Enjoying friends, food and thought

About five years ago, I was fortunate enough to become a part of an extraordinary potluck group that has fed my soul beyond the delicious and savory food dishes we share every other month.

What started out as a random invite to an informal group called Pie in a Cup has given me a window into communities across Atlanta, important issues and deep thinking that are enriching, provoking and often sobering. To those of us who are hungry for knowledge, answers and paths forward to bettering our communities, our families, our nation, these discussions are powerful and satisfying sustenance.

The group’s Pie in a Cup name, I’m told, isn’t as intentional as one might think. The story goes that after the first or second potluck, there was a discussion about coming up with a name for the gathering. At that particular dinner (always held on a Sunday, bimonthly), someone had prepared a delectable pie that was so soupy that it had to be served in a cup – hence the name Pie in a Cup, which members often shorten to Pie.

The dozens of friends (perhaps members seems too formal a description) rotate having dinner at a host home. Everyone brings a dish to share along with their thoughts, ideas, or questions about a predetermined topic or theme, often facilitated by a guest speaker. We are always reminded (thanks to writer Eve Hoffman) to bring someone at least 10 years younger in hopes of expanding our diversity beyond race, gender, religion and points of view.

If I had to describe Pie in a Cup at its core, it would be that we are a group of people/friends who care about education, politics, social ills, the earth, healthcare, world peace and humanity – just to name a few. We talk freely and respectfully about issues that concern us, and challenge each other and ourselves to have conversations that are important, necessary, and, yes, difficult.

Recent topics include a discussion on family stories, led by Emory University’s Marshall Duke. We’ve also had discussions about the massive movements of people around the world and our attitudes and policies toward immigration. And one of my favorites is from last September when we discussed historical events and people who are insufficiently recognized. Some of the stories shared were just riveting.

I love that many of the Pie friends are longtime subscribers to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (No thanks to me, they were already avid readers when I joined.) They are very much aware of the news and respect the work the AJC does in investigative and watchdog journalism, and often give me their thoughts on the big story in the paper that Sunday or how they wept over that day’s Personal Journeys narrative. They are artists, authors, entrepreneurs, leaders at non-profits and in the arts community. They are activists, parents, grandparents.

Last Sunday, our hosts, photojournalist Andrew Feiler and artist Laura Adams, opened their beautiful Midtown home near the Beltline to Pie friends after just having completed a two-year renovation. Their home, which has an interesting, historical backstory, had a connection to Sunday’s featured speaker, author Doug Blackmon. Blackmon, a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the late ’80s to mid ’90s, won the Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his book “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.”

Andrew and Laura’s new home and soon-to-be art gallery happens to be the former headquarters of the B. Mifflin Hood Brick Company.

In “Slavery By Another Name,” there is a chapter titled “Atlanta, the South’s Finest City” that documents the use of convict leasing by companies in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Blackmon offers this quick summary of his book: “After the Civil War, slavery came back,” he says.

The Chattahoochee Brick Company, owned by former Atlanta Mayor James W. English, profited handsomely from forced labor by African Americans, including hundreds of wrongly convicted men who were bought illegally after the Emancipation Proclamation.

B. Mifflin Hood, who had moved to Atlanta from Baltimore, was so mortified by forced labor practices in the South that he publicly fought against the system with shaming ads targeting Chattahoochee Brick. The ads, which ran in The Atlanta Constitution, simply stated that B. Mifflin Hood provided “non-convict bricks.” When organized protests and public outcry followed, Georgia ended its convict leasing system, leading to the collapse of Chattahoochee Brick.

Blackmon’s Pulitzer-winning book has been written about a lot in the past few years, including in this newspaper. His recount of horrific details from the book and the lasting impact convict leasing has had on African Americans was disturbing and quite difficult to listen to — even as Pie members sat captivated by every word.

I came to the AJC more than a decade after Blackmon left, though I am familiar with his name and his work. I felt fortunate for the few moments that I got to chat with him while hanging out in the kitchen before dinner.

As fascinating as is “Slavery by Another Name,” I’m equally excited about a new project that he is working on with fellow Pie member Jamil Zainaldin, president of the Georgia Humanities Council.

The project, which will culminate with Blackmon releasing a book and film project late next year, actually began before he wrote “Slavery.” It’s a project that is personally important to him, and one that I personally feel couldn’t be more relevant today, even though it’s a story that began when Blackmon was a little boy starting elementary school.

It intersects a lot of the issues that we cover in our print and online editions, from presidential politics, religious liberty laws, education, economic disparity, and the current tension between black citizens and police. I hope you’ll come back next week to read more about the project.