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In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Southern states arrested thousands of Black Americans for petty crimes and leased them to private companies who forced them to work in harsh and deadly conditions. While most states ended convict leasing in the early 20th century, similar abuses continued for years in the form of chain gangs and involuntary prison industries.
Historian Douglas A. Blackmon refers to convict labor as “Slavery by Another Name.” Other names for the corrupt system included forced labor and convict leasing.
After the Civil War, Atlanta was the site of several industries that heavily relied on forced labor. The most prominent was the Chattahoochee Brick Co., situated in northwest Atlanta on the Chattahoochee River. From the 1870s until the early 1900s, the company leased thousands of convicts to produce bricks from red clay along the riverbank.
At the same time, convicts were subjected to grueling conditions and physically demanding labor at the Bellwood Quarry, also located in northwest Atlanta. There they extracted and crushed granite.
Both enterprises played a crucial role in providing building materials for the reconstruction of Atlanta after the devastation of the Civil War. The City of Atlanta now owns both sites. Bellwood has been transformed into Westside Park, the city’s largest park, while plans are underway to develop the Chattahoochee Brick site into a green space that will honor its history and shed light on the experiences of the men and women who toiled and died there.