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Encore: Atlanta aims to turn brick factory with an ugly past into something honorable


Atlanta is taking steps to memorialize the victims of convict leasing - that's forced penal labor, often under brutal conditions akin to slavery. As Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports, the city is buying a property where thousands worked and many died.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Local activists have been fighting for years to protect the former site of the Chattahoochee Brick Company instead of allowing industrial development on it. Right now, there's not much there - a few scattered piles of bricks, dense woods, a cracked driveway.

DONNA STEPHENS: This place is probably one of the most horrific post-slavery sites in America.

SAMUEL: Donna Stephens has led the effort to protect the site and to teach people what happened here. The factory churned out bricks that built modern Atlanta around the turn of the 20th century. They're literally the foundation of homes, streets and sidewalks here. The people who made those bricks, mostly Black men, had been arrested and forced to work, living in filth, eating rotting food, being beaten. People died here.

STEPHENS: It's been very personal for me.

SAMUEL: Stephens lives in a nearby neighborhood named after the owner of the Chattahoochee Brick Company. James English was one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta, a former Confederate captain and mayor of the city. Stephens says when she learned who he was and what he was involved in, she was floored.


SAMUEL: Religious leaders recently honored the people who had suffered at the factory with a memorial at the property. Imam Plemon El-Amin is retired from the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam.

PLEMON EL-AMIN: Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can. And ignorance cannot drive out ignorance, only knowledge and understanding can.

SAMUEL: At the event, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said the bricks in his home may have come from the factory. He says now that the city is buying the land, there will be a memorial here and a park.

ANDRE DICKENS: It is time that this space with such an ugly past be turned into something beautiful.

SAMUEL: Journalist Douglas Blackmon wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called "Slavery By Another Name" about convict leasing. He describes Chattahoochee Brick as nightmarish, and he says it wasn't alone.

DOUGLAS BLACKMON: At any given time, there would have been tens of thousands, if not significantly more than that, of African American men, primarily, forced into these circumstances all across the South.

SAMUEL: He says the system was part of the backlash to African Americans gaining freedom after the Civil War - trying to vote and to live as full-fledged citizens. And he says he still sees tentacles of it today in mass incarceration.

BLACKMON: In terms of America's acceptance of the idea that it's OK for a huge population of people to be oppressed in these kinds of ways, that's absolutely a legacy of what happened in these years.

SAMUEL: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a history museum here, is bringing people together now to talk about what shape a memorial could take. Jill Savitt is the CEO of the center. She says it's important to have a dedicated space to honor victims of convict leasing.

JILL SAVITT: No community is going to move forward on racial justice, on economic justice, on a range of issues, unless we can be really clear-eyed about where we've been.

SAMUEL: Local activist Donna Stephens says she feels like this history has been overlooked, with schools essentially skipping from the Civil War to something Atlanta is more proud of - as the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and home of other leaders of the civil rights movement.

STEPHENS: The history books stop with slavery and pick up with Dr. King. It's ridiculous.

SAMUEL: Now Atlanta is beginning the work to fill in that gap.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINOBE'S "CELESTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Samuel joined WABE as a reporter in November 2014. Before coming on board, she was a science producer and reporter at KQED in San Francisco, where she won awards for her reporting on hydropower and on crude oil.
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