Labor of incarcerated Black women spotlighted in Atlanta’s Elevate arts festival

Public arts festival will be city-wide this year
Morgan Hawkins at Whittier Mill Village Park during a performance of "Idle Crimes and Heavy Work."

Credit: Julie B. Johnson

Credit: Julie B. Johnson

Morgan Hawkins at Whittier Mill Village Park during a performance of "Idle Crimes and Heavy Work."

It’s unlikely Mattie Crawford could have imagined that her suffering, and that of illegally incarcerated women like her, would inspire a dance performance.

A couple of years ago, Julie B. Johnson, choreographer, professor and chair of the dance department at Spelman College, came across a newspaper story that stunned her.

“ONLY WOMAN BLACKSMITH IN AMERICA IS A CONVICT.”

The work of incarcerated Black women such as Mattie Crawford is celebrated in the new dance performance, "Idle Crimes and Heavy Work," part of Altlanta's Elevate 2021 public arts festival.

Credit: The Atlanta Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Constitution

So declared the headline atop the Aug. 19, 1908 story about Crawford in the Atlanta Constitution. She had been sentenced to life in prison at 16 for killing her abusive stepfather. As was the custom at the time, instead of being sent to the penitentiary, she was sent to work at the notorious Chattahoochee Brick Co. Workers churned out thousands of bricks a day. Those bricks are still beneath the asphalt of many of Atlanta’s roads and ring its oldest public park, Oakland Cemetery.

Crawford and her fellow workers, men and women, labored under dire conditions, all while being subjected to daily physical violence from company foremen.

“After being there a while, her great strength and activity caused those in charge of her to plan heavy work for her,” the Constitution story said of Crawford.

She was trained as a blacksmith but, “her skirts being in the way, her guards forced her to put on trousers. Several whippings were necessary to make her consent to this.”

“Georgia was unique in that it put Black women on the chain gang, paving and grading roads, digging ditches and making bricks,“ Johnson said. “Chattahoochee Brick Co. was known as a death camp.”

This history is retold in “Idle Crimes & Heavy Work,” a dance performance by Johnson, who heads Moving Our Stories dance ensemble, and choreographer Tambra Omiyale Harrisof the dance company Giwayen Mata. The piece is part of the city of Atlanta’s annual Elevate public arts festival which runs through the end of October. “Idle Crimes and Heavy Work” will be performed outside at the Atlanta History Center from 4-6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 19. The event is free but registration is required.

Dancers Morgan Hawkins, Christiana McLeod Horn and Aquilah Ohemeng, perform an early version of the dance "Idle Crimes and Heavy Work" at Whittier Mill Village Park.

Credit: Julie B. Johnson

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Credit: Julie B. Johnson

Typically, Elevate spotlights one Atlanta neighborhood, bringing free public art events to the chosen community over the course of a month. Last year, it was the West End. This year, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which sponsors the festival, decided to focus on eight Atlanta neighborhoods: Eastside, Buckhead, Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, Downtown, Westside, Southeast Atlanta and Southwest Atlanta. The city is also partnering with galleries and arts groups that have previously scheduled events.

“As a community, we’re just going to have to learn to live with COVID-19, so we have created a program that encourages people to get outside,” said Camille Russell Love, director of the cultural affairs office. “When you’re in the arts, you learn how to dance.”

“Vast history”

Two years ago Johnson and Harris collaborated on a version of “Idle Crimes” and performed it at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. They also filmed an early version of the dance at Whittier Mill Village Park around the same time.

But after Johnson worked with the University of Georgia, Spelman and Morehouse College on the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project in 2019, she began to dig deeper into the historical disparities in sentencing and the treatment of Black women in the prison system. Like the Incarceration Performance Project, which examined the influence of race on sentencing and incarceration, Johnson saw how “Idle Crimes” could tell a long forgotten and little-explored story of inequity.

Julie Johnson, senior lecturer, speaks to students from the University of Georgia and Morehouse and Spelman colleges, who have teamed up to work on a performance about the state’s history of convict labor, before their rehearsal at Spelman College’s Wellness Center. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

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“Looking at this vast, deep, complicated history, I looked at where is the Black woman represented in this story,” Johnson said. “They are overlooked and erased. There are places all around Atlanta that have Black women’s labor embedded in them but we might not know it.”

Group tour with Idle Crimes & Heavy Work collaborators and Community Visioners: Tambra Omiyale Harris, Veronica Jeffreys, Victoria Lemos, Robert Thompson, Lauren Neefe, David L. Garrett. On site at Whittier Mill Village Park

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Harris said though the story is a difficult one to tell, bringing it to life through modern, contemporary and African dance has been a privilege.

“This is a very American story,” said Harris.

To delve more deeply into the women’s stories, Johnson read books, such as “Chained in Silence” by Talitha L. LeFlouria and “No Mercy Here” by Sarah Haley, which document the way women were used in the convict/contract labor system that helped build the South and Southern cities including Atlanta. Johnson also turned to Victoria Lemos, host of the podcast “Archive Atlanta,” whose show explores little-known stories and mysteries about the city.

“When Julie approached me, I revisited Chattahoochee Brick, just looking at the women involved,” Lemos said.

She took Harris and Johnson on tours of some sites including the intersection of Peachtree and Piedmont roads in Buckhead. It was there that convicted Black women and men built an almshouse out of 400,000 bricks for indigent white people, Lemos said. The Black people who’d labored on the building were eventually housed in sheds, shacks and tents adjacent to the house, which sat on land that would become some of the most expensive in Buckhead.

Archive Atlanta podcast host Victoria Lemos and tour participants Ashleigh Armstrong and Kaylah Smith.

Credit: Julie B. Johnson

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Credit: Julie B. Johnson

“Hard labor”

Prior to being sent to live and work on the almshouse grounds, the Black women were made to work on chain gangs in the city.

“Atlanta incarcerated women as well,” said Lemos. “But seeing women in hard labor was too much for the Victorians,” Lemos said.

The brickworks and the almshouse kept them out of sight. The almshouse eventually was moved to a site near where the Chastain Arts Center now stands. Another for Blacks was built across the street, Lemos said.

“None of us think about who built this, who worked on this street 200 years ago,” Lemos said. “The more you read history, the less surprised you are by anything.”

Bringing that history to life through movement is a way to make people reflect and question why it is that the labor of the incarcerated is so often overlooked, Johnson said.


EVENT PREVIEW

“Idle Crimes and Heavy Labor”

4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sept. 19. Free, but registration is required. Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. atlantahistorycenter.com

ELEVATE

Weekends through Oct. 31. For a full schedule of events, visit elevateatlarts.com

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