Aerial Survey of Atlanta

Aerial Photograph of Bellwood Quarry 1949; courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections.

Prisoners Working at Quarry

Prisoners working at the Quarry; courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections.

The common historical narrative will relate that on 1 January 1863 Abraham Lincoln set slaves free through his Emancipation Proclamation. Taken a little further, some might say that the 13th amendment, which was ratified on 6 December 1865, was the definitive moment when slavery was abolished in the United States. However, upon a more careful reading of this well cited amendment, slavery was not fully abolished with its ratification. The amendment actually states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Upon this reading it is apparent that slavery was not abolished through the 13th amendment as it is commonly believed, but that it simply changed forms.

Slavery as an institution in the United States lasted many centuries spanning from the first colonists to arrive in the 16th century until the end of the civil war in 1865. While slavery existed in all parts of the United States at different points in time, it was in the South that it really took hold in the form of an economic system of labor. Further, slavery in the south was more than just a system of labor, it made up the entire social system of the south. While not all southerners were slave holders, social status was very much based on the system of slavery. Most important to recognize is the fact that slavery was in the hands of private individuals. One’s status could be elevated by the number of slaves owned, and also the extravagance of appearance of their slaves. As embedded as the system of slavery was in the south, it is no wonder why slavery found a new form to operate under in the south.

The two decades following the Civil War were a series of actions and reactions between political factions in the north and the south. Southerners fearing a society with free slaves devised a series of vagrancy laws and black codes to keep African Americans in a subservient role and tied to the land. Northerners saw this as affront to the efforts of the War and pushed for more radical reconstruction measures in which free African Americans would receive the vote, right to hold public office, and land. Eventually through compromise and the presidency of Andrew Johnson southern states were able to revoke gains African Americans had gained through radical reconstruction, and black codes and vagrancy laws worked to re-enslave African Americans this time under the power of the state rather than private individuals.

As has been stated the 13th amendment abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime. What the black codes and vagrancy laws did throughout the south is make it a crime to not be employed. This gave African Americans 2 choices, work for little or nothing in poor working conditions, or go to jail and work on a chain gang or a work camp in similar circumstances. This was certainly the case in the southern state of Georgia where chain gangs and work camps were filled with those found in violation of black codes and vagrancy laws. A common work camp involved working in many of the Georgia quarries breaking rocks to be used by both cities and counties to pave roads, sidewalks, and buildings. Quarries in Georgia that were used in prison work camps could be found in Buford, Tattnal County, Sandy Springs, and Atlanta. The Atlanta Stockade, built in 1896, housed men women and children who were all forced to work in the quarry. However, the focus of this paper is on the Bellwood Quarry on the west side of the city, where work was done through the Bellwood Convict Labor Camp.

Like other work camps in Georgia and throughout the south, Bellwood Convict Camp began operation after reconstruction at the end of the 19th century.  The camp, like others in Georgia, was developed around the extraction of granite from the Bellwood Quarry. Work conditions were difficult at the camp. Prisoners would be chained together, (where the term chain gang comes from), and forced to bust rock in the hot sun all day. On some occasions prisoners would suffer and die from heat stroke. Prisoners who did not work to the satisfaction of the guards were often whipped, likening the experience to slavery in a real way. The end of the work day offered little relief. In the 1920s some 300 prisoners were housed in a 60 by 150 ft. building. Prisoners unable to cope with conditions at the camp would often try to escape, only to be brought back to continue their sentences.

Work camps and chain gangs were constantly under scrutiny due to their conditions. Probes and reforms were called for through the judicial system on a regular basis. At Bellwood these reforms were executed, while other times they would be found unwarranted. Reforms looked at issues like whipping, malnutrition, and inadequate housing. Through these reforms and probes, eventually the practice of work camps and chain gangs were ended by the 1950s. It was at this time that Bellwood Quarry went from being run by the city to being operated by private corporations.