The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit group, recently bought the historic Chattahoochee Brick Company land in northwest Atlanta. The city of Atlanta is expected to buy the land from the organization this summer with plans to transform it into a public park.
The purchase of the 77 acres in northwest Atlanta ensures it will be preserved from industrial development. Activist for years have been trying to save the land for public use and to memorialize its place in Atlanta history. The property was originally destined to become a fuel terminal for Norfolk Southern, which outraged the community. The city and the Conservation Fund worked out a partnership agreement last year to save the property.
From the late 1870s to the early 1900s, the Chattahoochee Brick Company was a brickworks business owned by former Atlanta mayor, James W. English. The company used convict lease labor to make the bricks used in building Atlanta houses and buildings. Black men accused of petty crimes were the majority of the forced to labor at the factory. They worked in inhumane and sometimes deadly working conditions like slaves did before the Civil War.
“This is a monumental step in transferring ownership of land with a history of pain and injustice and placing it in the hands of the people of Atlanta,” said Mayor Andre Dickens in a news release.
The Conservation Fund paid $26 million for the property. The owner was Lincoln Terminal Company. A $4 million grant from Atlanta’s Kendeda Fund was used to help buy the land. The city plans to pay about the same price for the land sometime this summer, said Valerie Keefer of the Conservation Fund.
The land will provide new public access to the river and will memorialize the African American victims of the site’s horrific history of forced convict lease labor, she said.
Donna Stephens, co-founder of the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalition, praised the Conservation Fund’s purchase as a “historic first step to the permanent protection of this site, which will be a dream come true.”
“What an amazing way to educate people about this part of history between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement that is too often forgotten,” Stephens said in a news release. “All different types of people have banded together to stop this land from being lost, and our community’s voice will be essential in keeping its history alive.”
Now that The Conservation Fund has secured the site, partners including the city of Atlanta, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Partnership for Southern Equity, Center for Community Progress, and community groups such as the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalition will work towards completing a vision for the space, including a memorial for the victims of the Chattahoochee Brick Company’s convict lease labor practices, Keefer said.
The site will also expand public access to the Chattahoochee River and be a catalyst for trail connections to the Proctor Creek Greenway and for future Chattahoochee River preservation efforts.
The Chattahoochee Brick site was designated as one of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s Top 10 Places in Peril for 2022. It will be one of the only sites in the nation to commemorate and tell the story of the convict leasing system that was prevalent after the Civil War, Keefer said.
“This is probably one of the most important properties we’ve ever bought because of the historical and cultural importance that it represents,” she said. “When we talk about at-risk properties, this one was literally at risk of being lost for so long. We were founded to step in and protect these kinds of places.”