After years of community advocacy, the Chattahoochee Brick site is owned by Atlanta – WABE

After years of grassroots advocacy, the City of Atlanta now owns the former site of the Chattahoochee Brick Company.

The factory made bricks that helped build Atlanta, using forced convict labor. Community activists successfully fought off plans to build an industrial facility on the site, and now the city plans to build a park and memorial instead.

The city holds a event on site on Saturday to celebrate the acquisition of the property and to talk about what to expect next.

The brickyard

The Chattahoochee Brick Company operated at the turn of the 20e Century. It provided the bricks that built Atlanta’s roads and homes from its location on the Chattahoochee River in northwest Atlanta.

The brick factory was owned by former Atlanta mayor and Confederate captain, James English.

And he used convict labor, in a post-Civil War system where people — mostly black men, were arrested for crimes — often petty offenses — and then forced to work.

They could be bought and sold. They were treated brutally. People were beaten there and died there.

The factory is gone now; the site is mostly cracked concrete, piles of brick left over from a more recent factory and weeds, but Donna Stephens said she was moved when she visited the area.

“I always feel a certain type of behavior when I’m on the property,” she said.

Stephens, the founder of a group called Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalition, was visiting the site with Stacy Funderburke who works at the Conservation Fund’s Atlanta office.

Both were instrumental in the years-long struggle to protect this property.

Pieces of a puzzle

Stephens grew up in the area, in a neighborhood named after English, but she didn’t know the history of the brick business until she was an adult.

Several years ago, when she learned of a plan to build a fuel shipping terminal on the site, adjacent to the train tracks, she began working to stop it.

“Everything came to me in bits and pieces. It was like a 1000 piece puzzle,” she said.

It wasn’t just the story that mattered to her. It was also the environment, along the Chattahoochee River and Proctor Creek, a polluted waterway that she worked to clean up.

And she saw it was also about the health of nearby residents, in a part of town with a lot of industrial development and little access to food and health care.

“We already have high rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. The walk score is in the toilet,” she said. “Everything is interdependent.”

Funderburke credits Stephens with putting all of these pieces together.

He said it made a difference. Since the property sits along the Chattahoochee River, people had long considered it for a potential trail, but because the land is polluted and the area is heavily industrial, the idea was always narrower, a he said, a hope for a little strip of land. just along the river.

But with Stephens and others in the community spotlighting the story here, Funderburke said it changed what was possible.

“Without the work of Donna and the work of the community bringing out the history of the site and the significance of the site, there would never have been an opportunity for the Conservation Fund to step in or for the city to intervene,” he said.

Stephens spent years making phone calls and attending meetings, gaining community buy-in, and then political buy-in.

Plans for a fuel shipping terminal stalled in 2017 after Atlanta denied owner Lincoln Terminal a necessary permit.

In 2020, a similar plan resurfaced. This time, the Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern Railroad planned to lease the property from Lincoln and build the terminal itself.

Early last year, the administration of then-mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms began to push back on the plan, and Norfolk Southern later called it off.

“I realized it was the window,” Funderburke said.

The nonprofit Conservation Fund helps governments buy land, and it worked great with Atlanta. But even then, the deal for that land nearly fell through when another offer arrived. They had to find more funding. The local Kendeda Fund donated $4 million to help.

The total cost of the 77-acre property ended up being $26 million.

Funderburke said it was worth it.

“Educating people and having a memorial for people who have suffered here is a game-changer,” he said. “To me, it’s nationally significant for the history of the United States, and of course very significant for the city of Atlanta going forward.”

Funderburke said city employees from all different departments — planning, parks and watershed — worked hard to acquire the land. And he said he appreciated Lincoln Terminal’s patience throughout the negotiations.

In an email, Lincoln Terminal President Larry Burgamy said the deal could not have happened without the work of Funderburke.

“I am pleased that the transaction resulted in a favorable outcome for the City,” he said. “We are all very happy for the City.

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is currently holding meetings and will eventually hold community sessions to ask people what kind of memorial they would like to see here.

Stephens is also involved in this work.

“You know, there’s this saying, ‘I’m my ancestors’ wildest dream.’ I know I recognize that,” she said. “The fact that the three of us can stay here and have a conversation about it. That’s freedom in itself.”