Digital History

Along the Color Line

Convict Lease System Previous Next
Digital History ID 3179



While most believe that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, a loophole was opened that resulted in the widespread continuation of slavery in the Southern states of America--slavery as punishment for a crime. According to the 13th Amendment, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Convict leasing began in Alabama in 1846 and lasted until July 1, 1928, when Herbert Hoover was vying for the White House. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama's total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died. Possibly, the greatest impetus to the continued use of convict labor in Alabama was the attempt to depress the union movement.

Convicts were invariably leased to prominent and wealthy Georgian families who worked them on railroads and in coal mining. Arkansas actually paid companies to work their prisoners for much of the time the system was in place. No state official was empowered to oversee the plight of the prisoners, and businesses had complete autonomy in the disposition and working conditions of convict laborers. Mines and plantations that used convict laborers commonly had secret graveyards containing the bodies of prisoners who had been beaten and/or tortured to death. Convicts would be made to fight each other, sometimes to the death, for the amusement of the guards and wardens.

Unlike the other Southern states, only half of Texas inmates were black. Blacks were sent to sugar plantations.

The Southern states were generally broke and could not afford either the cost of building or maintaining prisons. The economic but morally weak and incorrect solution was to use convicts as a source of revenue, at least, to prevent them from draining the fragile financial positions of the states. The abolition of the system was also motivated mostly by economic realities. While reformers brought the shocking truths and abuses of this notorious system before the eyes of the world, the real truth was far different. In every state, the evils of convict labor and abuses were in newspapers and journals within two years of implementation and were generally repeated during every election cycle.

The convict leasing system was not abolished but merely transformed. Prisoners, who labored for private companies and businesses increasing their profits, now labored for the public sector. The chain gang replaced plantation labor.

During the 1880s, many African Americans continued to vote in the South. The physical segregation of the races (which a later generation took for granted) was not yet a codified system. But beginning in Florida in 1887, Southern states moved to separate the races on railroads. After 1900, segregation spread to nearly every facet of Southern life. In 1890, Mississippi adopted several devices--including the poll tax and the literacy test--to disfranchise African Americans. All other Southern states followed suit by 1910.

Why race relations worsened in the late 1880s and 1890s is a hotly contested question:

In part, it reflected the collapse of the cotton economy, which led many whites to search for scapegoats.

Mounting discrimination was related to a fear among many Southern whites that a new generation of African Americans, which had been born after the Civil War and had not been subjected to slavery, would not defer to white authority.

In addition, the extreme violence was a reaction against the increasing economic independence of Southern blacks. From 1880 to 1900, black farm ownership increased from 19.6 to 25.4 percent, while sharecropping declined from 54.4. to 37.9 percent.

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