Atlanta embraces the legacy of the convicts’ work that rebuilt the city


ATLANTA (AP) – The official seal of the city of Atlanta shows a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Civil War. What this doesn’t show is that Atlanta was rebuilt with the successor to slavery: convict labor, working in horrific conditions to smash granite at the Bellwood Quarry and burn clay at the Chattahoochee Brick Company.

Thousands of black men, women and children were taken from the streets and convicted of minor or non-existent crimes before disappearing into camps and factories where many worked to the death. The peonage system lasted in the South for seven decades until World War II, but many Americans never heard of it.


Restoring this long ignored chapter of U.S. history into public memory is the goal of a coalition of politicians, leaders, foundation leaders, historians, educators and grassroots activists who have has taken shape over the past few months.

“In the same way that we served as an example during the civil rights movement of what is possible in America, I think that moment is before us now,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the Associated Press. “I think it’s very important for our children and for adults to know what this story is about.”

Defenders of Atlanta’s struggling west want forced labor memorials erected at the site of the abandoned brick quarry and business, which city council voted to preserve this month. Another would go downtown, where white mobs killed 25 blacks in 1906 after rival newspaper publishers sparked outrage with false stories of rape of white women while running for governor.

Atlanta profited more than most cities from the 13th Amendment clause that ended slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865 “except as punishment for a felony.” The vagrancy laws in 48 states, almost always enforced against people of color, have made it a felony to change jobs without permission, or even to be seen walking “for no legitimate purpose.”

Businesses have paid the court fees to take these inmates and hire them to brutal workplaces in the industrializing South, according to Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer-winning book “Slavery by Another Name.” Government revenues swelled as people disappeared into a penal system without expensive prisons.

“A husband might leave for town someday and you don’t know why they haven’t come back,” said Donna Stephens, co-founder of the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants group. “You don’t know if he fell and hit his head, or if he ended up in a convict rental site.

According to Blackmon’s research, former Confederate Army Captain James W. English, Police Commissioner and Mayor of Atlanta, controlled 1,206 of Georgia’s 2,881 convicted workers in 1897. Some built its railroads, worked in his coal mine or cooks turpentine from timber. Many were whipped if they didn’t run carrying clay from the riverbanks to kilns that produced over 200,000 bricks a day.

Testimonies of leaders torturing and killing prisoners in atrocious conditions shocked the Georgian legislature by banning the leasing of convicts in 1908, giving the county sheriffs direct control. By 1930, the state had over 8,000 forced laborers, and half of the state’s black population could not leave their homes or work without fear of being arrested, Blackmon found.

Activists recently began pushing for official recognition of Atlanta’s long ignored history in response to a national challenge launched by the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama. In July, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights formally invited them to join an initiative for truth and transformation.

By recruiting historians and leading grants from Microsoft, the co-founder of Home Depot and the Arthur Blank foundation, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and other sources, the center runs a “constellation” of research projects. and education to restore public knowledge about what happened between the end of slavery and Martin Luther’s arrival of King Jr. almost a century later in Atlanta, who prefers to be known as ” the cradle of the civil rights movement ”and the“ city too busy to be hated ”.

“The time we are missing is the era of racial terror,” said Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the center.

The English and other exploiters of the convict labor force have invested in banks, railways, utilities, real estate and other businesses. Norfolk & Southern, the Southern Company and Coca-Cola are among the Atlanta companies initially seeded with the profits from convict labor, Blackmon wrote.

The mayor is not going to criticize them.

“There are a lot of businesses across America that have complicated pasts. As a country we have a complicated past, ”Bottoms said. “I know these companies really serve as cornerstones in our city today.

Norfolk & Southern had planned to pave the brick company site for a transportation hub until the mayor and council persuaded the railroad to abandon the idea this year; Bottoms calls the company a “good partner”.

Atlanta Public Schools are working on age-appropriate forced labor curriculum for grades 3-12. Other groups are planning public “truth” pledges and a virtual reality project, Savitt said.

“We have to lift the rock,” she said. “And for those who say it shames whites, I would say you should be ashamed, but not because you’re white.” You should be ashamed of yourself because you are human.

Blackmon gives each of his Georgia State University students six people listed as inmates in the 1900 Atlanta Census to research. Hank Klibanoff, another Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wants his students at Emory University to give some humanity back to the victims of the 1906 massacre.

A monument in English Park still honors the former mayor in the homonymous neighborhood he built near the brick factory, but the city deprived its west side of resources after white residents fled in the 1950s rather than to live near blacks. Today, new investments threaten to displace long-term residents.

Gentrification pressures increase as tech companies take hold, Microsoft Corp. purchasing 90 acres around its Quarry Yards campus. New housing, a river promenade and a nature trail connecting the site of the quarry and the brickyard are planned. The 122-meter-deep dystopia symbol in “The Hunger Games,” “Walking Dead” and “Stranger Things” now contains Atlanta’s emergency water supply, surrounded by its largest park.

Stephens hopes to identify burial sites, test the DNA of any remains and interview the descendants of the forced laborers. She also wants her longtime neighbors to benefit after enduring the city’s worst poverty and pollution.

“We’ve made great strides, yes, but we still have a ways to go, and until we make amends I can’t say I’m happy,” Stephens said.

Bottoms, whose grandparents moved to English Avenue 100 years ago, had no idea until reading Blackmon’s book that a former mayor became rich and powerful by perpetuating human bondage.

“In fact, it gives me chills when I think about it: my family took shape in a community named after this man who was responsible for so much injury and suffering in our city,” the mayor said. “People often like to bury pain, which is understandable. But now that we know better, it behooves us all to do better.


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