In the early decades of the young American republic, Thanksgiving was celebrated only in New England. It became a national holiday after the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would be a national Thanksgiving.
Since then, Thanksgiving has traveled to every corner of the country and remains one of Americans’ most beloved celebrations. In a NielsenIQ poll this year, 91 percent of respondents said they plan to celebrate this week. (76 percent said they would wear pants with an elastic waistband instead of suits.)
Georgia is home to some unique Thanksgiving stories and traditions. Check out these old photos from past Thanksgivings:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dining with First Lady Eleanor, 1939
Here, the merry Roosevelts indulge in a Thanksgiving turkey dinner in Warm Springs, Georgia. The president was a frequent visitor to the spa town, where swimming pools helped ease chronic pain from polio, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
This 1939 Thanksgiving was celebrated a week earlier than normal because Roosevelt, hoping to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression, spontaneously moved the holiday a week earlier to make more days for the holiday shopping season. Chaos ensued: poultry farmers complained that they were short on turkeys, college registrars argued that course schedules were already set, and half the country rebelled anyway and celebrated Thanksgiving on the original date. Republican Alf Landon, who easily defeated Roosevelt in the previous election, sullenly declared that the President behaved “with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
Judging by the enthusiasm with which he spears the bird in this photo, Roosevelt didn’t seem too upset by the bad press. But in 1941, with the new date still largely unpopular, economic reports showed it hadn’t done much to boost Christmas sales either, and Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back to the original date, which it has remained since. The infamous three-year interval became known as “Franksgiving.”
Unsolicited Turkey fact: Those tags on the legs are out of fashion, but they’re supposed to hide the unsightly leg bones of a nice roast turkey. Fortunately, they’re called “turkey booties.”
Children pray before a Thanksgiving meal at the United Methodist Children’s Home, 1954
The United Methodist Children’s Home opened on a farm in Norcross in 1871 before moving to Decatur in 1873. It is still in operation, now called Wellroot Family Services, and is one of the longest running religious children’s charities in the state.
In this photo, left to right, Martin Towe (age 5), Jimmy Manesa (age 5) and Becky Cornelius (age 4) bow their heads before enjoying a huge roast turkey. (Jimmy does his best to focus on the prayer but understandably gets distracted by the bird.)
This photo was taken by Bill Wilson, an acclaimed photographer for the Constitution of Atlanta, where he worked for almost forty years. Wilson, who won multiple national awards for a photograph of a Korean prisoner of war reunited with his family, captured countless moments in Atlanta’s history, from sports to politics to everyday gatherings like the one pictured here.
Georgia Tech plays at Auburn University in Grant Field on Thanksgiving Day 1917
Today, Auburn has more well-known rivalries 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 self-built in 1913 with much of the work of tech students (that was long before OSHA created workplace safety regulations).
The rivalry between Auburn and Tech dates back to the 1890s. In 1894, Auburn picked up the biggest win in the team’s 92-game history when they defeated the Yellow Jackets 94-0. To add insult to injury, two years later Auburn pulled an epic prank on Tech that is now hailed as one of the greatest pranks in collegiate sports history.
Here’s what happened: On November 7, 1896, the Yellow Jackets boarded a train bound for Alabama for a home game from Auburn later that day. Unbeknownst to them, Auburn students had descended onto the railroad the night before, armed with buckets of lard and soap, which the pranksters had coated 400 yards of railroad track with. When the Georgia Tech train arrived at the Auburn station, the slippery rails would not let the conductor break, and the train rolled down the tracks for five miles, eventually coming to a stop at nearby Loachapoka. The team had to walk to Auburn Stadium, lugging all their gear along the way. Needless to say, Auburn beat them 45-0 again.
But Tech seems to have had the last word. The annual competition ended in 1987 and the teams have only played each other twice since then. Georgia Tech won both with ease.Another Turkey Day classic: Morris Brown vs. Clark College
A few miles away, the Atlanta University Center has its own historical rivalry. For many Atlanta families, Thanksgiving morning meant cheering at the Turkey Day Classic, Morris Brown vs. Clark College (later Clark Atlanta University). Morris Brown’s long-running student newspaper, the Wolverine Observer, covered the annual game and offered a fairly biased assessment of the teams’ competency. “Morris Brown Slaughters Overestimates Clark” was the headline in 1959. “‘We Also Ate Our Turkey and (CC) Pie'” was the 1978 synopsis. The drama was of course enhanced by the beat of the legendary university marching bands, that inspired the hit film of 2002 drum line.
Built in 1948, Morris Brown’s stately 15,000-seat Alonzo-Herndon Stadium often hosted the Turkey Day Classic. Before that, the rivals often met at Ponce de Leon Park, which formerly faced the Sears Roebuck Building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, now Ponce City Market.
To see more photos of the legendary Morris Brown-Clark College rivalry, visit the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library’s digital archives, which are free to search and open to the public for in-person reference appointments!
Joseph E. Lowery leads Thanksgiving eve sit-in at Winn Dixie’s to protest the sale of South African produce, 1984
Legendary civil rights activist Joseph E. Lowery served as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1977 to 1997. Lowery helped found the SCLC in 1957 after the Montgomery bus boycott; By the 1970s, in the wake of the victorious civil rights movement, the SCLC had expanded its advocacy to the plight of oppressed and marginalized people in other countries.
In the 1980s, the SCLC focused its global advocacy on South Africa, where white leaders brutally repressed black South African power under the system known as apartheid. Activists around the world coordinated boycotts of South African goods, students urged their universities to divest themselves of equity investments in South African companies, and governments imposed sanctions on the white racist South African government.
In 1984, a hawk-eyed black shopper at the Winn Dixie grocery store — a chain that often touted its popularity among black communities — noticed that many of the canned and frozen foods on sale were made in South Africa. She alerted Lowery’s wife, Evelyn, who was President of SCLC Women. On the night before Thanksgiving 1984, the Lowerys organized a sit-in at the Winn Dixie on North Decatur Avenue to protest both the sale of South African products and discrimination in hiring and promotion practices that the SCLC had recently discovered. Lowery, pictured above, was arrested along with 19 others. “We cannot in good conscience allow the Winn Dixies’ support for apartheid to go unchallenged in this nation,” he is quoted as saying Atlanta voice Article.
When Winn Dixie ignored this protest, the SCLC stepped up its efforts and organized a year-long vigil and boycott of the grocery chain. It worked: the combination of bad publicity and lost revenue from black buyers spooked the Winn Dixie leadership, and in 1985 they pulled South African products off their shelves for good.