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Fight Looms Over Whether to Sell or Preserve Former ‘Death Camp’ for Black Convict Laborers

The Chattahoochee Brick Company rented Black convicts from local prisons to produce its materials. Courtesy Professor Richard Becherer and the Atlanta History Center
The Chattahoochee Brick Company rented Black convicts from local prisons to produce its materials. Courtesy Richard Becherer and the Atlanta History Center

A newly available lot in west Atlanta has inspired a heated debate among local residents.

The abandoned site was once the Chattahoochee Brick Company, where Black convicts were sold into slavery long after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, struggling southern states turned to a shameful prison labor practice known as convict leasing. Through this system, governments rented out their prison populations to private corporations for financial gain. Newly freed Blacks were an easy target, and greedy law enforcement officials invented many crimes to arrest African-Americans and ship them off to coal mines, railroads and brickyards.

The policy continued well into the 20th century. Alabama was the last state to end it in 1927.

Chattahoochee Brick Company owner James English was one of Georgia’s biggest customers, and the Confederate officer and one-time Atlanta mayor was notorious for the inhumane treatment he dished out to laborers at the manufacturing enterprise. Historians say in its heyday, the company produced up to 200,000 bricks daily.

The old building was spotlighted in Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name,” and an accompanying documentary film produced by PBS.

“Chattahoochee Brick was a place of absolute horror,” Blackmon told WABE, a local PBS affiliate. “There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that this was essentially a death camp.”

In the 2008 book, Blackmon cites the testimony of former guards and workers before a legislative commission in 1908, who said the convicts were forced to work in unbearable heat, dangerously close to facility ovens and whipped into submission if they refused to comply. One guard said at least 200 to 300 prisoners were beaten each month. Workers regularly ate molding food and the living quarters were overrun with insects.

Many died at the plant and possibly are buried beneath the plot today.

Now in a state of decay, the Atlanta property is on the market and an energy company has put in an offer to turn the historic grounds into a biofuel distribution center, WABE reports.

Groundwork Atlanta, a non-profit, community revitalization group, is lobbying for conservation of the property. In addition to a memorial, they’ve proposed transforming the land and surrounding areas into a family friendly green space, filled with parks and bike trails.

Area residents have joined the organization’s efforts to preserve the space, believing the land holds too much historical significance for business development.

“For it to be right under our feet right now is just unspeakable,” said Donna Stephens, a board member. “And the fact that there may be bodies buried on this land, is just a further slap in the face to those men and women and their families.”

Municipal officials have said the city is looking into alternative plans for the acreage.

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