The Star Democrat

Atlanta owns up to legacy of convict labor that rebuilt city

- BY MICHAEL WARREN

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

Thousands of Black men, women and children were pulled off the streets and convicted of petty or nonexisten­t crimes before vanishing into camps and factories where many were worked to death. The peonage system lasted across the South for seven decades until World War II, yet many Americans have never heard of it.

Restoring this long-ignored chapter of U.S. history to public memory is the goal of a coalition of politician­s, executives, foundation chiefs, historians, educators and grassroots activists that has taken shape over the past few months.

“In the same way we served as an example during the civil rights movement of what’s possible in America, I believe that 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 that history is all about.”

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

Atlanta profited more than most cities from the clause in the 13th Amendment that ended slavery and involuntar­y servitude in 1865 “except as a punishment for crime.”Vagrancy laws in 48 states, nearly always enforced against people of color, made it a crime to switch jobs without permission, or even to be seen walking “without any lawful purpose.”

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

“A husband might leave to go to town one day and you don’t know why they didn’t come back,” said Donna Stephens, who co-founded the Chattahooc­hee Brick Company Descendant­s group. “You don’t know whether he fell and bumped his head, or whether he ended up in a convict leasing site.”

Former Confederat­e Army Capt. James W. English, a police commission­er and Atlanta mayor, controlled 1,206 of Georgia’s 2,881 convict laborers by 1897, according to Blackmon’s research. Some built his railways, worked in his coal mine or cooked turpentine from lumber. Many were whipped if they didn’t run while carrying riverbank clay to ovens that produced more than 200,000 bricks a day.

Testimony about whipping-bosses torturing and killing prisoners in atrocious conditions shocked Georgia’s legislatur­e into outlawing convict leasing in 1908, giving county sheriffs direct control. By 1930, the state had more than 8,000 forced laborers, and half the state’s Black population couldn’t leave homes or jobs without fearing arrest, Blackmon found.

Activists recently began pressing for official recognitio­n of Atlanta’s longignore­d history in response to a nationwide challenge by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. In July, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights formally launched aTruth and Transforma­tion Initiative to participat­e.

Enlisting historians and directing grants from Microsoft, Home Depot cofounder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s foundation and other sources, the center is guiding a “constellat­ion” of research and educationa­l projects to restore public knowledge about what happened between slavery’s end and Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrival nearly a century later in Atlanta, which prefers to be known as “the cradle of the civil rights movement” and the “city too busy to hate.”

“The period we’re missing is the era of racial terror,” said Jill Savitt, the center’s president and CEO.

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

The mayor isn’t going to single them out for criticism.

“There are a lot of companies across America that have a complicate­d past. We as a country have a complicate­d past,” Bottoms said. “I do know that those companies really serve as cornerston­es in our city today.”

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

The center is working on age-appropriat­e curricula on forced labor for grades 3-12, and will share them with Atlanta Public Schools and other districts. Other groups plan public “truth-telling” engagement­s and a virtual reality project, Savitt said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States