And the city that promoted its civil rights legacy found itself in an internal dispute that split along racial lines—black college students versus white home and business owners—as well as across a generational divide.
By 1999, crowds dwindled to around 50,000 -- a shadow of Freaknik's former glory. And the police pressure stepped up, with 350 arrests and thousands of citations issued. By 2000, Freaknik had fizzled, and students went to Galveston and Daytona Beach."
As Freaknik 1994 approached, civic leaders decided to deal with the weekend by changing it. Downtown businesses tried to raise funds for the Atlanta Black College Spring Break Celebration, or as the newspaper called it, “The Party Formerly Known as Freaknik.” This did not fully take off, nor did Freakfest ’94, another structured event. In advance of the students’ arrival, Campbell assured business owners and intown residents that the city would crack down. City Council approved $175,000 for security and cleanup.
But Freaknik’s place in HBCU culture had grown even larger, thanks to media hype of the 1993 gridlock and rap videos such as Luther Campbell’s 1993 “Work It Out,” which included footage from Freaknik 1993 and a concert at Lakewood Fairgrounds (now EUE/Screen Gems Studio). With all that buzz, and acts like Snoop Dogg and Queen Latifah scheduled to perform, Freaknik 1994 drew a record 200,000 attendees—70,000 of whom turned out for a Saturday concert in Piedmont Park.
While the music business profited, others saw Freaknik as a liability. In April 1995, restaurants announced plans to close, and some hotels refused to take reservations. For the first time since 1936, Atlanta’s Dogwood Festival was rescheduled. Some 600 residents and businesses formed the Freaknik Fallout Group and threatened to sue the city. The Wall Street Journalreported that Campbell approached his counterpart in New Orleans to discuss a Freaknik relocation. Meanwhile, a group of AUC students and alumni put together yet another alternative—FreedomFest.
The city budgeted $1 million for security and cleanup, triple what it had spent in 1994. APD and state troopers implemented an aggressive traffic control plan, blocking highway exits and setting up barricades in popular cruising areas. Campbell and his police chief, Beverly Harvard, enlisted the AUC college presidents to send letters to their peers at 140 schools, asking them to discourage students from attending. This thwarted some, but hardly all. On the third weekend in April, 100,000 partyers arrived.
Freaknik 1995 wrapped up with grim reports. The rape unit at Grady Memorial Hospital treated 10 victims—far more than in a typical weekend. Police made at least 93 arrests and revelers looted stores in Underground Atlanta and Greenbriar Mall. Three people were shot. Interviewed by Jetmagazine, police chief Beverly Harvard said the lewd behavior made her “mad as hell.” Mayor Campbell had had enough, declaring, “Quite frankly, I am absolutely tired of this issue.” City Hall’s solution: strangulation by bureaucracy. In April 1996, Freaknik became a dry run for Olympics traffic control. APD put 1,500 officers on 12-hour shifts, and the city tested its high-tech traffic system. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency opened up its command center, and Georgia National Guard troops drilled at metro-area armories.
By 1997, Atlanta had posted nearly 300 “No Cruising Zone” signs throughout the city— but mostly downtown, in Buckhead, and near parks. Another strategy was to close surface streets, or to make some streets one-way only. The city also tried to work with students to organize programs like job fairs, adding a sheen of respectability. Sharon Toomer, one of the original picnic’s organizers, and Suzanne Guy Mitchell, who’d taken part in early Freakniks as a Spelman student in the 1980s, submitted a proposal to City Council that outlined a new incarnation of Freaknik, with corporate sponsorships, a website with centralized information (including do’s and don’ts), and designated cruising and 24-hour party zones.
City Council and Mayor Campbell adopted one of Toomer and Mitchell’s ideas: A website with information for would-be attendees. The city again tried to re-brand the gathering as Black College Spring Break. Others seized the idea of getting into still-nascent cyber promotion. A commercial site, freaknik.com, drew 13 million pageviews between January and April, 1997, and included recorded messages from Atlanta celebrities ranging from Atlanta Falcons star Andre Rison and New Edition’s Michael Bivins to Dexter King, who admonished the youngsters to “have a good time … be safe and stay positive.”
Freaknik 1997 drew near and antsy Atlantans had another cause for concern: Rumors of a bomb threat. Because the weekend coincided with the anniversary of the botched April 19, 1993 raid at David Koresh’s Waco compound and the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, federal agencies warned that minority groups could be targeted on so-called “Militia Day.” Federal agents joined the already on-alert local police to prepare for Freaknik, and Atlantans, still shaken by the bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics, hunkered down at home.
The event itself was deemed dull. Partiers stayed away and police patrolled aggressively. Two incidents exacerbated race and class tensions. On Freaknik weekend, a young Atlanta father, Timmie Sinclair, was stopped by cops after going through a Freaknik traffic barricade. Sinclair said other police told him to go through, as he was heading out to get medicine for his child. But officers beat and pepper-sprayed Sinclair, and the episode was captured on video by a Freaknik attendee. On the flip side, a convention of 10,000 employees of TruServ hardware stores was so disrupted during Freaknik, that the company threatened to cancel future meetings in Atlanta, meaning the city would lose an estimated $18 million economic impact. While the NAACP and others civil rights groups protested aggressive policing and the “Sinclair Incident,” the business community frothed at the prospect of losing more big conventions.
In his 1998 bestseller A Man In Full, journalist and social observer Tom Wolfe opened with a scene set in Freaknik, that, like the rest of his novel, highlighted racial and economic tensions in Atlanta. “These black boys and girls came to Atlanta from colleges all over the place for Freaknik … and here they were on Piedmont Avenue, in the heart of the northern third of Atlanta, the white third, flooding the streets, the parks, the malls, taking over Midtown and Downtown and the commercial strips of Buckhead, tying up traffic,” wrote Wolfe, describing students “baying at the moon, which turns chocolate during Freaknik, freaking out White Atlanta, scaring them indoors, where they cower for three days, giving them a snootful of the future …”
The year Wolfe’s novel was published, a biracial committee of business and civic leaders studied Freaknik. Their recommendation to the mayor: Shut the event down. George Hawthorne, committee co-chair, told the AJC that Freaknik was dominated by “a criminal element of sexual abuse against women. It’s time to make a change.” Columnist Cynthia Tucker called out the mayor for not opposing Freaknik. “The committee headed by Hawthorne, an African American businessman, gave Campbell any political cover he needed,” she wrote. “The committee’s report underscored what was already clear: Freaknik does not enjoy the unqualified support of African Americans—at least not those of us who have hit middle-age.” In 1999, mayor Campbell appointed a panel to plan future Freakniks. One of the student members was Markel Hutchins.
By 1999, crowds dwindled to around 50,000—a shadow of Freaknik’s former glory. And the police pressure stepped up, with 350 arrests and thousands of citations issued. By 2000, Freaknik had fizzled, and students went to Galveston and Daytona Beach
In 2010, Atlanta-based rapper T-Pain starred in Adult Swim’s “Freaknik: The Musical,” a cartoon about a rap group’s journey to Atlanta to attend a revived version of the legendary party. Other stars who loaned their voices to the effort included Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Big Boi, Rick Ross, and Cee-Lo. The animated version imagines “The Spirit of Freaknik” as a gold chain-wearing ghost from another galaxy. In the opening scene, Lil Jon predicts that the party could rise again: “They killed Freaknik. Or at least that’s what they thought they did … They were able to ruin the party, but they couldn’t kill the soul of Freaknik. They say it lives on, waiting to return.”
For now, however, Freaknik lives on primarily as a subject of academic study, and in that arena continues to spark debate on issues of race and class. In a 2004 paper, Georgia State University communications professor Marian Meyers analyzed media coverage of Freaknik and concluded that news outlets tended to cast women as “jezebels” deserving any violence that occurred while it “criminalized black men primarily with respect to property damage while decriminalizing them concerning their abuse of black women. The safety of black women appears of less consequence than that of property.” In a 2012 thesis, Peter Stockus positioned the event as a form of political protest, arguing that students claiming the streets of Atlanta could be “seen in the same tradition of acknowledged forms of racial discourse such as slave rituals of resistance and the civil rights movement.” Freaknik is referenced in scholarly articles and books on everything from Atlanta’s transportation system to residential segregation patterns.
Photography by The Sanity Inspector
article by: blvckrchives.com’s Reneta Cherlise and Atlanta Magazine.com’s Errin Whack and Rebecca Burns
The series of black-and-white photographs from Freaknik 1994 are by Shelia Turner/Atlanta. A narrative documentary photographer, she uses photographs to provide a platform for the examination of US life and culture. More at sheliaturnerprojects.com