Atlanta City Council approves purchase of Chattahoochee Brick – WABE property

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The Atlanta City Council has approved legislation for the city to purchase the former Chattahoochee Brick Company site.

Local activists have fought for years to protect the property on the banks of the Chattahoochee River rather than allow industrial development there.

The brick factory was owned by former Confederate Captain and Mayor of Atlanta James English. The people who worked there – mostly black men – had been arrested, often for petty crimes, and then hired out to the company to endure hot, grueling labor, live in filthy conditions, and eat rotting food. People were beaten and died at the factory that helped build modern-day Atlanta.

“It was very personal to me,” said Donna Stephens, founder of the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalition, which has spearheaded advocacy to stop development.

Stephens lives in the English Park neighborhood of Atlanta. She said she was curious to find out who her community was named after. When she found out who English is and what he was involved in, she said she was floored.

“This place is probably one of the most terrifying post-slavery places in America,” she said.

Religious leaders spoke at a local memorial event over the weekend that marked the rare confluence of Ramadan, Passover and Easter.

“We are here to honor the descendants of the Chattahoochee Brick Company,” said Dr. Kwame Kalimara opening with an invocation. “Listen to the pain and tears of our ancestors. Because what do they want? They want justice, they want peace.”

Mayor Andre Dickens told the assembled crowd he believed his own home may have been built with bricks from the factory.

“People will take back this country,” he said. “It’s about time this place with such an ugly past was transformed into something beautiful.”

He said the city will build a park and memorial on the property, which currently consists mostly of cracked concrete, scattered piles of old bricks and dense forest.

“Unimaginable Horrors”

This piece of Atlanta and American history is not commonly taught. Stephens said she feels history books are jumping from the end of the Civil War to the civil rights movement, skipping decades in which blacks have seen progress and backlash to that progress.

“The history books stop with slavery and do with Dr. King on,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”

Douglas Blackmon, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by another name of the convict leasing system, said people forced to work at Chattahoochee Brick suffered “unimaginable horrors.”

“It was a cruel, barbaric, nightmarish place that existed in 20th-century America,” he said.

And it wasn’t unique. Blackmon said there are more than a dozen such locations in Georgia alone, and more in other southern states. Tens of thousands of people would have worked in that system at any point in time, he said — and that was decades after the end of the Civil War.

“It’s perpetuated the idea in a lot of white Americans that African Americans are kind of predisposed to be criminals and that the world is better and safer when there’s this incredibly tough tool of the state holding down African Americans,” he said. “This notion, which is also at the heart of today’s mass incarceration problems, was born in this violent, oppressive system.”

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is working on a project to educate people more about convict leasing in Atlanta and also about the 1906 Atlanta race massacre that killed at least 25 people.

“In Atlanta, I think a narrative about the history of this city, ‘the city that’s too busy to hate,’ and a bunch of other slogans stuck in the public mind,” said center CEO Jill Savitt. “I think we need to dig a little deeper … and make sure we’re telling the story to the entire Atlanta community.”

The center brings together community members, nonprofits, local governments and businesses to discuss what a memorial might look like at Bellwood Quarry, which was once a hub of Atlanta’s chain gang system and is now part of the city’s new Westside Park. She said the Chattahoochee Brick site is also part of this conversation.

Savitt said that to her knowledge there is no other memorial in the country dedicated to the people who suffered under the convict leasing system.

“No community is going to move forward on racial justice, economic justice, or any set of issues unless we can see really clearly where we stand,” she said.

Councilman Dustin Hillis said he expects the city to close the property in May. The non-profit Conservation Fund worked with the city and the site’s previous owner on the purchase.

As for what will ultimately be built on the site, Stephens said she was so focused on protecting the land that she hadn’t given much thought to what should happen on it — other than nothing industrial. She said she hopes to “get people focused on the right thing. And what is possible. And what is good for the community.”

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