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The Gates of No Return: Paa Joe’s Foreboding Fortresses and Their Darker Connections to Atlanta

Ghanaian artist Paa Joe recreates the hulking prisons that held enslaved Africans before their perilous forced journeys westward.

By Katie Domurat, Coordinator of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art

Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were enslaved and taken to the New World.

In the High Museum of Art’s exhibition Paa Joe: Gates of No Return, figurative coffin maker and sculptor Paa Joe (Ghanaian, born 1947) has recreated seven Gold Coast fortresses that were used by European nations during the transatlantic slave trade.

The fortresses, which were modeled after medieval European castles and other fortifications, were overcrowded, dark prisons where Africans were held captive while they awaited ships that would take them to North America, Latin America, or the Caribbean.

From these prisons, around 6.9 million enslaved people were trafficked to Latin America or the Caribbean, while almost half a million were sent to North America.

We were interested to see if we could find a connection between these sites and Atlanta, so we headed to Emory University’s interactive web database and to the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center to do some research.

Paa Joe, Cape Coast Castle. 1653 Sweden, 1665 Britain, 2004–2005 and 2017,
emele wood and enamel; Cape Coast Castle, Ghana. © Cdigitalis-Pixabay.

Cape Coast Castle is the one castle depicted in the Paa Joe exhibition that could have been a starting point for enslaved people who were taken to Atlanta.

Ships that left Cape Coast Castle traveled to many different ports in North and South America, such as ports in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. These are the two main ports where enslaved people who ended up in Atlanta would have been brought once they had crossed the Middle Passage.

Plantations — which are increasingly being recognized today by other names, such as forced labor camps — were not prevalent in Atlanta, as few farms in the area successfully produced common crops such as cotton or tobacco. However, there are documented accounts of enslaved people working in and around Atlanta on smaller scale farms. After they arrived, enslaved people were kept in pens before they were sent to one of the auction blocks in town.

Five Points MARTA station. Image courtesy of www.itsmarta.com.

The Five Points MARTA station (30 Alabama Street S.W.) is the approximate location of the Crawford Frazer Negro Brokerage House auction blocks. Enslaved people were taken here to be auctioned off and then sent to their next destination.

This site is not marked for its historical significance.

Over the years, proposals have been considered, such as the memorial that artist Masud Olufani proposed in 2019, which consists of a grid of pairs of bronze feet on limestone pedestals inscribed with the names of those who were bought, sold, and traded like commodities.

THEN: Site of Underground Atlanta, ca. 1864. Image courtesy of Atlanta Preservation Center; NOW: Underground Atlanta today. Image courtesy of Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A second auction block in Atlanta was located at the corner of Forsyth Street SW and Alabama Street SW in an area today called Kenny’s Alley (50 Upper Alabama Street). Kenny’s Alley is the lowest level of Underground Atlanta and is a bar and concert venue. According to Sanborn maps from the 1880s, this site was a place where enslaved people were dropped off, picked up, or sold, as it was a hub for the railroad.

THEN: “Auction & Negro Sales” on Whitehall Street SW. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Another site could be found on Whitehall Street NW. The photograph on the left shows a Black Union soldier sitting next to an “Auction & Negro Sales” store. The photograph was taken in 1864 by George N. Barnard, the official photographer of the Chief Engineer’s Office, who documented William Tecumseh Sherman’s occupation of Atlanta.

NOW: Where Whitehall Street turns into Peachtree Street. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

Our inclusion of these local linkages in the exhibition adds an additional layer to what is at the heart of Paa Joe’s fortress sculptures: the witnessing of the traumatic history of slavery through the places where it transpired. We have submitted our research to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a multimedia series and research project that launched last year to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the United States.

To learn more about Paa Joe’s work and the history it addresses, visit the Paa Joe: Gates of No Return exhibition page, and watch a virtual tour of the exhibition below.

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