The official seal of Atlanta depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Civil War. What it doesn’t show is that Atlanta was rebuilt using slavery’s successor: convict labor, with inmates breaking granite at the Bellwood Quarry and burning clay at the Chattahoochee Brick Company under horrific conditions.
Thousands of Black men, women, and children were apprehended on the streets and convicted of minor or nonexistent crimes before being deported to camps and factories, where many died of exhaustion. The peonage system lasted for seven decades in the South until World War II, but many Americans have never heard of it.
The goal of a coalition of politicians, executives, foundation heads, historians, educators, and grassroots activists that has formed in recent months is to bring this long-ignored chapter of American history back into public consciousness.
Advocates for Atlanta’s struggling west side want memorials to forced labor erected at the quarry site and the abandoned brick factory, which the city council voted to preserve earlier this month. Another would go downtown, where white mobs killed 25 Black people in 1906 after rival newspaper publishers incited outrage by publishing false stories about white women being raped while running for governor.
Atlanta benefited more than most other cities from the 13th Amendment clause that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865 “except as a punishment for crime.” Vagrancy laws in 48 states, almost always enforced against people of color, made it a crime to change jobs without permission or even be seen walking “without any lawful purpose.”
According to Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Slavery by Another Name,” businesses paid the court fees to take custody of these inmates and lease them out to brutal workplaces across the industrializing South. As people disappeared into a penal system without expensive prisons, government revenues increased.
According to Blackmon’s research, 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. Some worked on his railways, in his coal mine, or made turpentine from lumber. Many were whipped if they did not run while transporting riverbank clay to ovens that produced over 200,000 bricks per day.
Whipping-bosses torturing and killing prisoners in deplorable conditions shocked Georgia’s legislature into outlawing convict leasing in 1908, giving county sheriffs complete control. By 1930, the state had over 8,000 forced laborers, and half of the state’s Black population couldn’t leave their homes or jobs without fear of being arrested, according to Blackmon.
In response to a nationwide challenge by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, activists have recently begun pressing for official recognition of Atlanta’s long-ignored history. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights formally invited them to participate in a Truth and Transformation Initiative in July.
Enlisting historians and directing grants from Microsoft, Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s foundation, and other sources, the center is directing a “constellation” of research and educational projects to restore public knowledge about what happened between the end of slavery 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.”
English and other convict labor exploiters invested in banks, railroads, utilities, real estate, and other businesses. According to Blackmon, Norfolk & Southern, the Southern Company, and Coca-Cola were among the Atlanta corporations that were initially seeded with profits from convict labor.
They will not be singled out for criticism by the mayor.
Norfolk & Southern had planned to pave over the brick company site for a transportation hub until the mayor and council convinced the railroad to abandon the plan this year; Bottoms describes the company as a “good partner.”
Atlanta Public Schools is developing grade-appropriate curricula on forced labor for students in grades three through twelve. Other organizations are planning public “truth-telling” events and a virtual reality project, according to Savitt.
A monument in English Park still honors the former mayor in the namesake neighborhood he built near the brick factory, but the city deprived its west side of resources after white residents fled in the 1950s rather than live near Black people. Now new investments are threatening to dislocate longtime residents.