For decades, prisoners were forced into unpaid labor at a brickyard along the Chattahoochee River. How will we remember them?
In the sweltering Atlanta summer of 1908, Captain James English defended himself before a panel of state lawmakers in Room 16 of the Georgia Capitol. Senator Thomas Felder had launched a commission to investigate reports of gruesome and dangerous working conditions created by the state’s lucrative practice of leasing convicts to private businesses. For three weeks, more than 120 witnesses—including former workers and guards at the Chattahoochee Brick Company, English’s 75-acre brickyard in northwest Atlanta—had testified about abuse at 14 prison camps across the state, which housed more than 3,400 men and 130 women.
The portly captain was a former mayor of Atlanta. He had helped move Georgia’s capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta, oversaw one of Atlanta’s largest banks, and served as police commissioner. Now, he managed his empire from a mansion near downtown’s Fairlie-Poplar district and had officially delegated daily operations at Chattahoochee Brick, his most successful venture, to his son. How could they be expected to know everything that happened at a job site 10 miles away? “If a warden in charge of those convicts ever committed an act of cruelty to them, and it had come to my knowledge, I would have had him indicted and prosecuted,” English insisted.
His testimony, along with that of other factory and mine owners who leased convicts from county jails and state prisons, stood in stark contrast to that of mostly Black laborers and white ex-employees, who described constant whippings, a laborer with an infected hand being left for dead, and other atrocities. One mother described a statewide search to locate her son, who’d been effectively sold from camp to camp. She finally discovered him crippled from abuse and unable to use his left arm.
For 15 hours every day, hundreds of workers at Chattahoochee Brick shoveled red clay from the banks of the nearby river and Proctor Creek—when working at full capacity, it churned out 300,000 bricks every day. They dried the mud in rectangular molds in the open air, then hauled the blocks to 10-foot-tall, beehive-shaped, coal-fired kilns, where the fires burned so hot that security guards didn’t carry guns because heat might detonate their ammunition.
News coverage of the testimony outraged the public, spurred faith leaders to condemn the practice, and inspired English’s competitors to promote their “nonconvict bricks.” By October, Governor Hoke Smith had called a special legislative session, the General Assembly had laid the framework for a referendum banning convict leasing, and Georgia’s nearly all-white electorate had approved the measure by a two-to-one margin. In the following decades, Georgia counties could use convict labor only for public projects, like building roads.
This shocking episode had been largely forgotten, collecting dust in nondescript folders of the Georgia Archives, until journalist Douglas Blackmon delved into the use of forced labor after the Civil War. In 2001, while working for the Atlanta bureau of the Wall Street Journal, he wrote a story about U.S. Steel Corporation’s use of convict leasing. Then, he expanded his scope and authored a Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008). This was followed by a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was broadcast on PBS in 2012. Blackmon’s research proved that convict leasing had been used to reestablish what amounted to a new system of involuntary servitude decades after Abraham Lincoln declared “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State . . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Before the Civil War, police had rarely detained enslaved people, instead returning them to slavers for discipline, says Blackmon. After emancipation, Black men, women, and children were increasingly targeted and arrested for “crimes” such as loitering, spitting, walking along a railroad, and vagrancy. These misdemeanors were created or strengthened by Southern legislators to harass Black people or, worse, trap them into a penal system that provided virtually free labor primarily for emerging new industries in the South—such as Chattahoochee Brick and coal mines in north Georgia. Black citizens soon accounted for up to 90 percent of the prisoners in dozens of work camps across Georgia and the South. They would be leased to brickyards, turpentine camps, lumber yards, and factories. In Louisiana and Texas, workers built railroad lines and subsisted on “food buzzards would not eat,” Blackmon writes. In Alabama and north Georgia, convicts worked nearly 18 hours a day in coal mines—amid standing water, poisonous air, and frequent deadly explosions. In Atlanta, they baked bricks.
Like many of Atlanta’s historical places, the notorious buildings and kilns of Chattahoochee Brick have long since vanished. The English family sold the company in 1978 to General Shale, which operated the brickyard until the 2000s. Today, the site is fenced-off, vacant, overgrown, and owned by Lincoln Energy, a South Carolina–based energy company.
However, today, two unrelated but complementary efforts are underway to memorialize the victims and preserve the place where they suffered. Since 2019, Blackmon has been teaching at Georgia State University. He and his students are documenting the individuals who worked there and at other sites across the South where the state allowed convict leasing. Also, activists, residents, and descendants of the laborers who made the bricks are working to turn the site into a memorial and greenspace.
Three years after winning the Pulitzer, Blackmon left the Journal for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Then, two years ago, he became a professor of practice at GSU’s new Creative Media Institute, where students work to become media entrepreneurs and digital storytellers. In addition to producing and hosting a GSUTV talk show at the Rialto Center for the Arts called Crucial Conversations, Blackmon teaches two courses as part of the Narrating Justice Project, which he describes as an initiative to show students how combining “deep research and narratives of real human lives helps audiences understand very complex questions about society.” One class, Documenting History, explores Atlanta during Reconstruction, a period often overlooked in our city’s traditional backstory—the railroad town that got burned to the ground and later became the birthplace of the civil rights movement. The other course, Narrating Justice, uses different storytelling techniques to present scholarly work to a larger audience.
In a classroom overlooking downtown’s Woodruff Park, students learn about the industry owners who used convict leasing to amass fortunes, rebuilding and, literally, laying the foundation of modern Atlanta. “The city of Atlanta bought millions and millions of these bricks and used them to pave the streets and sidewalks in the city in the first decades of the 20th century,” says Blackmon. “The footings in my house almost certainly came from Chattahoochee Brick. All the bricks in Oakland Cemetery, where English and his family are buried, that’s all believed to be Chattahoochee Brick. If we had a jackhammer, we could go out right now somewhere within a few blocks, and we’d be able to dig into brick” that came from that company.
What makes Slavery By Another Name so compelling is its detailed personal narratives. For example, a central figure is Green Cottenham, a 22-year-old son of formerly enslaved people whom police arrested for vagrancy in Shelby County, Alabama, and sentenced to two years of hard labor in Alabama coal mines, where he died five months later. Another figure is John Davis, an Alabama sharecropper whom police arrested in 1901 while walking on the road—a crooked constable claimed Davis owed him money—while he traveled to visit his dying wife. Davis never made it to her bedside.
To paint such characters, Blackmon combed through census records, genealogy websites, and courthouse archives. He and his students have used similar records to compile a database of some 3,000 laborers—a list that he says could easily be expanded to 30,000. And, now, his students are continuing their professor’s efforts to personalize the victims—six names at a time.
Each student researches half a dozen Georgia prisoners listed in the 1900 census as working at the northwest Atlanta plant or a coal mine in Dade County also owned by English. Using the same methods Blackmon used, the class tries to create profiles. “Rather than starting from the premise of, Oh well, there’s no way one could ever find that or figure out what that was,” Blackmon says, “it starts from the premise that, Yes, you can figure out who John Smith in 1900 was.”
Sometimes, students dig up little more than a birth date or place of death. But, other times, a vivid story emerges. Blackmon likens the process to putting together an unidentified jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. “You start with the straight edges, the outline, and then get a sense of the overall picture,” he says. Last year, his students discovered a convict who was sentenced to forced labor for defending himself during a fight in a train station. At the time, Black people were fleeing Georgia for the promise of cheap land and freedom in Mississippi.
Tyler Jones, a rising senior from Dacula, used genealogy websites and census data to spot gaps in people’s employment history. “That’s chalked up to, Well, they’re imprisoned,” he says. “You start to look up the reasons why and [the charges] are very minor infractions [like vagrancy]. You see a pattern of misdemeanors that turns into a person being enslaved again.” Victor Gulley, a sophomore from Atlanta, learned that one of his subjects had managed to escape from the Chattahoochee Brick camp.
Blackmon hopes his students’ work reveals more about the people who worked in the convict-leasing system and how the practice affected their families, and could prove useful for a museum or memorial that acknowledges what happened to them. As far as Blackmon knows, there is no memorial to the people who worked in the convict-leasing system or, in general, to the Black people whose labor built Atlanta before and after the Civil War. There’s a belief among many traditions, Blackmon says, “that every person dies twice. The first time is when your heart stops beating. The second time is the last instance in which someone speaks your name. And I say to students, We are going to bring them back to life.”
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Donna Stephens was flipping through TV channels with her sister on a lazy Saturday when they came across the PBS documentary based on Slavery By Another Name. “We were astounded,” says Stephens, who has lived in English Park, a neighborhood in northwest Atlanta near the Chattahoochee River, for her entire life. She never knew the history of the overgrown industrial site nearby called the Chattahoochee Brick Company.
“As an African American female growing up in the South, you’re inundated with civil rights history,” says Stephens. “So many African Americans don’t know the entire history of our existence here on this continent. It’s like slavery ended and then Dr. King showed up. We don’t talk about the middle part. And Chattahoochee Brick Company is the middle part. They talk about Reconstruction. But they don’t talk so much about convict leasing”
To her, convict leasing was arguably more horrific than slavery. Slavers had to feed, clothe, shelter, and, to an extent, educate the people under their control, she said. On the other hand, forced laborers were viewed as expendable.
A self-confessed history nerd and environmental-justice advocate, she committed herself to telling the story of the land. At a 2016 board meeting for Groundwork Atlanta, a citizens group that advocates for Chattahoochee-area neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta, she learned that Lincoln Energy had recently bought the property and wanted to build a fuel terminal there. She partnered with Bob Kent, a longtime resident of Whittier Mill, and other neighbors and environmental advocates to successfully lobby the Atlanta City Council to deny Lincoln Energy’s request for a permit to build on the land.
The fight escalated in 2020 when residents learned that Norfolk Southern planned to lease the land and build a fuel terminal. The proposal brought together a loose group of Riverside, Whittier Mill, and English Park residents and activists. At the beginning of 2021, Stephens established the Descendants of the Chattahoochee Brick Company Coalition to push the city to save the property from development. On February 9, Stephens and several hundred concerned residents and activists met at the site to demand the city stop the rail company’s plans and preserve the 75-acre property as a memorial. The following day, Georgia Public Broadcasting aired an episode of Crucial Conversations in which Blackmon discussed Chattahoochee Brick’s history with Stephens, local historian Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, and Norfolk Southern attorney Vanessa Sutherland. Sutherland said the company, which later this year will move into its new $575 million corporate headquarters in Midtown, had launched discussions with the Atlanta History Center to create a public trail and a memorial to the laborers on part of the site.
Three days later, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the city had filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board to block Norfolk Southern’s plan. “Our administration will do everything it can to protect the sanctity and significance of this property,” Bottoms said in a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A site of such historic and environmental importance needs careful consideration before even limited development occurs.” Shortly after, the rail company announced it was abandoning its plans and connection to the site, including the memorial. Lincoln Energy did not respond to our request for comment.
Local and national groups that advocate for reparations for the descendants of enslaved people have joined the fight, as have local preservation groups like Historic Atlanta. On April 3, Stephens returned to the site, this time with radio host Derrick Boazman and Blackmon, to “claim and consecrate the grounds where our ancestors suffered, bled, and died working under . . . the horrific convict-lease system.” Stephens and roughly 200 residents, activists, and descendants of people who worked at Chattahoochee Brick marched, prayed, and raised a tall cross draped with kente cloth at the gate. The cross featured the names of some of the forced laborers who worked at the brickyard, written by children. The vigil made an impact, meriting coverage from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WABE, and more. “Today, we give [the men and women who worked and died at Chattahoochee Brick] a memorial service,” Stephens said. “And we’re going to fight until we give them a proper memorial.” Boazman demanded the city do “for this property what you do for the BeltLine, for the Gulch, for all of those places white folks want—we want you to do for our people.”
The story of the Chattahoochee Brick Company proves how resurrecting history can lead to change, regardless of how much time has passed. “The simple answer is, if you don’t acknowledge the wrongs that occurred in the past, then you’re in danger of committing the same wrongs again,” Blackmon says. “In the end it’s not about allocating blame. It’s about understanding that we’re the product of the world we live in. And we should demand honesty, and to be able to say that ruthless and cruel things were done for reasons we can debate, and that they dramatically shaped the world we live in.”
Before abandoning the property, Norfolk Southern cleared the husks of burned-out cars and brick piles from the site, finished some environmental remediation, and fenced off public access. Now, the land sits idle—visited only by railroad buffs armed with binoculars, radios, and chairs, who post up along the adjacent tracks to spot passing freight lines.
Ideally, says Atlanta City Councilman Dustin Hillis, who represents the area and lives in the nearby Riverside neighborhood, the city would buy the land, or a third-party partner or nonprofit could hold the property for the city, and allow time for the community—residents, businesses, activists, historians, and others—to decide the best use for the site.
Stephens’s stance is firm. The 75 acres, she says, should include a museum and memorial to the men, women, and children who worked and possibly died at Chattahoochee Brick. Norfolk Southern said the company’s consultants could not locate any human remains on-site. But Blackmon says historical records, newspaper accounts, and even a map dating from the 1960s refer to burials and a cemetery at the brickyard, leading him and other historians and city officials to think laborers were buried there. Stephens also insists the land’s next chapter should include a park and that pollution should be cleaned up—similar to revitalization efforts at Atlanta’s beleaguered Proctor Creek. “To tie the environmental-justice work with [the history of] convict leasing . . . the opportunities for education are incredible,” she says.
The sooner the better, too. Thousands of new housing units have been built in the surrounding area and more are in the pipeline. State transportation officials plan to start construction in 2023 of a $750 million makeover of I-285 and I-20, and Microsoft plans to build a 95-acre complex on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway five miles away, a development that’s expected to create further demand for housing nearby. The location is also well positioned to benefit from plans by the Trust for Public Land and National Park Service to protect greenspace near the river and build a path along its banks stretching to Buford Dam at Lake Lanier.
When Stephens last toured the property, the grass was overgrown. “It was like one of those nature movies where the birds come flying out in the Sahara. In the mud, you saw paw prints of animals that were larger than squirrels. There are deer and turkeys. You can hear the gurgling of the water. We need to understand what nature has given us back. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere until people understand the history.” The weight of the place, she says, you can feel it.
This article appears in our August 2021 issue.