OPINION: Will railroad’s plans supplant dreams for a ‘slave’ memorial?

This is the entrance to the old Chattahoochee Brick Co., where Black people as young as 14 were made to work free. Courtesy of Jeremy Stewart

Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Stewart

Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Stewart

Robert Kent and Donna Stephens live a mile from each other in Whittier Mills and predominantly Black English Park, neighborhoods a hop, skip and a jump from the old Chattahoochee Brick Co.

It’s been four years since they joined forces to stop construction on the site and the Atlanta City Council denied a permit for said construction.

It was a heady moment, proof that all of us can change things when we see something and say something.

Now Kent and Stephens are having regrets. They say they didn’t go far enough.

“We didn’t seal the deal,” Kent said.

Robert Kent, who lives near the old Chattahoochee Brick Co., fears Norfolk Southern plans will kill neighborhood efforts to memorialize Black people who were enslaved and then buried at the old plant. Courtesy of Robert Kent

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Kent

Credit: Courtesy of Robert Kent

Last week, their City Council representative Dustin Hillis confirmed their worst fears. On Aug. 24, Norfolk Southern signed a lease for the 72-acre property and intends to construct and operate a bulk transloading facility there, where companies can offload commodities into storage tanks, pipelines, or trucks.

Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman for the railroad company, said plans are to store ethanol in storage tanks, but the facility could eventually handle grain, plastic pellets, and other commodities.

Construction on the facility is expected to begin once Norfolk Southern has secured all necessary permits and then completed by the summer of 2022.

Residents would like to see the property put to better use, namely a memorial to the Black men and women forced into post-Civil War slavery and whose remains are buried on the property.

Up until the early 1900s, the Chattahoochee Brick Co., along with other enterprises, practiced slavery under the auspices of the state of Georgia’s convict leasing program. Some consider the practice worse than slavery because there was no incentive for keeping the enslaved workers, some as young as 14, healthy or even alive.

“What happened there is just horrific,” Stephens said.

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Beyond that, she and Kent contend the Norfolk Southern facility will not only be located in the flood plain within yards of the Chattahoochee River but will increase traffic and pollution in a community already overburdened by its share of sewer plants, waste dumps, a power plant, incinerator, rail yard, and tracks.

We are surprised quite frankly that Norfolk Southern, having moved the company headquarters to Midtown Atlanta, would even consider fouling its own backyard in such a manner,” Kent said.

DeGraff said, however, the facility will have the opposite impact on traffic and help alleviate some of the truck congestion in the area.

He said Norfolk Southern, which is relocating its headquarters here and is building a new office tower in Midtown, intends to be a responsible corporate neighbor and is aware of the environmental, historical, and cultural significance of the site.

“Obviously we are aware what this property means,” DeGraff said. “With any project that we take on, we take into account environmental and community concerns. This area is unique and part of the reason we went to Hillis to begin that dialogue. We will be looking to him to understand what the concerns are and to develop appropriate solutions.”

If he were all-powerful, Hillis said the property would’ve become eminent domain years ago.

“With the railroad interjected, it’s a whole different ballgame,” he said.

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Hillis said he will continue engaging the city’s law department to determine what the options are to stop construction on the property.

He is also planning to host a series of remote community meetings within the next few weeks — first with just the neighborhoods and citizen advisory councils, and then open for anyone interested. Hillis posts regular updates on the project on his council Facebook page.

"Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II" by Douglas Blackmon documents that tens of thousands of Black people were arbitrarily arrested and leased by government officials for labor at businesses like the Chattahoochee Brick Co. across the South.

Meanwhile, the months-old Chattahoochee Brick Company Historical Protection Alliance is desperately trying to raise awareness about the property and the significant role it has in Atlanta’s history.

“There are a lot of people who either don’t know or chose not to know what happened down there,” said Jeremy Stewart, an alliance representative who with his son stumbled across a network of tunnels under the site early this year. “It’s just amazing to me something that horrible could be whitewashed from history.”

Stewart launched the historical alliance back in May to raise awareness about that history and provide a central location for people to sign a petition to protect the property and eventually create a memorial that takes that history and the lives lost into account.

He is aware Norfolk Southern has expressed interest in a memorial but is still concerned about what that will look like, if it would include green space and protect the human remains on the property.

Kent and Stephens share those concerns.

Douglas Blackmon in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II,” wrote that tens of thousands of Black people were arbitrarily arrested and leased by government officials for labor to commercial interests like the brick company across the South.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Blackmon details the forced labor, the CBC, and its founder and president Capt. James W. English, a Confederate army veteran, banker, and former Atlanta mayor.

The company closed its doors in 2002, and the land was sold to General Shale Brick, headquartered in Johnson City, Tennessee, and recently leased to Norfolk Southern.

It’s been two years since I last wrote about this issue and, as I said then, these were not Black sharecroppers trying to extricate themselves from farm labor. These were free men and all they had to do was look guilty, be in the wrong place at the wrong time, look at a white woman the wrong way, or change employers without permission. You name it. It was grounds enough to be arrested, forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, left to subsist in subhuman conditions, and subjected to physical torture.

After two years, I thought the issue was dead and buried like all those dead Black bodies, but Kent let me know otherwise.

At the time, people referred to the property as Georgia’s Black Auschwitz.

Can you imagine building on the other Auschwitz? I didn’t think so.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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