THE PERSISTENCE OF THE PAST
Renowned investigative journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of practice Douglas Blackmon leads Georgia State students to examine some of American history’s most difficult chapters and bring to life the stories of the people who suffered through them.
Interview By William Inman (M.H.P. ’16)
There’s an old saying that “every person dies twice.”
The first time, of course, is when the heart stops beating, and the body stops working. The second time is when 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 a professor of practice at the Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) at Georgia State, it’s a big part of his work to keep some of the South’s forgotten, and often mistreated, souls alive.
Blackmon’s students learn research techniques to unearth the lost stories of ordinary people and those whose lives were cut short by practices such as convict leasing — most of whom were Black and poor.
“We try to say their name again,” Blackmon said. “We try 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 explores questions of justice through scholarly research. The Narrating Justice Project is collaborating with the Rialto Center for the Arts, GSUTV and CMII to produce “Crucial Conversations,” a television show aired on Georgia State’s cable channel and on Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) that discusses issues of racial equity.
A recent episode of “Crucial Conversations” tackled the legacy of the former Chattahoochee Brick Company site. Beginning in the late 1870s, the company used forced convict labor extensively. Blackmon says workers — overwhelmingly Black men — were arrested for petty crimes just so they could become laborers at industrial sites such as the brickworks.
The working conditions were dreadful, and many workers died on the grounds.
We spoke with Blackmon about his work, and how his students and program helped to shape the future of the former Chattahoochee Brick Company site.
What brought you to Georgia State?
Well, I’ve worked in Atlanta for the past 25 years. I wrote for The Atlanta Constitution, and I was The Wall Street Journal southeastern bureau chief here. And when I left the Journal, I spent six years at the University of Virginia where I taught and produced a weekly television show that appeared on about 200 Public Broadcasting System channels around the country.
My wife and kids were here in Atlanta, and I essentially commuted from Atlanta to Charlottesville. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to be back in Atlanta full time and was able get involved with Georgia State and CMII. Happily, this has all come together.
The kids at Georgia State are a purposeful group, and I really like that.
It’s a similar situation for you at Georgia State as it was at the University of Virginia. You teach as well as produce a television program?
Yes. One of the classes I teach is called Documenting History. We learn how to find people in the historical record and try to build a picture of them and their lives, and the world that was around them. We focus on obscure people — poor people, and people who had been mistreated by the world during the time they were alive and didn’t leave behind much of a record. We try to bring them back to life.
And the students really respond to that. It’s also a little traumatic for some because it’s tough subject matter. It’s also hard research, and it can be quite tedious at times. But I think they find it compelling.
Many of my students have a wide range of backgrounds, and often we discover some unfortunate commonalities. I have them examine someone in their own family’s history, and they’re often surprised to discover things about their own families — which can sometimes be uncomfortable.
The television program I’m involved in is called “Crucial Conversations,” and it is a 100-percent Georgia State production that airs on GSUTV and GPB. I’m the moderator, and our goal is to have honest and accessible dialogues about race relations and other issues that really matter to Georgia State students.
What is the significance of the Chattahoochee Brick Company site, and how did your students research it?
The book I wrote, “Slavery by Another Name,” heavily relies on the kind of research I just described, and I wrote about the site in the book.
It’s right here in Atlanta and, sadly, it connects deeply to the city’s history. And it’s a place that I can show students how to discover its record and history.
A lot of people were taken there as convict laborers. Some had broken the law and deserved punishment, but a lot of people were there because they violated the racial customs of the day and, really, they were arrested to fulfill the labor needs — not because they had done any real harm to society. That went on for a long time there.
It’s a story of a place where bad things happened to people who didn’t deserve it, and whose lives were extinguished way sooner than they should have been.
So, I gave my students the names of people I’ve extracted from the historical record, and then they went and did research on them.
How did the research there influence the decision of Norfolk Southern, the rail company that leases the land, to change its mind to build on the site?
Well, the site has been abandoned for decades, and recently Norfolk Southern acquired the land and they announced plans to build a big facility there. Some concerned neighbors reached out to me about it, one of whom is Donna Stephens (B.A. ’97), a Georgia State grad.
So, I thought the significance of the site would be a great topic for “Crucial Conversations,” and I invited Donna to take part in the program.
I then reached out to Norfolk Southern, and I made it clear we were interested in their honest view on all of this, and they agreed to come on. An attorney for Norfolk Southern, Vanessa Sutherland, said during the show that the company wanted to be sensitive to these issues, and that they wanted to memorialize the site. A couple weeks later, they stopped work there completely.
I’m quite proud that Georgia State and its students’ involvement has helped bring this to pass.
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 an opportunity to have these discussions, and it’s now becoming known that my students are identifying the victims from out there and breathing life back into their memories.
Read more about Blackmon and his work here.
Watch the Crucial Conversations episode about the Chattahoochee Brick Company site
Photo by Meg Buscema