After Abolition, Forced
Labor Thrived in South;
Helping Rebuild Atlanta
By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON
At the center of a massive new real-estate development in Atlanta, an $18 million monument designed to honor 2,000 years of human achievement is nearing completion. When it opens this summer, a museum inside the Millennium Gate also will pay special tribute to the accomplishments and philanthropy of some of the founding families of modern Atlanta. Organizers say plans for the exhibit don't include one overlooked aspect of two of the city's post-Civil War leaders: the extensive use of thousands of forced black laborers. The builders of the 73-foot archway say the museum is too small to convey every aspect of the city's founders and that it's appropriate to focus on the positive aspects of these men. In this adaptation from his new book, "Slavery by Another Name," Douglas A. Blackmon, Atlanta bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, chronicles how companies owned by these two men used forced labor to help rebuild Atlanta -- a practice that was widespread through the South.
Millions of bricks used to make the sidewalks and streets of Atlanta's oldest neighborhoods -- many of them still in use today -- came from a factory owned by James W. English, the city's former mayor, and operated almost entirely with black forced laborers. Many had been convicted of frivolous or manufactured crimes and then leased by the city to Mr. English's company, Chattahoochee Brick Co.
Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning of World War II, millions of African-Americans were compelled into or lived under the shadow of the South's new forms of coerced labor. Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands were arbitrarily detained, hit with high fines and charged with the costs of their arrests. With no means to pay such debts, prisoners were sold into coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroad construction crews and plantations. Others were simply seized by southern landowners and pressed into years of involuntary servitude.
At the turn of the 20th century, at least 3,464 African-American men and 130 women lived in forced labor camps in Georgia, according to a 1905 report by the federal Commissioner of Labor.
Beginning in July 1908, a commission established by the Georgia Legislature convened a series of hearings into the state's system of leasing prisoners to private contractors. Meeting early every day and late into the night to escape the city's excruciating heat, the panel called more than 120 witnesses over three weeks to give testimony in the state Capitol's regal Room No. 16.
Accounts of Brutalities
Witness after witness -- ranging from former guards to legislators to freed slaves -- gave vivid accounts of the system's brutalities. Wraithlike men infected with tuberculosis were left to die on the floor of a storage shed at a farm near Milledgeville. Laborers who attempted escape from the Muscogee Brick Co. were welded into ankle shackles with three-inch-long spikes turned inward -- to make it impossibly painful to run again. Guards everywhere were routinely drunk and physically abusive.
• The World War II Effect
Testimony described hellish conditions at Chattahoochee Brick and other operations owned by Mr. English, a luminary of the Atlanta elite and a man hardly anyone in the reviving city would have associated with human cruelty. But by 1908, Mr. English -- despite having never owned antebellum slaves -- was a man whose great wealth was inextricably tied to the enslavement of thousands of men.
Born in 1837 near New Orleans and orphaned as a teenager, he served as a young man in the Confederate army, rising to become a captain in a prominent Georgia brigade. After the South's defeat, he went to Atlanta to establish himself in the business and politics of the bustling new capital of southern commerce. He led a drive to make the city the state capital of Georgia, cementing its foundation as an economic center. In 1880 he was elected mayor.
Presiding from an elegant home, Mr. English, a portly man with a thick shock of white hair and a matching mustache, fostered a collection of enterprises that grew as Atlanta emerged from its Civil War ruin.
The base of his wealth, Chattahoochee Brick, relied on forced labor from its inception, in 1878, and by the early 1890s, more than 150 prisoners were employed in the wilting heat of its fires. By 1897, Mr. English's enterprises controlled 1,206 of Georgia's 2,881 convict laborers, engaged in brick making, cutting crossties, lumbering, railroad construction and making turpentine.
A prisoner receives punishment in a Georgia labor camp around 1930.
Mr. English parlayed his industrial wealth to become one of the South's most important financiers as well. In 1896, he founded Atlanta's Fourth National Bank and became its first president.
Mr. English strenuously denied to the Georgia committee that any "act of cruelty" had ever been "committed upon a convict" under the control of himself or any member of his family. He insisted that he and his son were essentially absentee owners of the brick factory, having little to do with its daily operations.
"If a warden in charge of those convicts ever committed an act of cruelty to them," Mr. English said, "and it had come to my knowledge, I would have had him indicted and prosecuted."
Yet his testimony affirmed how Chattahoochee Brick -- like so many other Southern enterprises -- forced laborers to their absolute physical limits to extract modern levels of production using archaic manufacturing techniques.
Once dried, the bricks were carried at a double-time pace by two dozen laborers running back and forth -- under almost continual lashing by Mr. English's overseer, Capt. James T. Casey. Witnesses testified that guards holding long horse whips struck any worker who slowed to a walk or paused.
By the end of the century, the forced laborers churned out 300,000 hot red rectangles of hardened clay every day. Millions were sold to the Atlanta City Council to pave streets and line the sidewalks of Atlanta's flourishing new Victorian neighborhoods, according to company and city records.
The prisoners of the brickyard produced nearly 33 million bricks in the 12 months ending in May 1907, generating sales of $239,402 -- or about $5.2 million today. Of that, the English family pocketed the equivalent of nearly $1.9 million in profit -- an almost-unimaginable sum at the time.
A string of witnesses told the legislative committee that prisoners at the plant were fed rotting and rancid food, housed in barracks rife with insects, driven with whips into the hottest and most-intolerable areas of the plant, and continually required to work at a constant run in the heat of the ovens.
On Sundays, white men came to the Chattahoochee brickyard to buy, sell and trade black men as they had livestock and, a generation earlier, slaves on the block. "They had them stood up in a row and walked around them and judged of them like you would a mule," testified one former guard at the camp.
Another guard told the committee that 200 to 300 floggings were administered each month. "They were whipping all the time. It would be hard to tell how many whippings they did a day," testified Arthur W. Moore, a white former employee.
A rare former convict who was white testified that after a black prisoner named Peter Harris said he couldn't work because of a grossly infected hand, the camp doctor carved off the affected skin tissue with a surgeon's knife and then ordered him back to work. Instead, Mr. Harris, his hand mangled and bleeding, collapsed after the procedure. The camp boss ordered him dragged into the brickyard and whipped 25 times. "If you ain't dead, I will make you dead if you don't go to work," shouted a guard. Mr. Harris was carried to a cotton field. He died lying between the rows of cotton.
Similar testimony emerged from camps owned by Joel Hurt, the rich Atlanta real-estate developer and investor most remembered as the visionary behind the city's earliest and most-elegant subdivisions. Mr. Hurt was also the founder of Atlanta's Trust Company Bank -- the city's other pre-eminent financial institution.
The 'Water Cure'
In 1895, Mr. Hurt bought a group of bankrupt forced-labor mines and furnaces on Lookout Mountain, near the Tennessee state line. Guards there had recently adopted for punishment of the workers the "water cure," in which water was poured into the nostrils and lungs of prisoners. (The technique, preferred because it allowed miners to "go to work right away" after punishment, became infamous in the 21st century as "waterboarding.")
An elderly black man named Ephraim Gaither testified during the state's hearings as to the fate of a 16-year-old boy at a lumber camp owned by Mr. Hurt and operated by his son George Hurt. The teenager was serving three months of hard labor for an unspecified misdemeanor.
"He was around the yard sorter playing and he started walking off," Mr. Gaither recounted. "There was a young fellow, one of the bosses, up in a pine tree and he had his gun and shot at the little negro and shot this side of his face off," Mr. Gaither said as he pointed to the left side of his face. The teenager ran into the woods and died. Days later, a dog appeared in the camp dragging the boy's arm in its mouth, Mr. Gaither said. The homicide was never investigated.
Called to testify before the commission, Mr. Hurt lounged in the witness chair, relaxed and unapologetic for any aspect of the sprawling businesses.
Another witness before the commission, former chief warden Jake Moore, testified that no prison guard could ever "do enough whipping for Mr. Hurt." "He wanted men whipped for singing and laughing," Mr. Moore told the panel.
In response to the revelations, Gov. Hoke Smith called a special session of the state Legislature, which authorized a public referendum on the fate of the system. In October 1908, Georgia's nearly all-white electorate voted by a 2-to-1 margin to abolish the system as of March 1909. Without prison labor, business collapsed at Chattahoochee Brick. Production fell by nearly 50% in the next year. Total profit dwindled to less than $13,000.
The apparent demise of Georgia's system of leasing prisoners seemed a harbinger of a new day. But the harsher reality of the South was that the new post-Civil War neoslavery was evolving -- not disappearing.