Mortar and Myth: Progress, Memory, and the Chattahoochee Brick Company Restricted; Files Only

Risman, Hannah Thomas (Spring 2022)

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In the heart of the Deep South lies the enigmatic Atlanta: the ‘City Too Busy to Hate.’ Popular narrativization of Atlanta’s history presents the city as an emblem of racial progress. However, the urban landscape of Atlanta, a palimpsest so convoluted that it is nearly illegible, presents a forgotten counter-narrative to this sanitized history. Underneath the haze of ‘post-racial’ narratives, forgotten truths reside in plain view, found within the ubiquitous red brick that lines Atlanta. Just nine miles northwest of Atlanta proper, stands the Chattahoochee Brick Company brickworks, the site of one of the largest and arguably most abusive contractors of the convict leasing system. At the brickyards, freedmen and women were transformed into commodities and corpses. To sidestep state-enforced penalties for abuse, the deceased laborers were thrown into the brick kilns, indicating that all CBC bricks produced during the tenure of convict leasing contain traces of those forced to make them. This forgotten history gives new meaning to the ‘blood-red brick’ that saturates the city, a silent reminder of a history dictated by the ‘what’s good for business is good for Atlanta.’ Mortar and Myth explores the history and lasting materialism of the Chattahoochee brick, a product of white supremacy and Southern industrialism. I argue that the forgotten history of the Chattahoochee brick reveals a historical continuity of racial violence and exploitation in Atlanta. This material archive of Black death that permeates the ‘City Too Busy To Hate’ serves as a material contradiction to the New South myth of progress. Employing Saidiya Hartman’s “history of the present,” I interpret the genealogy of the Chattahoochee brick through an action-oriented lens, uncovering the New South myth’s function to occlude the Black counter-memory and obstruct calls for reparations and commemorative justice. By bearing witness to the “terrain of forgotten pain” that constitutes the American landscape, our relationship with the past becomes more personal, laying bare the vestiges of past vice that still survive today.

Table of Contents

Introduction    1

Chapter 1: The Origins of the Mythic New South  12  

Chapter 2: The Chattahoochee Brick Company: A Case Study in Mythic Contradiction   26

Chapter 3: Commemorative Justice “In the Wake” of the New South Myth   50  

Conclusion   62

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