Overview

An important site of Atlanta’s history is at risk of being lost to the city and its citizens by unnecessary industrial expansion in Northwest Atlanta.  The property, nestled between the city’s significant, yet fragile waterways – Proctor Creek and the Chattahoochee River – was once the site of the Chattahoochee Brick Company, and marks the location of a particularly horrific example of convict labor – a practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of leasing imprisoned predominantly Black men and women to toil for years in factories under unspeakable conditions.  We ask for your support and intervention to stop Norfolk Southern and Lincoln Energy Solutions from irrevocably burying our history and putting our land at further environmental risk.  The site of the former Chattahoochee Brick Company should be preserved as a memorial, protected as greenspace for public use, and should undergo the long process of environmental repair which will protect the waterways of Atlanta and Georgia for the future. 

The many indignities visited upon those exploited by the Chattahoochee Brick Company, one of Georgia’s most infamous convict leasing operations, are difficult to imagine. As Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Slavery by Another Name, so movingly and meticulously documents, Black men and women convicted of minor offenses like jaywalking, vagrancy, and petty theft toiled without pay, adequate food or housing, and endured brutal discipline, all to make the bricks that built Atlanta. There is no reliable count of the number of victims who died on the site, many buried or burned on the Company’s grounds without memorial or marker. Those who did not die often bore the scars of beatings, maimed hands or feet, all as punishment for offenses such as working too slowly, falling ill, or trying to escape the abuse. 

The important and largely untold story of convict leasing is one more reminder of the South’s need for a frank racial reckoning, as the nation reconsiders how, where, and for whom we memorialize the past. It is not enough to cast aside statues honoring slave owners and Klansmen; we must raise memorials that bring our full history out of the shadows.  This site of decades of violence gives Atlanta the opportunity to build a place of racial reconciliation. 

However, the vision of a public space and a meaningful memorial, shared by neighbors, businesses, politicians, activists, and community-based organizations, is at risk of being bulldozed by expanding rail operations in an already over-industrialized corner of the city.

For years, Lincoln Energy Solutions, a South Carolina company, has worked to build a distribution terminal for petroleum products on the land that formerly housed the infamous Chattahoochee Brick Company. The proposed terminal would have paved over the history, added to the environmental risk to our city’s waterways, and laid an impassable barrier of gas storage tanks, railway, and truck traffic between the city and its river.  Fortunately, robust community activism thwarted those efforts in 2017, resulting in a victory for residents, as well as historical, civic, and environmental groups. The City of Atlanta denied the requested exemption for a special use permit and required Lincoln Energy to engage and cooperate with the community in its development plans.  Rather than working with the residents, the corporation left the land unattended and unavailable for sale for the next three years.

On August 31st, in a surprise statement, Norfolk Southern announced that it had leased the property and unveiled detailed plans for significant expansion of their rail lines and oil storage capacity.  Because of the railroads’ historical privilege with respect to development, their plans will require no public comment or a special use permit to move forward.  In short: by leasing the property to Norfolk Southern, Lincoln Energy Solutions ensures that the land they purchased will be used for exactly what they had intended, and exactly what the surrounding community had expressly opposed, subverting the decision of the City and the will of both its citizens and its environmental, history, and civil rights activists.

Norfolk Southern attempts to justify its business deal by claiming that there is an economic benefit of the project to the city.  However, it will bring no additional jobs, will only add to the traffic density of the area, and will put at further risk an environmentally fragile piece of property, all while offering only limited and token concessions in terms of the history and environmental preservation needs. The environmental significance alone is worthy of stopping the development. The recklessness of putting a chemical shipping facility on the banks of the Chattahoochee River and Proctor Creek, a major source of water supply for the entire Southeast, should be so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be stated.

 

Therefore, we ask you to support these three calls to action:

  1. We call on Norfolk Southern to live up to its branding as a “responsible corporate neighbor” and remove itself from the agreement with Lincoln Energy Solutions. As stated by James A. Squires, Chairman, CEO and President of Norfolk Southern, in the Corporate Responsibility Report “The communities we serve expect us to operate safely, be a good neighbor, and contribute to their well being.”
  2. We call on the Atlanta City Council to continue to fight for historic and environmental preservation, and denial of unnecessary industrial development without community input.
  3. We call upon the City of Atlanta to work with the community to:
  • Facilitate the purchase of the property for the public good.
  • Build a meaningful and significant riverside memorial to the victims of the convict labor system.
  • Create a public greenspace connecting Northwest Atlanta to other developing trails of the Proctor Creek Greenway, PATH, and Beltline.
  • Work to rehabilitate this industrial land, protecting the city and river from any further environmental harm