Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Groups are pushing for a memorial and park on the site of a brick factory where leased convicts died more than a century ago—but two companies own the land.
There’s a spot by the Chattahoochee River northwest of downtown Atlanta where you’ll find remnants of an old brick factory: chunks of rusted metal, blocks of cement, shards of bricks. The wooded floodplain may seem serene today, but it was once the site of a cruel practice common during southern Reconstruction: forced labor. Around the turn of the 20th century, James English, a Civil War veteran and former mayor of the city, leased convicts—most of whom were black—from the state to make hundreds of thousands of bricks a day in his Chattahoochee Brick Company.
The convicts, who had largely been arrested for “crimes” such as vagrancy, were treated with incredible brutality. They were shackled to their beds at night, starved, and savagely beaten. “This was a place of unspeakable horror,” says Douglas Blackmon, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Blackmon says that thousands and thousands of forced workers passed through the company. “This is not just a factory where people were treated badly,” he says. “It’s a place where people were worked to death and buried in unmarked graves.”
Today, a struggle is underway for the 75 acres around the factory site. English’s company ceased using convict labor in 1908, when Georgia outlawed it—though the practice continued elsewhere for another few decades—and then closed in the 1970s, when it was replaced by another brick company, General Shale. That company halted operations in the 2000s, and its more modern buildings are now also in ruins. Last year, a South Carolina energy company called Lincoln Terminal purchased 45 of the acres to construct a distribution hub.
Though the land is zoned for industry, the city code allows a number of uses, including recreational facilities and urban gardens. A number of groups, including Groundwork Atlanta, a nonprofit that works to improve the environments of marginalized communities, want the site developed into a green space that includes a memorial to the people who lost their lives. “We cannot undo the past,” says Jill Arrington, the organization’s executive director. “But we can recognize and acknowledge what happened to the convict laborers and honor those who died and were buried at the site.”
Blackmon notes that the Chattahoochee Brick Company was one of dozens of forced labor camps in southern states, but is one of only a few with physical remains. It’s also significant in that it was the primary source of wealth for James English, who is referred to as the father of modern Atlanta. Convict labor made the factory extremely profitable; this allowed English to create a multitude of enterprises, some of which continue to this day, such as SunTrust Bank. Bricks from the company paved Atlanta’s streets and built its homes and buildings.
“Hundreds of millions of these bricks are still in use today,” says Blackmon. “What happened there is still very much alive.” The conditions of the bricks’ creation also have contemporary echoes. While Blackmon says that what happened at the brick factory and other camps is different from the mass incarceration of black men and women today, they are related. “We have to be willing to candidly acknowledge our long history of oppressing African-Americans,” he says.
Groundwork Atlanta’s vision of the space as recreational, with multi-use trails, is in line with the city’s recent uptick in green spaces, such as the BeltLine—22 miles of trails ringing downtown atop former railroad lines.
The brick company site lies at the crossroads of Proctor Creek Greenway and Riverwalk Atlanta, two other parks in progress. An industrial facility there “would not only be unjust,” says Carly Queen, the president of Groundwork Atlanta’s board, “but could potentially limit connectivity and community benefits that would go along with the proposed park projects that are both several years into the planning and implementation phases.”
Queen says that Lincoln Terminal (who did not respond to a request for comment) is suing the city for requiring it to obtain a special use permit for the facility it seeks to build. “Even if they win the case,” Queen says, “they still need other permits that we would oppose.”
The city council members C.T. Martin and Andre Dickens have also voiced support for the plan proposed by Groundwork Atlanta. In a statement, Dickens touted the property’s potential as an “asset for recreational...or educational purposes.” Speaking to Atlanta’s local NPR station, Martin highlighted that educational potential, too: “Let it be a history that our social studies teachers can take our kids on a tour,” Martin said.
With such obstacles ahead for Lincoln Terminal, the site’s chances of becoming a memorial and park seem high. But first the company, as well as General Shale, must decide to sell the land, and someone must buy it. This could occur through a private-public partnership between the city, nonprofit groups, and private developers—or simply whoever has the interest and capital to make it happen.
Blackmon hopes someone steps up. “The labor of those people was central to the establishment of one of the great American cities, and it robbed them of their lives,” he says. “It should not be forgotten.”