Catalyst for change
Visionary leader Sam Massell ushered in
new eras in Atlanta politics and commerce
Sam Massell discovered his inner politician in 1943.
The revelation came at Druid Hills High School. Massell, a junior, held a paintbrush in one hand and a freshly daubed campaign banner in the other.
His banner read: Goldstein for President!
When Sam’s charismatic classmate, Charlie Goldstein, announced a campaign for school president, he needed campaign workers. He had asked Sam, age 14, to help out.
Sam initially hesitated. He considered himself shy at that time.
“It was a period when I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence,” Sam says.
He compensated by keeping a busy schedule.
In the Druid Hills High School yearbook, the caption under Sam’s class picture read: “Always has a checkbook and a harried look. Always busy.”
Busy. “Buddy” Massell (he preferred the family nickname then) served on the student council. He started a bowling league and a stamp-collecting club. He operated a hallway sundries business at school with a special counter “so I would look like an operator,” he says.
After classes, Buddy sold flower and vegetable seeds door to door. He distributed circulars for the man who owned a movie theater in Emory Village. He caddied at Druid Hills Golf Club. He delivered Grit, a newspaper that gave many youngsters a first taste of salesmanship, and he threw The Georgian, a daily city paper.
Despite his deep personal misgivings, Buddy said yes to Goldstein and joined the campaign.
“Even an introvert can paint a sign,” Sam says. “All over my back yard and driveway I got down on my hands and knees and hand-painted signs. I did a pretty good job.”
The popular Goldstein won the election. Under school by-laws, the class president could appoint other officers. To Buddy’s astonishment, Goldstein named him school treasurer.
“Frankly,” Sam recalls, “that moment at Druid Hills was the point I really became interested in politics. I honestly believe that election helped me overcome a lack of confidence in myself.
“I don’t know if it was the power, or just finding out I could do it. Anyway, there was no turning back. I never looked over my shoulder again. I’ve been running ever since.”
Twenty-six years later, Sam Massell would stand in front of cameras, flash a big smile and raise his arms in triumph as the newly elected mayor of Atlanta.
Sam entered life on August 26, 1927. Sam Sr. and Florence Rubin Massell brought their little dark-haired bundle home from Piedmont Hospital to The Masselton Apartments on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The family name hung proudly out front — Buddy’s father, Sam Sr., and his uncles, Ben and Levi, had built the complex.
They’d built a lot more too. Before the Great Depression, the three Massell brothers achieved prominence in real estate.
The most financially successful Massell, Buddy’s uncle Ben, made a fortune, lost it in hard times, and then made another fortune, bigger than the first, in the boom after World War II. Called Mr. Skyline, a daunting nickname to young Sam’s ears, Ben Massell built more than 1,000 buildings, more than any other developer of his era.
Sam Sr. also made good money in real estate before the Crash of ’29. But he lost his shirt in the Great Depression and abandoned property speculation for an entirely new trade. He ran a general law practice out of the William Oliver Building at Five Points in downtown Atlanta.
On the side, Sam Sr. published a political newspaper. His talks with Sam, who helped out in the shop, shaped the youngster’s liberal thinking.
Sam Sr. also seemed color blind, a rare quality down South at the height of the Jim Crow era.
“My father gave titles to the black people who worked in our home,” Massell says. “Mr. Jackson or Mrs. Jefferson, like that. It was unusual. In those days, you could tell who was black or white in the directories because the blacks didn’t have Mr. or Mrs. in front of their names.”
Sam Sr.’s egalitarian example would turn out, in time, to be hugely important in his son’s political life.
The Massell family was Jewish, but Jews in the Deep South lived differently from Jews up north.
Here, perhaps uniquely in the post-Diaspora world, upper-class Jews often assimilated into the social fabric.
“We thought of ourselves first as Southern, second as American, and third as Jews,” says writer Alfred Uhry, who grew up in Druid Hills like Massell. “The problem was that nobody else thought that way about us.”
In Atlanta, progressive by Deep South standards, intolerance surfaced sometimes in shockingly casual ways.
Sam remembers pedaling his bike with a couple of friends past a sign of the times posted at the Venetian Pool in DeKalb County:
NO DOGS OR JEWS
Seeing the sign frightened Sam, but he felt embarrassed, too. He feared it might cause his non-Jewish bike mates to think of him as inferior.
Success by any measure
In the summer of 1944, two weeks after high school graduation, 16-year-old Sam Massell stormed onto the University of Georgia campus in Athens, not long after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
“Most able-bodied men were off at war, so if you were male gender in those days, you could be a big man on campus,” Sam says. “It was overwhelming. I ran from one meeting to another.”
Jews could not belong to traditional fraternities at UGA in the 1940s. Undeterred, a Jewish fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi (today Zeta Beta Tau), conducted its own chapter meetings near campus.
Most fraternity houses stood shuttered during the war. As summer quarter commenced that year, only three pledges showed up at Phi Epsilon Pi to meet the fraternity’s lone active member. All three, Sam included, had been classmates just days before at Druid Hills High School.
Unexpectedly, the lone active member of Phi Epsilon Pi left school, reportedly due to bad grades, vacating the fraternity presidency. Sam quickly perceived that a title like Phi Epsilon Pi president as a first-quarter 16-year-old freshman might look impressive on a resume one day.
Sam was no math major, but he could certainly count. The new Phi Epsilon Pi president would be one of the three pledges. He knew he could count on one vote – his own. All he needed was one more.
One of the pledges, a neighbor from down the street in Druid Hills, cast the deciding ballot. Sam Massell won his first election … in a landslide.
Toward the end of the war, Uncle Sam called up young Sam. The Air Force draftee went through basic training but peace broke out before he was mobilized. He returned to civilian life to earn three degrees from Georgia State University in science, salesmanship and real estate.
“I’m probably the only student ever at Georgia State to wear three caps and gowns.”
He also wore a wedding coat.
On Valentine’s Day 1950 at Club 26, a supper club on Pine Street, a petite redhead named Doris Mae Middlebrooks caught Sam’s eye and then stole his heart.
Sam’s mother didn’t initially approve of his choice of a Baptist girl from Hogansville. And Doris had a boyfriend in the Navy when they met. But they eventually overcame those obstacles and married in October 1952. Their marriage would last 63 years, until Doris’ demise from Alzheimer’s in August 2015.
Sam followed family tradition by joining Allan-Grayson Realty, a prominent Atlanta firm.
He was a natural. Sam became a founding member of the Million Dollar Club (“Back when a million dollars was quite a lot,” he says), and he rose to company vice president in 1955. He received the Alvin B. Cates Trophy for the most outstanding real estate deal of the year three times. By age 35, he was independently wealthy.
“Sam had a very agile mind,” says former colleague Charles Ackerman. “He could come up with ideas to get deals done in very creative ways, and that always set him apart.”
One idea stood out – developing from the ground up an entire commercial building designed exclusively for various medical care specialty practices. No one had done that in recent history, and parents of Baby Boomers flocked to get convenient treatment at these health hubs.
Sam put medical centers in multiple cities and made a name for himself. Despite his success, he began to wonder what more he might achieve.
“Somewhere in my 20s, my values changed,” he says. “I wanted to make a contribution. I was becoming much more goal-oriented about civic and social contributions than advancements in commerce or industry.”
Pressed to pinpoint what precipitated this change, Sam couldn’t say, but he remembers Mr. Skyline, his overshadowing uncle Ben Massell, “admonishing me that if I’d work half as hard in business as I did in community service I’d be a very rich man.
“I actually feel I achieved that anyway … though with non-monetary assets.”
Path to politics
No Jew could ever be elected to any citywide office in Atlanta.
“My dad told me that many times,” Sam says. “That’s just the way it was.”
But Sam possessed a quality required of any successful politician: Ambition.
He had a will to excel, compete, to climb into prominence at whatever he did. His ambition may not initially have been focused on elected office, but a ferocious eternal flame burned inside the young man for attention and achievement.
“I have a big ego,” Sam confesses. “But I like to think I have a big heart too. And I always wanted to do big things.”
That restless ambition meant Sam was always ready when an unexpected moment of good luck happened his way.
That bolt of luck would strike Sam in a little incorporated community in the woods north of Atlanta, a place called Mountain Park.
One could hardly dream up a more unlikely spot for a Jewish kid from Driving Miss Daisyland to step into politics.
Sam had used some of his early real estate income to buy a little romantic hideaway for Doris and himself in the community.
The run-down cabin sat on land so remote that he had a hard time getting a telephone line connected. The three-room, no-kitchen, no-bath house was surrounded by some 200 neighboring getaway cabins sprinkled through the forests of north Fulton and Cherokee counties. The community was so spread out that many property owners never saw one another.
That might have been a good thing.
“I would sneak down to the lake with a bar of soap to bathe,” Sam confesses.
Once presentable, Sam began to drop in on Mountain Park City Council meetings.
“I had no political purpose at all,” he insists. “I owned property in Mountain Park and was just interested in my neighbors.”
Mountain Park government had a unique political wrinkle: Property owners could vote and hold office without being actual residents of the community. It meant that even the most infrequent visitors to Mountain Park could hold elected office so long as they owned property there.
Two Mountain Park city elders took a shine to the young Massell. Though Sam had only owned property a few months, they asked him to run for a seat in an upcoming city council election. The idea tickled Sam.
One day he and Doris went to the city clerk and requested a list of registered voters. They wanted to contact them to request their political support.
They got a surprise.
Sam, you don’t stand a chance, the clerk told him. They found out you’re Jewish.
The same guys who asked you to run.
‘We don’t want no Jew on the council.’ Those were the exact words.
Politics became personal. Sam took it as a challenge.
Like Charlie Goldstein asking Sam for campaign help in his high school election, so Sam called on a friend for support. He tapped his former UGA roommate, Sidney Marcus.
Soon, two nice Jewish boys dressed in seersucker suits walked door to door in the sweltering, bug-infested Georgia woods. They shook hands. They kissed babies. They asked for votes.
Eight candidates jousted for five Mountain Park City Council spots. On election night, Sam finished sixth.
At least, he thought, I finished ahead of two people.
Sam’s political life might have ended then and there, but fate had other plans.
One of Mountain Park’s city council members retired, sold his property, and moved to Florida. Sam, the number six finisher in the election, filled the empty spot.
That’s how one bright morning Sam Massell, a young, urban, Jewish, 20-something, woke up a proud member in good standing of the Mountain Park City Council.
He would serve in politics for the next 22 years.
In 1953, Atlanta politics were beginning to undergo a sea change. White flight was underway, and the city’s growing black demographic started to rightfully demand representation. That year, blacks made a bid to join what was then called the White Democratic Executive Committee. All but one member resigned in protest. Sam saw an opportunity. He was elected to the body and served as secretary. In two terms there, he studied politics at the hand of Mayor William Hartsfield and the mayor’s political adviser, Helen Bullard.
In 1961, Lee Evans, head of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen (now the Atlanta City Council) took a stance on a political issue that appeared racially unprogressive. A vice president at Gulf Oil named Everett Millican approached Sam about running against Evans. The city too busy to hate didn’t want racial strife.
Sam consulted several key people first, including his father’s friend A.T. Walden, a prominent black attorney and president of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Walden also happened to be one of two African-American members on the Democratic Executive Committee. (The word White had been prudently dropped from the organization’s name.)
Walden knew the younger Massell as a bright, young liberal with open-minded views on race.
He gave Sam his support.
“That was all I needed to hear,” Sam says. “The next day I went down to register to run for president of the Board of Aldermen.”
He won the 1961 citywide election, becoming in effect vice mayor. Four years later he won a second term, without a runoff, against five candidates.
In 1969, Sam decided to run for mayor of Atlanta. His opponent was Republican Rodney Cook, who had the support of white voters, the business community and outgoing mayor Ivan Allen Jr. Polling just 10 percent of the white vote but a whopping 90 percent of black votes, Sam won the election. The headlong blur of a kid from Druid Hills was mayor of Atlanta, and he did it by convincing black voters that his Jewishness made him sympathetic to their needs.
No white man, he told one audience after another, could possibly understand what it means to be black, how it feels to be you. Being black means you are always different … but being Jewish means I am always different, too.
Sam had made history. A Jew had been elected mayor of the flagship city of the New South, a first in Atlanta and a rarity in national politics at the time.
Blacks and Jews celebrated. One eyewitness to the election-night victory party at the Dinkler Hotel compared it to the 1828 presidential win by Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, an Irishman who grew up poor, represented the common folk. Supporters stood on the fancy chairs of the White House in muddy boots to cheer him into office.
No one stood in muddy boots on fancy chairs on Sam’s victory night. His campaign didn’t have fancy chairs, for one thing.
But the party went loud and long and very late.
A forward thinker
Among Sam’s greatest accomplishments while mayor of Atlanta was the role he played in helping establish the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA.
Following Atlanta tradition, Sam focused his energy and vision on the city’s historic source of growth – transportation. More than any other individual, he championed the bus routes and rail lines of MARTA, structuring and presiding over efforts that brought the network to reality.
“If Atlanta did not have Sam Massell, it would not have MARTA,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “Without MARTA, we would likely not have the major hotels we have, with 42 million guests each year. We would not have the hotel and convention industry we have, a $10 billion annual business that supports 220,000 employees.
“All this business owes its strength to MARTA,” Reed continues. “Plus, MARTA was obviously a key to winning the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996, and the 1998 Democratic Convention. We owe having these watershed events in large part to Sam Massell’s leadership.”
As mayor, Sam catalyzed Atlanta’s nascent convention and tourism industry, and oversaw the development of Omni Coliseum (now the site of Philips Arena), the city’s first indoor arena and a magnet for the downtown area. Mayor Sam created a number of parks, public housing facilities, library branches and other city improvements … without one penny in tax increases.
And Sam played a critical – and today widely underappreciated – role in Atlanta’s peaceful transition from city government under white leadership to city government under black leadership.
He appointed the first African-Americans to department-head positions, and the first woman to Atlanta’s city council, filling an open seat. When Sam left office, blacks held more than 40 percent of city government positions, double the number in service when he became mayor. Every minority position he appointed in higher city management marked a first.
“Sam Massell came at a very delicate period in the history of Atlanta,” says former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. “With a cool head and steady hand, he guided us all through a very turbulent time.”
Nevertheless, Sam lost his bid for a second term to Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973. It was a moment of social demarcation so historical and revolutionary in the South’s first city that it made international headlines.
Winners write the history books, or at least have the history books written about them. The 1973 election defeat left Sam Massell something of a forgotten man, his significant achievements overlooked or even forgotten in the swirl of change that followed the end of his elected political career.
African-American elected officials have governed Atlanta since Jackson’s win, and at least some credit for the smooth transition must go to the quiet groundwork Sam helped lay.
Sam believes the actions he undertook to bring equality to the governance of the South’s largest city represent his greatest legacy.
He’s not alone in that view.
“Maynard Jackson’s success had been facilitated by the astounding progress initiated by Massell as vice mayor and then in his four years as mayor,” said the late Atlanta writer Ralph McGill Jr.
“In this short span, Atlanta went from a city that supported a white majority and a largely segregated government with no blacks in any meaningful management roles … to a situation where a black person could be victorious in the mayoral election.”
Mayor of Buckhead
Sam’s 2009 Mercedes glides up I-85 north near the 400 Connector toward the heart of Buckhead, one sunny day last month. Now 90, he’s in remarkably fine fettle, though not without his twinges in the hinges. The man who brought mobility to Atlanta walks with a cane, but he still drives and he’s still robust enough to get anywhere he wants to go, including into the office six days a week.
All at once, Sam raises straight up behind the wheel.
“Just look at that!” he says.
He points a finger at the Buckhead cityscape.
His excitement is absolutely genuine, like a kid seeing the ocean for the first time. Or maybe like 14-year-old Buddy Massell, admiring a campaign poster he’d just finished painting in a Druid Hills driveway.
Tall buildings line up handsomely along the northern skyline. The skeletons of even more, like steel seedlings, rise toward the light among multistory offices, apartments and hotels. The bright late-summer sun glints off a mini-metropolis of glass and metal.
It’s an impressive panorama, a shining city on a hill.
“That just makes me happy,” Sam exclaims. “Just look at that!”
He might as well be saying, Just look what I did!
It’s a luminous legacy for a luminous lifetime of service.
For the past three decades, Sam has led the Buckhead Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to orderly growth and quality-of-life issues in a section of the city that accounts for an outsized percentage of Atlanta’s ad-valorem tax revenue.
Many Atlantans refer to him as “The Mayor of Buckhead.”
During his 30 years helming the coalition, Sam has steered Buckhead on a steady course toward prosperity.
He brought Buckhead through thorny politics to get the Georgia 400 connector built, connecting Buckhead to north Georgia. He helped Buckhead overcome an image problem caused by late-night clubs and spotty policing from the City of Atlanta during the late 1990s. And Sam led Buckhead through the Great Recession, when a multi-block construction project conspicuously stalled on Peachtree Road. The recovery earned him widespread praise. In all, Sam’s leadership has made Buckhead an internationally known brand name, like Rodeo Drive, synonymous with lux lifestyles and a climbing skyline.
Now in his ninth decade, Sam proudly escorts a new bride, Sandra Gordy, a protégé who served as a CEO at one of the family businesses. He still counsels politicians and wrangles business deals and cuts ribbons and flies the Buckhead flag around the clock.
Once upon a time, a dusty traveler coming along the pioneer trail welcomed this sight: a rude building in a clearing in the piney woods. Libations cool and wet waited just inside a tavern. A hot meal, too.
Greeting new arrivals atop a wooden post out front rested a buck’s head, its imposing rack spread in welcome. People came to call the spot Buckhead.
Today, from the Buckhead Coalition offices on the fifth floor of Tower Place, Sam Massell admires a different kind of imposing rack – those multiple spires of manmade concrete, steel, and glass spreading for miles in all directions.
From certain parts of the building, on a clear day, Sam can see all the way to Stone Mountain in the east and Kennesaw Mountain in the north.
If you point today at that rising Buckhead skyline and ask any passerby on the street a certain question, you’ll hear a certain answer.
Excuse me. May I ask if you’ve ever heard of Ben Massell?
Hmm. I’m not sure. Is he … maybe … related to Sam Massell?
Yes, he is.
ABOUT THE STORY
In 2014, I met Sam Massell on an assignment for Georgia State University Magazine. Soon after, we began work on a long-overdue history of Sam’s colorful life. A book resulted. “Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor” launched Labor Day weekend at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. Sam’s generous gifts of time, contacts and candor deserve all the credit for this work. As writer, I only hope to have captured enough of Sam’s remarkable spirit and chronicled enough of his enduring achievements to do him justice.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Charles McNair is the author of “Play It Again Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell,” published by Mercer University Press. He is also a writer for business clients as a founding partner in MAS Strategic Communications, as well as a novelist, whose latest project is the serial thriller “The Epicureans,” which appears one chapter per week in the online magazine The Bitter Southerner. A native of Alabama, he lived in Atlanta for 25 years before moving to Bogotá, Colombia in 2015.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.