In the book, Atlanta-based author Douglas A. Blackmon delivers a shocking account of a sordid chapter in American history, when tens of thousands of black people were arbitrarily arrested and leased by government officials to commercial interests across the South for labor, in what amounted to legal enslavement.
Among the businesses he wrote about whose workforce consisted of these convicts was Atlanta's Chattahoochee Brick Company, whose products were used to build many of the city's opulent Victorian mansions, as well as streets and sidewalks.
Becherer, an associate professor of architecture, and his students were interviewed on campus about their ideas for redeveloping the old plant site, while at the same time preserving its historical features.
Becherer had already unearthed the dark history of CBC during his own preliminary research at the Atlanta History Center, when he came across Blackmon's book, which was published in March 2008.
Daniel Scott, a student in Becherer's fifth-year thesis preparation class, subsequently chose to do his thesis on the history and redevelopment of the CBC site in Fulton County on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, where millions of bricks were reportedly made by laborers under horrendous conditions. Since then, several of Becherer's other students have come up with their own redevelopment proposals.
"In its company files, I read where the convicts had been used for its workforce. I also read that dead convicts were disposed of on the factory's grounds," said Becherer.
"And sure enough, (Scott) discovered that there were three 'tenements' identified as they were called, which were the barracks for the convicts. Two of the three were for blacks, and a single, smaller one was for whites. Another long tenement was proposed in the days just before the ending the state's convict leasing system. By 1911, the tenements had been erased from the Sanborn (Fire Insurance) maps."
Blackmon became interested in the design work that was going on at SPSU, which dealt with not just a disused, urban industrial site, but one also with a seemingly sordid history. He found the idea appropriate for the documentary that Twin Cities Public Television is producing for PBS, based on his book.
"Chattahoochee Brick relied heavily on these forced laborers they obtained from jails, county sheriffs and also from people whom they just bought and sold from thugs, who would kidnap black people off the streets of Atlanta or the back roads of Georgia," said Blackmon.
"Everyone was called a convict, whether or not they'd actually been convicted of a crime or not. Many of the people who had been convicted had not committed any crimes."
The brick company is very tight-lipped about its past, Becherer said.
CBC ceased operations in 2002. It was long ago sold to General Shale Brick, founded in 1928, which is headquartered in Johnson City, Tenn., said Blackmon. He said the former plant site was cleared and is up for sale.
Though Blackmon's book discusses forced labor throughout the South, it details the CBC and its founder and president, Capt. James W. English, a Confederate Army veteran and banker who also served as Atlanta mayor.
"He was a key founder of First National Bank of Atlanta, which eventually became part of Wachovia, now a part of Wells Fargo. He was the richest person in Atlanta and probably in the South," said Blackmon, a Wall Street Journal senior correspondent who lives in Grant Park.
"All of his wealth originally derived from Chattahoochee Brick, when they made millions and millions of bricks. The city of Atlanta bought millions of bricks and certainly the city of Marietta would of as well in the 19th century to pave the streets and sidewalks. Almost every home in metro Atlanta that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century - there's a high probability that it has Chattahoochee Brick in it, including my house that was built in 1906."
In September, Becherer said he and his students were sad to see the demolition of buildings on the former CBC site (they had hoped to use them in their designs). However, they were able to salvage old drawings, which indicated that there were cemeteries on site.
"In the event that there are still human remains on the site - and the possibility does exist that they do - Georgia state protection of burial places must be enforced," said Becherer. "There is also some evidence to suggest that the company actually burned the remains of dead convicts in the kilns, though this information is primarily oral history."
PBS intends to air the documentary, "Slavery by Another Name," sometime in 2012. Under consideration is a separate 30-minute piece on the history of the Chattahoochee Brick Company.