Like much of the rest of the discourse around jails, prisons and mass incarceration, Black History Month is not usually a time when we talk about the thousands of black prisoners that were forced to build America after the Civil War.
It’s time to recognize them because the postwar South was literally rebuilt on their backs.
Between 1866 and 1928, every Southern state in America practiced convict leasing. Convict leasing was a system that allowed private companies to lease felony prisoners from the state for a fee. Black men, women, and youth were their primary targets. A minor charge such as “simple larceny” could cost an individual 20 years of his or her life, and only if the individual survived. Approximately 90 percent of all leased prisoners were black men; three percent were black women. Youth were represented in much smaller numbers.
They built railroads, cut sugarcane, made bricks, mined coal, harvested turpentine, sawed lumber, and picked cotton. Many died in the process. Some were murdered by vicious “whipping bosses” (white men hired to inflict punishment on convict laborers). Others perished from disease or injuries sustained on the job. Pregnant women sometimes died from complications during childbirth, or from injuries that followed. Prisoners paid for their alleged crimes with their lives while southern businessmen amassed fortunes from their labor. Between 1906 and 1907, roughly 1,000 prisoners leased to the Georgia-based Chattahoochee Brick Company produced close to 33 million bricks, generating sales of $239,402—or nearly $5.2 million today.
Without these forced laborers, the region’s economy never would have recovered and state treasuries would have remained empty. On a national level, states that did not utilize the convict lease system earned only 32 percent of their overall expenses, while those that did exploit convict labor earned 267 percent. In 1886 alone, the state of Alabama drew in close to $100,000 in revenue, which was equivalent to one-tenth of the state’s combined income.
As an author and historian who has written a prize-winning book and several articles on convict leasing, I recognize the system’s harmful effects on black men. From its inception to its decline, more black men were leased than any other group. But black women were also deeply impacted by the system, in ways that men were not.
In the state of Georgia, over 100 women were leased and thousands were put to work on chain gangs. This state held a high concentration of female prisoners due to its unique demand for labor. Georgia had more industries than any other southern state. Female felons were worked as hard as men and were beaten like them too. The only time their womanhood was acknowledged was when they were raped.
Carrie Massie was just 16 years old when she was convicted of murder and sentenced to serve a life sentence in a Georgia prison camp. By age 26, she was dead. Massie developed “childbed fever” after giving birth to her fourth child and the baby “bore unmistakable signs that the father was white.”
Convict leasing was similar to slavery. Although leased prisoners were not slaves in the legal sense of the word, their lived experiences resembled the enslaved. They worked from sunup to sundown; they were beaten and flogged; the women were sexually abused; their humanity was denied; they were severely punished if they escaped; they were separated from their families, and many were made to serve life sentences.
In the first two decades after the Civil War, most incarcerated laborers were, in fact, former slaves. They experienced captivity twice: once on the plantation and again in the prison factory. These factories were scattered all over the southern United States and in parts of the North. Yes, convict leasing stretched above the Mason Dixon line although it was primarily headquartered in the South.
We widely recognize the atrocities of slavery and the way slave labor was used to build this nation. But what about those men and women who were forced to labor during slavery and after its demise? Why aren’t they included among the little-known black history month figures and facts that we choose to remember?
Convict leasing is America’s shame, but we don’t have to be ashamed of its victims. It’s time to force a larger public recognition of incarcerated laborers. In Atlanta and Sugar Land, Texas, efforts are being made to memorialize convict laborers.
In Sugar Land, activists and members of the Convict Labor and Leasing Project are currently protesting the removal of the bodies of 95 black prisoners found buried in a historic cemetery on property owned by the Fort Bend Independent School District. This case has commanded national attention since the discovery was made last April. The city of Atlanta is also struggling to devise ways to properly acknowledge and memorialize the prisoners that helped rebuild the city after Sherman burned its environs during the Civil War. Since 2016, community groups, including Groundwork Atlanta, have pushed for a memorial and park to be established on the site of what was once a brick factory owned and operated by the Chattahoochee Brick Company.
Sugar Land and Atlanta are but two of many sites that hold the remains of deceased prisoners. The bodies of leased convicts are buried all over the South on university campuses, golf courses, playgrounds, highways, and in our backyards. Their unmarked graves are silent witnesses to the cruelties they faced.
In order to tell a complete story about the black experience in America, we must include our incarcerated ancestors in it. They are a part of our history too. This Black History Month is a perfect time to recognize them.
Talitha LeFlouria is the Lisa Smith Discovery Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.