On weekends in the 2000s, a friend and I often explored tributaries to the Chattahoochee River that flow through the less-traveled sections of its urban watershed: industrial parks, junkyards, abandoned neighborhoods, construction sites, landfills, kudzu woods, and land near railroad lines and under highway bridges. In these places, we discovered unexpected natural beauty, along with heart-breaking volumes of trash and pollution.
Not far from one creek we explored in northwest Atlanta, we found a dark story from the city’s post-Civil War history: one that, like so many others, was never taught in our southern schools. The stream in the area we investigated – then unnamed – flows behind an old landfill, an auto parts facility, and other industries on Bankhead Highway, now Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway; its waters merge with Proctor Creek and then flow another half-mile or so before entering the Chattahoochee River.
At the confluence of Proctor Creek and the river lies a seventy-five-acre tract of land that was owned by Chattahoochee Brick Company for a century beginning in the 1870s; its founder was former Atlanta mayor and Confederate captain James English. Here, leased convict laborers from local penitentiaries – nearly all Black and many jailed for petty crimes – were exploited, horribly abused, and forced to live in filthy conditions. Some died in what has been called a “death camp.”
The gruesome history came to light in Doug Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, published in 2008. He reveals that at the turn of the twentieth century – decades after slavery was ostensibly abolished – the brick company leased convict laborers from the state to produce millions of handmade bricks for city streets, sidewalks, cemeteries, and other purposes. It is believed that makeshift graves were created onsite and likely remain.
When a fuel terminal was proposed for the riverfront site several years ago, civil rights leaders, neighbors, and environmentalists protested; they hoped to memorialize the people who suffered at Chattahoochee Brick by preserving the property, while protecting the river from industrial development. In April, the Atlanta City Council voted to purchase the site to create a park and memorial.
Bryan Stevenson – acclaimed public interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative – has said: “We need an era of truth and justice in this country; we need to have truth and reconciliation… There’s something better waiting for us that we can’t get to until we have the courage to talk honestly about our past.” What happened at Chattahoochee Brick is an important part of Atlanta’s past. The city’s action to invest in its preservation and memorialize its tragic story is a beginning.
When my friend and I explored the mature, diverse forest of approximately thirty acres that surrounds the creek near the landfill, in the mid-2000s, we were not aware of the nearby brickyard and its sad history. Although the area was full of trash and the waterways were obviously polluted, this pocket of nature was also beautiful and surprising for its size in such a highly urbanized setting.
A small tributary that flowed beside the old landfill was bright orange and smelled of chemicals. The larger, unnamed creek, which was crossed multiple times by a sewer pipe with brick manhole columns, contained whitish strands of bacteria: a sign of chronic pollution. Could the columns, which wore their covers like jaunty hats, have been made at Chattahoochee Brick? When it rained, the sewer pipe was unable to contain the volume and pressure of the contaminated water that rushed through it, resulting in the jarred manhole lids and sewage overflows into the creek and forest. Hundreds of tires, construction debris, mounds of asphalt and trash poked out from behind the trees and dense vegetation.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the environmental organization that I led at the time, contacted the landfill operator about the orange-colored stream. The company agreed to repair breaches in the landfill, remove trash, and stabilize the eroding streambank. With Atlanta officials, we discussed the sewer pipe overflows and mentioned the children we’d seen playing near the creek in a downstream neighborhood. They were already working on the overhaul of Atlanta’s entire sewage system, required by CRK’s 1995 lawsuit against the city, and promised to investigate our report.
Determined to officially name the stream, we applied to the National Board of Names and, in 2005, secured approval for A.D. Williams Creek to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s grandfather, a minister and civil rights activist. That spring, we organized a naming ceremony and cleanup in the woods beside the creek, working with community advocates. Our collective hope to reclaim this pocket of nature in the city kept us working for a better day.
Donna Stephens has lived in Atlanta’s English Park neighborhood, within a mile of Chattahoochee Brick, for nearly all her fifty-five years. Until she saw the PBS documentary about Blackmon’s book a decade ago, she knew nothing about the brickyard’s past; she was “floored” by what she learned. In recent years, Donna has been the driving force behind community efforts to preserve the land—a place where she feels a sort of physical connection to the people who labored there so long ago. She says that someone must “stand up” for those people, so she has never given up hope or stopped working for a day of remembrance and reconciliation.
Lawyer Bryan Stephenson has said: “I am persuaded that hopelessness is the enemy of justice; that if we allow ourselves to become hopeless, we become part of the problem. I think you’re either hopeful, or you’re the problem. There’s no neutral place… Hope is the thing that gets you to stand up, when others say, ‘Sit down.’ It’s the thing that gets you to speak, when others say, ‘Be quiet.’”