As CEO of the Atlanta History Center and a proud native Atlantan, I often reflect on our city’s historic moments. This week marks the 130th anniversary of the first Coca-Cola ever served, which took place downtown at 2 Marietta Street, so it’s a significant week of reflection for me – and should be for all Atlantans.
Ever since pharmacist John Pemberton offered that first glass of Coca-Cola at Jacobs’ Pharmacy in 1886, Coca-Cola has paced the growth and success Atlanta has needed to thrive. Looking back on this pivotal moment 130 years later, it’s clear that the individuals who directed Coca-Cola, the civic foundations they formed and the DNA they infused into the Company – both in terms of investing in and promoting their hometown – was critical in making the Atlanta we recognize today. Take an “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment and try to imagine Atlanta without Emory University, the cultural beacon that is the Woodruff Arts Center, and a functioning Grady Health System, just to name three. The list is deep and wide.
When Asa Candler bought the rights to Pemberton’s beverage in 1888, he transformed it from a simple tonic to an iconic American beverage. But as the popularity and impact of Coca-Cola spread, Candler made sure the Company remembered its roots. As he built Coca-Cola, Candler also helped build Atlanta. Even after finishing his tenure as a corporate leader, he developed real estate throughout the city. Candler even helped build – in a less literal sense – fiscal security for the city after becoming mayor amid financial chaos. Candler Field is today Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
And one can’t talk about the presence of Coke in Atlanta without mentioning Robert Woodruff, former Coca-Cola Company president and subsequently its Finance Committee chairman from 1923 until his death in 1985. Woodruff’s striking influence is still noted on buildings, parks, and public facilities throughout Atlanta today. Woodruff not only funded Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in 1937, but he (along with his brother, George Woodruff) also gave $105 million in Coca-Cola stock to catalyze the school’s national prominence in 1979. At the time, it was the largest single gift to a college or university. The Woodruff Arts Center, formerly known as the Memorial Arts Center and renamed in Woodruff’s honor in 1982, was built with his $6 million lead donation. There’s also the innovative Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center that he built to serve the four historically black institutions that comprise the Atlanta University Center. And in 1946, he ensured that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be headquartered in Atlanta as its mission and footprint expanded.
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Woodruff even promised then-mayor Ivan Allen that The Coca-Cola Company would cover extra expenses from the funeral, and told Allen to spare no expense and “just do it right.” Today, through both the Woodruff Foundation and the Coca-Cola Foundation, Woodruff’s generosity continues to impact Atlanta and its educational and civic institutions.
A more recent Atlanta shaper was Roberto Goizueta, who served as Company leader from 1980 to 1997 and continues to impact Atlanta posthumously. Through the Goizueta Foundation, the Goizueta family extends a tradition of civic and educational support, including the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. At the Atlanta History Center, thanks to the Foundation, we are beginning a major transformation of 22 acres of greenery, aptly named the Goizueta Gardens in honor of our former trustee Olguita Goizueta.
Beyond individuals and foundations, The Coca-Cola Company itself has donated generously to Atlanta. In 1932, Coca-Cola bought the Atlanta Crackers – our first minor league baseball team – to ensure the team survived the Great Depression. More recently, in the early 2000s, the Company made a significant gift of land downtown to create a tourist hub around Centennial Olympic Park, which now includes the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
But if you asked me to name one moment that crystallizes Coca-Cola in the history of Atlanta, here’s my favorite: After Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, many white businessmen failed to offer their support to sponsor a banquet held in King’s honor. Robert Woodruff and Coca-Cola president J. Paul Austin at the urging of Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., however, refused to sit back and tolerate the black eye on Atlanta’s image as the “City Too Busy to Hate.” Austin arranged a private conference for these businessmen and told them that it was “embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner.” He pointedly explained that an international corporation such as The Coca-Cola Company did not need Atlanta. It was up to Atlanta to decide whether it needed The Coca-Cola Company. Many then agreed to join Coca-Cola in sponsoring the banquet, and the city received accolades from press throughout the U.S. (Today, Martin Luther King Jr.’s hand-written Nobel acceptance speech manuscript from the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection can be viewed in the Atlanta History Center exhibit, “Atlanta in 50 Objects,” which also notably includes the 1915 patented Coca-Cola contour bottle.)
These moments, individuals, buildings and foundations only begin to scratch the surface of the true impact Coca-Cola has had on Atlanta. There are many more who have contributed throughout the beverage giant’s 130-year history, and their legacies live on as both the Company and the city continue to prosper.
This week, as Coca-Cola celebrates its 130th birthday, I’d like to raise a glass of my personal daytime elixir, ice-cold Coca-Cola Cherry Zero, to honor the remarkable beverage maker for all it has enabled our city to become. Next week, Atlantans are invited to do the same following a historical marker dedication ceremony by the Georgia Historical Society at the old site of Jacobs’ Pharmacy as an illustration of yet another imprint of Coca-Cola on our city. From the business and growth it’s brought over the years to its inescapable presence throughout town still today, it’s inconceivable to imagine Atlanta without Coca-Cola, or Coca-Cola without Atlanta.
Sheffield Hale is the president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. This piece originally published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.