The cruel convict leasing system that re-enslaved countless Black people after Emancipation

Mildred Europa Taylor November 30, 2021
Convicts and guard, Oglethorpe County, Georgia. 1941. Photo: Library of Congress

A Black man named Green Cottenham was on March 30, 1908, arrested and charged with “vagrancy” in Shelby County, Alabama. Vagrancy, which was the inability to prove employment when demanded by authorities, was an offense created at the end of the Reconstruction Period and was almost exclusively for Black men.

As Douglas A. Blackmon’s 2008 book, Slavery by Another Name, states: “It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness.”

Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves, was after three days behind bars found guilty in a brief appearance before the county judge and given a sentence of 30 days of hard labor. According to Blackmon’s book, Cottenham was unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses. Hence, the 22-year-old’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The following day, he was sold in what was known as the convict leasing system.

After the Civil War, slavery persisted in the form of convict leasing. This was a system in which Southern states leased prisoners to mines, private railways and large plantations to fill the labor supply shortage at the time. States profited from this while prisoners suffered, earning no pay and facing poor and dangerous working conditions. It was Black people who suffered the most, as they were forced into what historians have termed “slavery by another name”.

While many believe that the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, there was an exemption that was used to create the convict leasing system of involuntary servitude to fill the labor supply shortage in the southern states after the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment ratified in 1865 did prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, but exempted those convicted of a crime.

Thus, Southern state legislatures immediately passed “Black Codes” – new laws that applied almost only to Black people and subjected them to criminal prosecution for petty crimes such as vagrancy, loitering, breaking curfew, and stealing food. It is documented that arrests were usually made by professional crime hunters who were paid for each “criminal” arrested. Arrests often increased during times of increased labor needs.

And even people who were declared innocent in the courts were often placed in the convict leasing system when they could not pay their court fees. Until the 1930s, companies and individuals paid leasing fees to state, county, and local governments in exchange for the labor of prisoners. According to PBS, markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.

“The convict leasing fees generated substantial amounts of revenue for southern state, county, and local budgets, and lasted through World War II,” as stated by another account.

The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) was one of the largest users of prison laborers, mostly comprised of Black people convicted of small offenses. And when the United States Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the time, acquired TCI in 1907, the number of convicts employed increased.

Facing poor and deadly working conditions, convict laborers were tortured and beaten while others died from abuse. Communicable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia were also common. And as the system was highly profitable, many institutions continued to employ convict labor as a way to prevent strikes, shortages of laborers, and high turnover.

Cottenham, after he was arrested and sentenced, was turned over to the TCI. The company leased him from Shelby County for $12 per month, which was to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. The company made Cottenham work in the Pratt Mines outside Birmingham, in Slope No. 12 mine under dangerous conditions.

According to Blackmon’s book, Cottenham was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. He was subject to the whip for failure to dig the amount required.

Cottenham was released after almost a year. By that time, over 60 of his fellow prisoners had died of accidents, disease or homicide, with their corpses either burned in the mine’s incinerators or buried in shallow graves surrounding the mine.

By World War II, convict leasing ended thanks to factors like political pressure and industrialization. In the end, many southern states stopped leasing out their convict laborers and rather kept them to work on public projects in chain gangs, as stated by PBS.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: November 30, 2021


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