This is part of my continuing series on Atlanta history, as told through the residents of Atlanta’s Historic Oakland Cemetery.
Joel Hurt (1850–1926) was a key businessman and developer in Atlanta. He was the last of that bread of great “movers and shakers” of the South: entrepreneur, inventor, banker, engineer, builder and railroad man. His work helped to shape the city we see today. He’s responsible for local banks, the first electric street car in Atlanta, the city’s first skyscraper, the neighborhoods of Inman Park and Druid Hills, and his masterpiece—The Hurt Building—still stands in downtown Atlanta. Inman Park named a street after him and the city commissioned a park downtown.
But as with the fortunes of many great men, Hurt’s wealth and fame was—at least partially—built on the backs of those less fortunate. Though born after slavery and the Civil War, Hurt still managed to enslave others. Convict labor—mostly black men—was exploited to construct many of Hurt’s projects. These convicts were harshly disciplined and cruelly deprived of their most basic civil rights. The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief Douglas Blackmon’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name revealed the extent to which Joel Hurt’s fortune was built on this practice. It was made into a PBS Documentary of the same name.
What is perhaps even more shocking to us today, Hurt admitted to full knowledge of this crime against humanity. According to Wikipedia, “Hurt was unrepentant in hearings in 1908 that brought out the shocking abuses in the Hurt family convict labor camps. His callous indifference to evidence that many of his workers had died of abuse and his viciousness in asserting that convict workers could not be beaten enough horrified even contemporary Georgians. These hearings led in large part to the banning of convict leasing in Georgia.”
Was he an Atlanta hero or a villain? Both. Hurt’s life is an example of the complexities that make us the human race. We are all of us capable of hard work, grandeur and petty greed.
Joel Hurt’s name and gravestone just might come up during the Oakland Cemetery Special Twilight tour, Pioneers of Atlanta: Meet the founding sons and daughters of a town originally known as “Terminus.” Wander among the graves of the first farmers, lawyers, early mayors, and town commissioners. Hear stories of accomplishments and failures, civil strife, gunfights and interaction with other developing communities that made us a community of people, not just an economic center. The tour is conducted these select Saturdays at 6:30p: 6/15, 7/20, 8/17, 9/21.
The Joel Hurt Cottage still stands near Elizabeth and Euclid Streets in Inman Park.