There is an old saying, “Everyone dies twice.”
The first time, of course, is when the heart stops beating and the body stops working. The second time a person’s name is spoken for the last time. For Douglas Blackmon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name and professor of practice at the Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) in Georgia, a large part of his work is keeping some of the southern states forgotten bring, and often mistreated, living souls.
Blackmon’s students learn research techniques to uncover the lost stories of ordinary people and those whose lives have been shortened by practices such as convict leasing – most of whom were black and poor.
“We’re trying to say her name again,” said Blackmon. “We are trying to bring these people back to life and restore some of the dignity that was denied them at the end of their lives.”
Blackmon leads the Narrating Justice Project, an initiative at CMII that examines issues of justice through scientific research. The Narrating Justice Project is working with the Rialto Center for the Arts, GSUTV, and CMII to produce “Crucial Conversations,” a television show broadcast on Georgia State Cable and Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), and racial justice issues discussed.
A recent episode of Crucial Conversations explored the legacy of the Chattahoochee Brick Company’s former website. From the end of the 1870s, the company made extensive use of forced labor. According to Blackmon, workers – mostly black men – have been arrested for minor crimes just to become workers in industrial sites like the brick factory.
The working conditions were horrific and many workers died on the premises.
We spoke to Blackmon about his work and how his students and program have helped shape the future of the Chattahoochee Brick Company’s former site.
What got you to georgia
Well, I’ve worked in Atlanta for the past 25 years. I wrote for the Atlanta Constitution and was in charge of the Southeast Office of the Wall Street Journal. And when I left the Journal, I spent six years at the University of Virginia teaching and producing a weekly television program that appeared on about 200 public broadcasting channels across the country.
My wife and children stayed here in Atlanta, and I was essentially commuting from Atlanta to Charlottesville. A few years ago, I decided to go back to Atlanta full time and get involved with Georgia State and CMII. Fortunately, it all came together.
The Georgia State kids are a focused group, and I really like that.
For you at Georgia State, the situation is similar to that at the University of Virginia. Do you teach and produce a television program?
Yes. One of the classes I teach is called Documenting History. We learn how to find people in the historical records and try to create a picture of them and their life and the world around them. We focus on obscure people – poor people and people who have been mistreated by the world during their lifetime and who have not left great records. We’re trying to bring them back to life.
And the students really respond to it. For some, it’s also a little traumatic because it’s a difficult subject. It’s hard research too, and it can be pretty boring at times. But I think they find it compelling.
Many of my students come from a wide range of backgrounds, and we often discover some unfortunate similarities. I let them investigate someone in their own family history, and they are often surprised to discover things about their own families – which can be uncomfortable at times.
The television show I’m on is called “Crucial Conversations,” and it is a wholly-owned Georgia state production that airs on GSUTV and GPB. I am the moderator and our goal is to have honest and accessible dialogues about racial relations and other topics that are really important to Georgia State students.
What is the significance of the Chattahoochee Brick Company website and how did your students research it?
The book “Slavery Under Another Name” that I wrote relies heavily on the type of research I just described, and I wrote about the site in the book.
It’s right here in Atlanta and, sadly, deeply tied to the city’s history. And it’s a place where I can show students how to discover their records and their history.
Many people were brought there as convict laborers. Some had broken the law and deserved the punishment, but many people were there for breaking the racial habits of the day and they were arrested to meet labor needs – not because they had done any real harm to society. It went on there for a long time.
It’s the story of a place where bad things happened to people who didn’t deserve it and whose lives were wiped out much earlier than they should have been.
So I gave my students the names of people I extracted from the historical records and then they went and researched them.
How has research there influenced the decision of Norfolk Southern, the railroad company that leases the land, to change their minds to build on the site?
Well the site has been abandoned for decades and recently Norfolk Southern acquired the land and announced plans to build a large facility there. I’ve been approached by a few concerned neighbors, including Donna Stephens (BA ’97), a Georgia State graduate.
So I thought the website meaning would be a great topic for Crucial Conversations and invited Donna to join the program.
I then reached out to Norfolk Southern and made it clear that we were interested in their honest opinion on all of this and they agreed to move on. A Norfolk Southern attorney Vanessa Sutherland said during the show that the company wanted to be sensitive to these issues and remember the site. A few weeks later, they stopped working there completely.
I’m pretty proud that the state of Georgia and its students helped make this happen.
This is an important part of our history that has not been honestly talked about. And we need to talk about it. The research and the show created the opportunity to have these discussions and it is now revealed that my students identify the victims out there and bring their memories to life.
Watch the Crucial Conversations episode on the Chattahoochee Brick Company website