Organizers want companies that benefited from convict labor to help pay for memorial in Atlanta

Donna Stephens speaks at a ceremony consecrating the land of the former Chattahoochee Brick Co. Advocates are calling for the city of Atlanta, as well as companies that benefited from the former brick company, to preserve the site.

Christopher Alston / WABE

Community leaders are trying to figure out what’s next for a northwest Atlanta property after years of work to preserve the site of the former Chattahoochee Brick Co.

The factory kept mostly Black convict laborers in abusive conditions around the turn of the 20th century.

Advocates are calling for the city of Atlanta, as well as companies that benefited from the former brick company, to preserve the site.

Earlier this year, organizers managed to stop construction of a fuel transfer station, but the land is still privately owned.

City Councilman Dustin Hillis represents the area. He says Atlanta passed up multiple opportunities to purchase the land over the years.

“At the end of the day, I want to see a memorial park, and in the land that is not in the floodplain, there’s a chance to look at an eyes on the park-type housing development that contains affordable housing, things like that,” Hillis said.

Hillis said there are historical and environmental reasons to protect the property and that there needs to be a study performed to determine if there are any burial sites on the land.

Documents filed with the state show that it would require significant — and likely expensive — environmental cleanup to make the land usable, and a fuel terminal would have resulted in additional pollution.

Norfolk Southern was going to operate the now-canceled fuel terminal.

The railroad says a survey of the property did not find any human remains. However, community members question those findings.

The Rev. Tim McDonald is part of a group of clergy members that has been involved in preserving the site.

McDonald said while they may not have found any bodies yet, he does know where the profits from the brick factory went.

“To assist Coca-Cola and Wachovia and many of these other corporations in Atlanta. Their roots came from right here. The money, the seed money, came from right here: The Chattahoochee Brick Co.,” McDonald said.

In his book “Slavery by Another Name,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon explains how James English, owner of the Chattahoochee Brick Co. and a former mayor of Atlanta, also founded a bank that would eventually become Wachovia. Another prominent figure in the convict-lease system, Joel Hurt, founded the predecessor to SunTrust Bank (now Truist), and was an early investor in the Coca-Cola Co.

WABE reached out to Coca-Cola, Truist and Wells Fargo, which purchased Wachovia. The companies said they support ongoing dialogue with the community on the issue.

The statement from Wells Fargo reads:

“The treatment of people who were forced to work for the Chattahoochee Brick Company was horrific and inhumane. Wells Fargo continues to participate in meetings and have conversations with community organizations and leaders to be part of the solution on how to best honor the many lives harmed and lost on this property.”

The statement from Truist:

“We’re continuing to listen and learn more about the site, its history and ideas for its potential future use. At Truist, our purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities – and this includes evaluating ways we can help advance a more inclusive and equitable society. As discussions about the site continue, we look forward to participating in those conversations to gain a deeper understanding of all stakeholders’ views.”

 And the statement from Coca-Cola:

“The Chattahoochee Brick Company site is currently owned by a private organization but we fully support efforts to open a thoughtful dialogue among local business, government and civic leaders about the future of the site.”

McDonald said he would also like to see more communication about what to do with the property.

“We are hopeful, as we move forward, the city, the corporations and the community can sit down together so that we can properly memorialize this space,” McDonald said.

Donna Stephens is a local community organizer who has long advocated for a memorial at the former brick plant site. She said she’s ready for that conversation, too.

“I would invite them to sit down and us have a dialogue about where do we go from here,” Stephens said. “Because sometimes, people disagree with each other, and they don’t realize they’re fighting the same cause, or they have the same ideas.”

City Council President Felicia Moore also supports the idea of a public-private partnership with companies that have legacy ties to the land.

“Well, I think that the city certainly can play a role, and I would also like to look at some of the companies that had benefited from the property and ask them, in their social and civic responsibility, to help the city purchase this property,” Moore said.

 It is still unclear what the next step will be for the property, but a statement from the city of Atlanta said they will continue to pursue a proper memorial and the protection of the former site of the Chattahoochee Brick Co.