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4 convicts working while the guard has his back to the camera
Convicts and guard, Oglethorpe County, Georgia, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information, 1941

The Convict Leasing System: Slavery in its Worst Aspects

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This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Article XIII, February 1,1865

Eight Black convicts shoveling while one guard in the background looks on.
African American convicts working with shovels, possibly the singers of “Rock Island Line” at Cummins State Farm, Gould, Arkansas, 1934

While many believe that the 13th Amendment ended slavery, there was an exemption that was used to create a prison convict leasing system of involuntary servitude to fill the labor supply shortage in the southern states after the Civil War.  Black Codes regulated the lives of African Americans and justice-involved individuals were often convicted of petty crimes, like walking on the grass, vagrancy, and stealing food.  Arrests were often made by professional crime hunters who were paid for each “criminal” arrested, and apprehensions often escalated during times of increased labor needs.  Even those who were declared innocent in the courts were often placed in this system when they could not pay their court fees. Companies and individuals paid leasing fees to state, county, and local governments in exchange for the labor of prisoners in farms, mines, lumber yards, brick yards, manufacturing facilities, factories, railroads, and road construction. The convict leasing fees generated substantial amounts of revenue for southern state, county, and local budgets, and lasted through World War II.

“We punish a man who steals a loaf, if he steals an entire railroad, we say a financier; let us ask him to dinner.”Rev. Dr. Wayland
as quoted in The Crime of Crimes or the /convict System Unmasked (image 4)

Coal plant with twenty three stacks in the background and train cars in the foreground.
Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co.’s furnaces, Ensley, Alabama. (1910-1911)

The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) one of the original 12 companies listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Index, was one of the largest users of prison laborers, mostly comprised of African Americans convicted of petty crimes. The number of convicts employed increased after United States Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the time (formerly known as U.S. Steel and USX), acquired TCI in 1907. The working and living conditions for these prisoners were brutal, as companies leasing convicts sought to house, clothe and feed them for minimal expense, with little interest in their survival. Justice-involved individuals were housed in rough board shanties unfit for the habitation of human beings. Torture and beatings were common, and countless individuals perished from abuse; poor and dangerous working conditions; communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, and pneumonia; and from environmental conditions like contaminated water.

The nominal wages given to the prison laborers “drives honest labor out of employment and into starvation.” Many institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s employed convict labor as a way to avoid strikes, shortages of laborers, and high turnover.  Convict leasing undermines competitive labor markets and decreases living standards by reducing wage and employment rates among the free population. Government use of prison labor can distort incentives for incarceration, particularly in the for-profit prison system.  The Coal Creek War was an early 1890s armed labor struggle across Tennessee that was launched against the state government’s convict-leasing system. The labor movement fought against it, because it resulted in suppressing employee wages and increasing unemployment. At the same time, manufacturers rallied against the system, because they could not compete against companies deploying cheap convict labor.

Five convicts shoveling four facing the camera one with their back to the camera
Untitled photo, possibly related to: Georgia convicts working on a road in Oglethorpe County. Jack Delano, 1941
Four convicts shoveling, three facing the camera one with their back to the camera
Georgia convicts working on a road in Oglethorpe County. Jack Delano, 1941.

Forced labor took many forms, including convict labor, debtor’s servitude, and peonage. Self-made industrialists of the southern United States, including John T. Milner and James W. Sloss, built their wealth and industries on this labor. Much of the country’s infrastructure, encompassing roads, railroads, buildings, and levees, was built out of this abusive system.

Three men working, one wearing a hiat is facing forward and looking a bit up to the camera.
African American convicts working at an outdoor location, between 1934 and 1950.

Learn More:

Examine the Reentry and Employment Resources for Justice-Involved Individuals library guide. This guide provides a wide variety of online and print resources for justice-involved individuals who are incarcerated, or were formerly incarcerated, with starting points that will assist them with their reentry into society. It may be useful for other individuals re-entering the job market, navigating employment resources, and those seeking safety net resources.

One man facing the camera wearing a hat with his hand on the side of his face
African American convicts working at an outdoor location, between 1934 and 1950.

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Comments (6)

  1. I know that this was not just black Americans that were “leased out” but always those that didn’t matter to anyone except their own families—and that local county sheriffs went on the “prowl” to find more inmates for this purpose….IMO it is much like what currently happens when the county DA has jail inmates out doing “community service”—but they still have on a jail jumpsuit and placed where they can be ridiculed as often happens..and who decides the $$value of those hours worked particularly in adverse weather conditions such as Texas Summer Heat Of New York winter winds.. just questions

  2. This is in response to the comment above. No one said that only African Americans suffered from this law but that it was MOSTLY African Americans. The Black Codes also in effect around this time played a part in the mass incarceration of African Americans who were then leased out for free. Often times you people, because from your response it’s clear you’re not African American, often try to make it a competition as to who had it worst but the truth is NO ONE SHOULD HAVE SUFFERED through stuff like this and what you all fail to accept and often times realize is that regardless of who was leased out, the people who did the leasing were indeed white. The suffering that was caused to the people being leased were by the hands of white people. Let’s not forget that important piece of information. As what it now says that for whites it didn’t matter who was harmed so long as the money kept rolling in.

  3. This is outrageous. Inhumane conditions. The so called “leased convicts”, became parents, and their children became slaves. Uneducated, suppressed,not knowing any different lifestyle, other than an instint to survive. Eating raw fish, bugs , whatever they were able to catch. No provisions of clothing or adequate housing. From what I understand, these ones were considered property, and were beaten, raped, starved,and murdered, with no follow up from any state agency, parole officials, or federal programs. Blind eyes, deaf ears,no one concerned or asking questions about the well being of these individuals. These plantation owners, land owners obviously line the corrupt prison officials and government officials pockets with a percentage of profits they earn at the hands of these slaves. Work detail, for incarcerated ones, in jail facilities, is not to be conpared to how these ones are treated. They are fed, housed, receive medical attention,and when one dies, its investigated. Its not even imaginable, that in this day, in the United States of America, such evil exist among the hunan race. Its so wrong, there are really no words. We hear of things in other countries, such as Dictatorship, Communism,laws that permit husbands to be head their wives and stone children to death,just to mention a few, and thank God we were born in the America. Many Americans have no knowledge of the slavery that exist in our own country. We need to learn from what took place a hundred years ago about the injustice of the slave trade, for its a course of history that cannot be changed. We need to focus on NOW, in our lifetime, what is taking place. It needs media attention, investigations, and voices need to be heard, not silenced. This is sad and sickening, as it should be to any citizen of this country who believes in God, and to those of us that hates greed and corruption. Our local news and large news stations make reports daily on rediculous stories of no importance or interest to the American people. Why is nothing said about the slavery that exists in our many states, especially Mississippi. Payoffs? Political official’s involved? Fear! Strength in numbers and I believe the vast majority of the citizens of this country would be outraged, enough to make a difference, by forcing the proper authorities to take action. Its been too long already, it needs to be addressed. Documentaries, from ones, that you can see, are being truthful. This situation has to change. Its wrong,its Corrupt,pure Evil, something only the Devil and his followers would engage in.

  4. Yes, but how many souls suffered in this abusive practice? Is there no, department of corrections data documenting individuals? How many total were abused this way until the practice ended? Sort of.

  5. I just want to say, “thank you.” As a history professor at two HBCUs in Mississippi, trust and believe this article and its commentary shall be shared and discussed in ALL of my classes this semester … and ALL relevant courses in the future. I appreciate the passion and the scholarship expressed on this issue. Please continue doing this work we need this quality of research to be continuously accessible for students and professionals in the academic arena. Again, I thank you from the depths of my soul for sharing!

  6. Racist in every aspect

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