Will the prisoners who labored to build Atlanta ever be acknowledged?

At the turn-of-the-century, many Southern farms, mines, and factories thrived on forced convict labor. Chattahoochee Brick Co. was no exception.
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Illustration by Daniel Zender

In northwest Atlanta, between I-285 and the quaint bungalows of Whittier Mill Village, sits the former site of the Chattahoochee Brick Co. Beyond barbed wire fences, gnarly plants overtake wide swaths of concrete. Alongside it flows the site’s namesake river. It might not look like much, but neighbors, park supporters, and African Americans with ties to the area consider this lot sacred ground worthy of a public park and memorial. After all, it’s a graveyard of sorts.

At its turn-of-the-century peak, Chattahoochee Brick (owned by James W. English, a Confederate officer and postbellum Atlanta mayor) produced up to 300,000 bricks daily, playing a crucial role in the postwar rebuilding of Atlanta. Many Southern farms, mines, and factories thrived on forced convict labor, and Chattahoochee Brick was no exception. Leased to the factory by the city, the convict workers were predominantly black men and women, many arrested for petty offenses such as vagrancy. At the brickyard, they were subject to ghastly, and often fatal, conditions: They were starved, housed in rancid living quarters, and routinely beaten. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2008 book, Slavery by Another Name, former Wall Street Journal Atlanta bureau chief Douglas Blackmon describes Chattahoochee Brick as one of the most brutal employers of convict labor in Georgia. He’s more recently referred to the property as a “death camp,” though no graves are marked.

“By all accounts, people were incinerated and [their ashes] just scattered on the land,” says Andrea Malloy, recently departed executive director of Groundwork Atlanta, a nonprofit that works to revitalize vacant lots and brownfields. “There’s not going to be forensic evidence of bodies, but no one is disputing—not even the developers—that this is a burial ground of sorts, and a historically significant one.”

Georgia abolished the prison labor system in 1909, and Chattahoochee Brick’s profits plummeted. Under new ownership, the factory ultimately shuttered in the 1980s, and in 2011 all original buildings across the 75-acre site were razed. Last June South Carolina energy company Lincoln Terminal Co. bought 45 acres of it for a new distribution hub.

Groundwork Atlanta is now fighting the company as it seeks permits, hoping perhaps that redevelopment will be blocked and Lincoln will unload it. They’d prefer the flood-prone area to be converted into waterfront greenspace with multiuse trails and a component that recalls the dark past, though the site is currently zoned for industrial use.

“There’s a giant arch at Atlantic Station [that memorializes] James English, the architect of the rebuilding of much of Atlanta,” Malloy says. “It would be nice if there was also a memorial to the people who actually built it.”

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