Atlanta honors the legacy of convict labor which rebuilt it

ATLANTA (AP), -- Atlanta's official seal depicts a phoenix rising out of the Civil War ashes. It doesn't reveal that Atlanta was rebuilt using slavery's successor, convict labor. They were forced to work in horrible conditions at the Bellwood Quarry to cut granite and at the Chattahoochee brick Company to burn clay.

Atlanta honors the legacy of convict labor which rebuilt it

Many thousands of Black children, men and women were rescued from the streets. They were convicted of minor or non-existent crimes and sent to prison. Although the peonage system was in existence for seven decades across the South, until World War II many Americans have never heard about it.

A coalition of executives, foundation chiefs and politicians is working together to restore this forgotten chapter of American history to the public memory. This has been the goal of the coalition, which has taken shape in the last few months.

According to Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Mayor, "In the same manner we served as an example during civil rights movements of what's possible here in America," she told The Associated Press. "I believe it's important for our children as well as for adults to understand the history of Atlanta.

Advocates for Atlanta's west side are calling for memorials to forced labor to be erected at the quarry site as well as the abandoned brick factory. The city council has voted to keep them. One would be downtown, where 25 Black victims were killed by white mobs in 1906. This was after rival newspapers published false stories about white women being raped while they ran for governor.

Atlanta benefited more than other cities from the 13th Amendment clause that ended slavery and involuntary slave labor in 1865 "except for a punishment of crime." 48 states have vagrancy laws which almost always apply against people of color. They make it a crime to change jobs or to walk "without any lawful purpose" in 48 states.

According to Douglas Blackmon (author of "Slavery By Another Name," the court fees were paid by businesses to take custody of these prisoners and lease them to brutal workplaces in the industrializing South.

Donna Stephens, co-founder of the Chattahoochee brick company descendants group, said that a husband could leave to go to town and you don’t know why. You don't know if he fell on his head or ended up in a convict leasing facility.

Former Confederate Army Capt. James W. English was a former Confederate Army Capt. Many built his railways and worked in his coal mine. Others also made turpentine from wood. Many were whipped if they didn’t run while transporting riverbank clay to ovens that made more than 200,000 bricks per day.

Witnesses about whipping-bosses torturing, killing and executing prisoners in terrible conditions shocked Georgia's legislature. In 1908, the state banned convict leasing. The county sheriffs were given direct control. Blackmon discovered that the state had over 8,000 forced laborers by 1930. Half of the state's Black population could not leave their homes or work without being arrested.

In response to the nationwide challenge of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, activists began pressing for official recognition and acknowledgment of Atlanta's long-ignored past. The National Center for Civil and Human Rights invited them to join the Truth and Transformation Initiative in July.

The center has enlisted historians and directed grants from Microsoft, Home Depot, Arthur Blank's foundation, and other sources. It is leading a "constellation” of research and educational projects to recover public knowledge about the events that occurred between slavery's end in 1865 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s arrival almost a century later. Atlanta prefers to be called "the cradle for the civil rights movement" or "the city too busy to hate."

Jill Savitt (center's president, CEO) stated that "the period we're missing" is the era racial terror.

English and other convict labor exploiters invested in banks and railroads, utilities and real estate, among other businesses. Blackmon noted that among the Atlanta corporations first seeded with convict labor profits were Norfolk & Southern and the Southern Company.

They won't be singled out by the mayor for criticism.

"Many companies in America have a complicated history. Bottoms stated that the country has a complex past. "I know that these companies serve as the cornerstones of our city today," Bottoms said.

Norfolk & Southern was planning to pave the site of the brick company for a transport hub, but the mayor and council convinced the railroad to drop that plan this year. Bottoms describes the company as a "good friend."

Atlanta Public Schools is developing age-appropriate curricula for forced labor in grades 3-12. Savitt stated that other groups are also planning public "truth-telling engagements" and a virtual reality program.

She said, "We must lift up the rock." "People who claim that this makes white people ashamed should be ashamed. But not because they're white. Because you are a human, you should feel ashamed.

Blackmon provides six Georgia State University students with information about Atlanta's 1900 census inmates. Hank Klibanoff is another Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wants Emory University students restore some humanity to victims of the 1906 massacre.

English Park has a monument that honors the former mayor. It is located in the neighborhood named after him. However, the city deprived its west side of resources in 1950s when white residents fled to be near Blacks. Long-time residents are now being threatened by new investments.

As technology companies expand, the pressures of Gentrification are increasing. Microsoft Corp. purchased 90 acres surrounding its Quarry Yards campus. A riverwalk, new housing and a nature trail connecting the quarry and brick plant site are all planned. The symbol of dystopia, 400 feet deep (122 meters deep), in "The Hunger Games", "Walking Dead" or "Stranger Things" is now Atlanta's main water supply. It is surrounded by the largest park.

Stephens plans to find burial sites, test remains for DNA, and interview descendants from forced laborers. After suffering the worst poverty and pollution in the city, she wants her long-time neighbors to be able to help.

Stephens stated that although we have made significant strides, we still have a long way to go. He said that until those steps are taken, he wouldn't be satisfied.

Bottoms' grandparents moved to English Avenue 100 year ago. Bottoms didn't know until Blackmon's book, that a former mayor had become wealthy and powerful through the perpetuation of human bondage.

The mayor stated that it gave him chills to think about how his family was formed in the community named for the man responsible for so much pain and hurt in the city. People like to hide their pain which is understandable. We now know better and it is incumbent on all of us to do better.

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