A Northwest Atlanta brick factory that helped rebuild the city after the Civil War — using the free labor of mostly Black prison convicts — will be reborn as a park and memorial, supporters hope. This episode of Georgia Today examines the history of the Chattahoochee Brick Co. 

RELATED: Chattahoochee Brick site to memorialize convict leasing victims


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Today on the podcast: a largely forgotten and brutal chapter of Atlanta’s past four decades following the end of the Civil War. The state of Georgia forced thousands of people, primarily Black Georgians, into grueling labor making bricks at the Chattahoochee Brick Co. in northwest Atlanta. Many workers died there. The practice, known as convict leasing, was widespread across the South, and its connection to the brick factory recently attracted renewed attention when an energy company announced plans for a fuel terminal on the site. My guest this week is Thomas Wheatley, a reporter with the news site Axios Atlanta. He explains how a movement to reclaim the site that helped rebuild the city after the Civil War took hold. Thomas, what was the Chattahoochee brick factory, where was it exactly and what did it do?

Thomas Wheatley: Well, it's along the Chattahoochee River at the confluence of Proctor Creek, about as far as you can go in Northwest Atlanta before falling into the waters of the Chattahoochee. It was a 775-acre site with, researchers say, dozen kilns, a series of buildings, and it was the site of brick making — brick making with a very important purpose: to basically build post-Civil War Atlanta.

Steve Fennessy: Of course, Atlanta was famously razed practically to the ground during the Civil War. So the bricks that were produced here helped rebuild the city?

Thomas Wheatley: If you took a jackhammer to the streets of downtown Atlanta, you could probably drill down and find Chattahoochee Brick bricks. Chattahoochee Brick Co. bricks are in the walls of Oakland Cemetery. They were used to build the old Whittier Mill factory. They built homes in Grant Park. They built buildings in downtown that were, you know, created to house banks. They were everywhere. In the city, at one point, according to Archive Atlanta, was contracting hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of bricks at a time. The South's economy was pretty much in collapse because so much of it was based on slavery and without a workforce, they really didn't know what to do.

[News tape] Crucial Conversations: After the Civil War, the Southern economy was crumbling. Slavery as they knew it was outlawed. The South needed to quickly rebuild and its reconstruction created a new stain on the country's historical trail.

Thomas Wheatley: So through a series of policy changes — so you had offenses like spitting and, you know, crossing the street and public drunkenness that were that were created to become crimes to basically convict Black people to put into the system that was called the convict leasing system.

Steve Fennessy: The convict leasing system would work as a way to supply labor — free labor, I guess — to private industry?

Thomas Wheatley: Yes. So the business would come to the state and offer to pay for the labor of the convicts, and they would essentially go to the work camps that were around the state. In addition to Chattahoochee Brick Co., there was also a mining operation in North Georgia. They would build railroads. And it wasn't just limited to Georgia, it was other states as well: Alabama, North Carolina. This really just became a continuation of the free labor that slavery offered before the Civil War.

Doug Blackmon, Professor at Georgia State University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name: White Southerners were obsessed in the first years after the Civil War with how to recreate something that looks like slavery and force Black people away from exercising these new rights that they had won as a result of the Civil War.

Steve Fennessy: What was it like to work there?

Thomas Wheatley: It was absolutely brutal. Beyond really anything that I could imagine. It was a nonstop operation where you had predominantly men — predominantly Black —working along the river, digging up mud, putting it into wheelbarrows and then running it back to the site. And then they were in just a mad dash to put it into kilns. And the kilns were so hot that guards wouldn't bring ammunition in there for fear that it would go off, that it would ignite the cartridge. You had people with whips called overseers there. You had people eating rotten, rancid food. Doug Blackmon, the journalist who really kind of was able to find out the most detail about Chattahoochee Brick and put it into perspective, wrote that people lived off food that a buzzard wouldn't eat. There were insects in the barracks. It was a continuation of slavery.

Doug Blackmon: And what happened at Chattahoochee Brick is one of the most nightmarish accounts imaginable because this is this giant Dickensian industrial plant where there are millions and millions of bricks being made in this constant, almost around-the-clock kind of pressure.

Steve Fennessy: Who was the owner and who was benefiting from all this free labor?

Thomas Wheatley: It's a man named Capt. James English, born in Louisiana, served in the Confederate Army. He came to Atlanta and worked, really, as a bricklayer, from, you know, research by Archive Atlanta and Doug Blackmon. And he worked his way up to a clerk. And he was able to buy real estate, and he was able to start the Chattahoochee Brick Co.. He became one of the builders of — of Atlanta after the Civil War. And I mean that in a literal and figurative way — built Atlanta.

Doug Blackmon: He did become among the very wealthiest people in Atlanta — probably at the time, one of the wealthiest people in this whole part of the country. And he founded a bank that is still alive as part of a modern bank today. He lived in one of the fanciest houses in Atlanta.

Thomas Wheatley: He at one point relied on the labor of more than half of the state's prison population.

Steve Fennessy: And he actually became mayor of Atlanta, right?

Thomas Wheatley: Correct. And also police commissioner.

Steve Fennessy: So for how long did the practice of convict leasing continue in post-Civil War Georgia?

Thomas Wheatley: It lasted until about 1908, and Doug Blackmon was able to find some really just incredible records in the state archives and courthouses around — around the South. But especially records of one hearing about the practice of convict leasing: People who had worked at Chattahoochee Brick Co. showed up to testify.

Doug Blackmon: There is sworn testimony that still survives from so many of the people who were both injured there, but also people who worked there — and from Capt. English, James English, you know, there’s testimony from him.

Thomas Wheatley: They told horrible stories. A mother went searching for her son, who was apparently taken to one of these sites, and she couldn't find him. She traveled all over looking for him. 

Doug Blackmon:  Her 15-year-old son had been snatched away and vanished. And she went on this quest to try to find him, and it's this just unbelievable story of — of her traveling, you know, on foot across the state of Georgia and finally finds her son, you know, in one of these terrible places, so brutally mistreated that he's paralyzed on half of his body. And then he testifies.

Thomas Wheatley: Black citizens accounted for, you know, up to 90% of the prisoners in dozens of work camps across Georgia and the South. Brickyards, turpentine camps, lumber yards, factories in Alabama, in North Georgia. Convicts, they worked nearly 18 hours a day.

Steve Fennessy: What was in it for the state? Private industry was getting this free labor. What was private industry doing in return? Were they paying the state?

Thomas Wheatley: They were paying the state. There's this very interesting backstory about how I believe the state did not build a prison until maybe the 18-teens. During the Civil War, it sustained damage. Building a new prison would be very costly. So convict leasing became one way for the state to not have to pay that cost — not have to, you know, fork over a lot of, you know, a ton of money for infrastructure. And it was a revenue stream for the state.

[News tape] Crucial: An institutionalized prison system was a fairly new concept to the state of Georgia, but it was quickly implemented and the dark history of prison labor began.

Steve Fennessy: It continued to work as a brick factory throughout most of the 20th century, but that parcel that we know today is vacant, right? Seventy-five acres of Northwest Atlanta in a city that is looking to develop more and more property. So who owns that parcel today?

Thomas Wheatley: It's a company called Lincoln Energy, which bought it several years ago with the plans to build a fuel terminal there. Chattahoochee Brick is in this part of the of the city where you have really beautiful residential neighborhood, Whittier Mill, bumping up against a few industrial sites and Chattahoochee Brick used to be one of them. Today it is just a vacant cleared site. During the early months of the pandemic, I went out there on a — on a bike ride with some friends, and at that time there were no fences, no gates. There was really nothing to stop you from going in and looking at it, checking it out. It’s completely overgrown shrubs, bushes everywhere. And there were piles of bricks, all over the place. At one point, there were weeds so tall that you would trip on them and you were surrounded by almost a small hill of bricks, just bricks everywhere, burned-out cars. And there were little tunnels, small tunnels that I believe were for ventilation from the kilns.

[News tape] WSB-TV: Women and children also forced to make those bricks. Many of them died here. Someone put up this cross to remember those folks.

Steve Fennessy: How revelations about the Chattahoochee Brick Co. came to light a decade ago and what it means for the future of the site. That's next. This is Georgia Today.


You're listening to Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Thomas Wheatley, a reporter from Axios Atlanta. Doug Blackmon, who is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote this book, Slavery by Another Name, which caused quite a stir when it came out about a decade or so ago, when he explored the widespread use of convict leasing. So why are you doing this story now? Why did you — why did you choose this — the recent months — to talk about this?

Thomas Wheatley: Chattahoochee Brick Co. has been one of these stories that — it's just been a giant question mark. And there would be like a — there would be — if nobody knew what was happening, nothing was happening, there'd be a flurry of activity and then it would just be quiet again. And it was always just maybe we should check back in on Chattahoochee Brick Co. In the past past two years or so, Norfolk Southern was under contract to buy Chattahoochee Brick Co. There was a lot of pushback from residents and environmentalist groups that had been really, for years, pushing against this and saying “This does not need to continue to be an industrial site. It does not need to be apartments, it needs to be a park and needs to be a memorial to convict leasing victims.”

Steve Fennessy: What was the origins of that movement to make a memorial about this place? Because, as you said, convict leasing was something that was done throughout the state, right?

Thomas Wheatley: It was done throughout the state. When people talk about convict leasing in Georgia, they usually talk about Chattahoochee Brick Co.. That's the example that comes out of everyone's mouth when they talk about it. And with what we know now from Doug Blackmon's research, it's almost impossible to imagine it continuing as — as an industrial site. But across the country, we've come to a real reckoning about racism, systemic racism. A lot of people are waking up to what are some chapters of American history that were lost that we don't know that well. And this in particular, was one of those times.

Steve Fennessy: You know, there's an inherent tension here that you're articulating. Thomas, because we're talking about memorializing and even coming to some sort of reckoning with — with a dark part of Atlanta's past. But Atlanta, of course, in its DNA, is all about sort of paving over things, almost literally, and building up something new. So how do you — how is that — that tension being reconciled?

Thomas Wheatley: For the first time, it's actually being confronted. This was a part of the Atlanta narrative that we never talk about. People can't ignore it anymore. And I think that that is a message that was able to make it through to City Council and to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

[News tape] WSB-TV: She says we will preserve green space along the Chattahoochee River and create an appropriate memorial to remember and reflect the site's troubled past.

Steve Fennessy: You wrote up this story in the last few days that you were with Atlantic magazine before you went to Axios, and one of the things that I found interesting about this piece was you talked about Doug Blackmon's work — groundbreaking in many respects with his book about exposing the extent of the convict leasing system throughout the South. But this was also a revelation to a lot of African Americans. And one of those was somebody you talked to named Donna Stephens. Can you tell us a little bit about how you met her and what she had to say?

Thomas Wheatley: Donna Stephens, for her entire life, she's lived in a neighborhood interestingly enough, called English Park, and she never knew about the history of the site until about the mid-20- — 20-teens. She was watching PBS one night with her sister, and they were watching the PBS documentary based on Doug Blackmon's book Slavery By Another Name.

[News tape] Donna Stephens: We were watching it, and all of a sudden we heard Chattahoochee Brick and we said, “Wait a minute.” Being who we are, we started Googling and doing Internet searches and — It was a humbling experience, but the same time, it's horrific. And I was really appalled. It was really like a kick to — in your stomach.

Thomas Wheatley: It lit a fire in her where she she thought, “You know, we must do something to make people more aware of this. I wasn't aware of it my entire life. Just imagine what other people know or don't know about it.” So she became very engaged with residents who live across the river in Whittier Mill, who live in a neighborhood called Riverside, organization called Groundworks Atlanta that's very active in Northwest Atlanta, and all the efforts there to really reconnect Atlanta for the first time to the Chattahoochee River in a very meaningful way. And they started lobbying the city and they were able to, through organizing. They blocked Lincoln Energy's plans for the site. Donna Stephens appeared on a discussion show hosted by Blackmon, along with a representative from Norfolk Southern and talked about what she wanted to see with the site and what the community wanted to see with the site.

[News tape] Donna Stephens: The need for greenspace in Atlanta is monumental. There's also the need for native plants, so I would like to address that as an environmental justice issue, more so than anything else at this time.

Steve Fennessy: You know, in America, 100 years ago feels like ancient history, but it's not. You think about the descendants of the people who work there. What is — what are people like Doug Blackmon and Donna Stephens doing to show that the legacy of that is very much still with us?

Thomas Wheatley: In 2019, Doug Blackmon started teaching at Georgia State University. In addition to teaching, he hosts a show called Crucial Conversations. He's also teaching two courses as part of what he calls the Narrating Justice Project. He described it to — to me as an initiative to show students how quote “combining deep rate research and narratives of real human lives helps audiences understand very complex questions about society.” So there's one class called Documenting History, which explores Atlanta during Reconstruction. The course uses different storytelling techniques to kind of present a scholarly work to a larger audience. So what these students are doing is that they are taking names of people who were worked at Chattahoochee Brick Co. and researching them. Sometimes they hit a dead end: You know, it's nothing more than a name and a date of birth. Sometimes they are able to weave a very, you know, vivid story about some of these people like — much like Doug Blackmon did in writing his book. I mean, if you read his book, there is a character throughout it, a real person named Green Cottenham that Doug Blackmon kind of uses as a window as a guide through this very complicated, twisted system during a very complicated time in American history.

Steve Fennessy: So there is this kind of confluence of things going on surrounding the site of the former Chattahoochee Brick Co.. We have this site and there — there's people who want to turn it into a park and memorial, but it's owned by a private company, Lincoln Energy, so how do you actually wrest control of it from a private company?

Thomas Wheatley: You have to take ownership of it. And so the city is in talks with the Conservation Fund to purchase the 75 acres. And there's the expectation that that deal will go through. And then next year, under a new mayor, Mayor-elect Andre Dickens, they will have that long process of where you go back to the community and you say, “OK, we're going to do greenspace and and a memorial here. What should that look like?” We don't know exactly what it will look like, but this park is that way to get people out to the river. And it's a very strong draw to get people out to the river. It's going to have a bike path that's going along Proctor Creek, half of which is pretty much already built. There are plans and talks happening regarding building a trail along the Chattahoochee River and actually a bridge going over the river to connect to Cobb County. This will be a very special spot because of all these things that are happening. And because of its history. And because of the — what's taking place now. This is also happening at a time when another group is looking at convict leasing that happened in the city. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, working with the Blank Foundation and some other groups like the Grove Park Foundation, are in a multiyear study to see what role convict leasing played at Bellwood Quarry, which is the centerpiece for West Side Park, the ambitious greenspace that the city built to hold emergency drinking water.

Steve Fennessy: And just opened a few months ago.

Thomas Wheatley: Just opened. It's very beautiful. It's part of the Proctor Creek Greenway. So someday in the future, you will most likely be able to walk or bike on a paved trail from one of the most infamous convict leasing sites to another site where it's likely that convict leasing was used.

Steve Fennessy: You've covered Atlanta a long time and one of the specific ways that you cover Atlanta, that anyone who is covering the city in a meaningful, comprehensive way must, is how race relations manifest themselves in real ways here. With that in mind, how unique is this project just through from your perspective?

Thomas Wheatley: It's unlike anything I've ever seen in the city because it's not presenting a proud moment. Atlanta talks often about being a city where the civil rights movement was, was — was hatched and carried out and our ties to that. And you look at the victories that came from the civil rights movement. Like Donna Stephens said in my — in my last story: It's that missing middle part between. You have the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction and all this talk about “the new South” and everything. And then all of a sudden, you just fast forward decades to the civil rights movement and where in between you had this — one historian referred to it as the nadir of American race relations. You had these policies being put into law that were meant to punish Black people who just decades earlier had been freed from slavery. Or at least they thought they were freed.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to our guest, Thomas Wheatley, a reporter at Axios Atlanta. The Atlanta City Council has approved a deal paving the way for the city and advocates to map out next steps for the Chattahoochee Brick Co. site. For now, plans include establishing a public park and memorial to the people who worked and died on the grounds. The deal would also keep the Chattahoochee historic site from being developed commercially in the future. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!