After those Northern spoilsports made slavery illegal some ingenious good ol’ boys came up with a way of enslaving black people that was entirely legal. The system was called convict leasing. It began in 1865 and lasted until 1928.
The idea was simple. Convicts were leased out to plantations etc. to replace the slaves that had been emancipated. If normal criminality did not provide sufficient recruits then people could be arrested on trumped up charges. Plantation owners could hire rather than buy and their capital outlays were less than when they had to buy their slaves. Also, since they did not own their labour force they had no particular incentive to look after their leased convicts.
Convicts did not only work on plantations. Alabama kept the system from 1875 to 1928 and most of the state’s convicts worked in the coal mines around Birmingham.
Often just convicted of minor offences, the leased convicts served long periods of hard labor. They lived in filth, were poorly fed, suffered torture and cruel punishments, and had no protection whatsoever from the labor contractors who hired them. Mine owners often faked “bad conduct” reports on prisoners to prolong their sentences and thus keep experienced men in the mine longer. A blind eye was turned to whippings and other forms of abuse. Mines had high death rates. 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.
“Convicts were whipped, a man standing at the head and another at the feet, while a third applied the lash with both hands. Men who failed to perform their task of mining from two to four tons of coal per day were fastened to planks by the feet, then bent over a barrel and fastened by the hands on the other side, stripped and beaten with a strap. Out of the fifty convicts worked in the mines from one to eight were whipped per day in this manner. There was scarcely a day, according to the testimony of the witness, James Frazier, in which one or more were not flogged in this manner. In many cases convicts were forced to work in water six inches deep for weeks at a time getting out coal with one-fourth of the air necessary for a healthy man to live in, forced to drink water from stagnant pools and the reports of the prison officials showing large numbers killed in ‘attempting to escape’.”
States made a lot of money from convicts leasing. 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. No doubt corrupt officials also made a lot of money.
Whilst everybody knows about the practice of lynching in the South I doubt if many people are familiar with convict leasing, yet it probably claimed more lives and was equally a method of social control. Any black person who became ‘uppity’ could easily be arrested on a false charge and sent off to the convict leasing system for ten or twenty years.