Leasing Life

Leasing Life

Reviewed by Tony Dunbar

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 35-36

Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, New York City: Verso Press, 1997.

The convict leasing system, widely used in the South after the Civil War, is not one of the dark corners of the region’s history but is instead on the cutting edge, in its time, of southern political and economic development. “Far from representing a lag in southern modernity, convict labor was a central component in the region’s modernization.” This is the thesis of Twice the Work of Free Labor, and the author deliberately avoids turning the book into an expos√© of the brutality and tortures of chain gang existence. It was not sadism, but the post-war economy’s appetite for cheap, reliable labor to power the “New South” that created convict leasing. Lichtenstein focuses on how the South’s emerging capitalists, primarily in the railroad and coal industries of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, used convict labor to launch their empires.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” Emancipation generated, in the view of the propertied class, a vast vagrant and criminal population, and incarceration mushroomed. In most Southern states, Reconstruction governments reacted to the cost of securing and feeding this overload of convicts by making their systems profitable. The Georgia State Penitentiary at Milledgeville was initially leased in its entirety to Grant, Alexander & Company, the firm that oversaw the majority of Georgia’s Reconstruction railroad development. In time, it made sense simply to lease the convicts to politically connected entrepreneurs for employ in remote coal mines or railway construction projects.

The advantage in cost savings to cash-strapped governments was obvious. Renting a convict for $36 or $50 per year to the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company was obviously more desirable than running a penal system with tax dollars. The enthusiasm for the system, however, came from the business leadership.

The dramatic industrial development of the South in the last half of the nineteenth century, the rebuilding of railroads destroyed by war and the laying of thousands of miles of new track, the related exploitation of coal resources and the sudden appearance of pig iron furnaces and coke ovens, the birth of Birmingham as the Pittsburgh of the South, could not have happened as it did, Lichtenstein argues, without convict labor. He details the history of company after company, the Chattahoochee Brick Company, Selma Rome and Dalton Railroad, the Atlanta and Charlotte Air-Line, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, whose core operations in those first years were the convict workforce.

The sordid face of convict leasing is apparent in the book. Lichtenstein notes that over four-hundred convicts perished during the first twelve years of leasing in Georgia. It was also readily apparent to the people who participated in it. Observing that deaths on the railroads had steadily mounted from 1870 until 1875, the chief “keeper” of the Georgia system admitted that, “casualties would have been fewer if the colored convicts were “property, having a value to preserve.” But the utility of convict leasing overwhelmed these reservations. They were a cheap, reliable, and productive labor force. They acted as a check on free labor, in keeping down strikes. Where leased convicts were employed as coal miners, the wages of free laborers were reduced by 10 to 20 percent When prices for coal or other commodities produced by prisoners and free workers fell, the prisoners could cheaply keep the core operations running and the free” workers could be laid off. The fact that the majority of leased convicts was African American reinforced the notion that blacks would only work productively in peonage.

Convict leasing met its greatest resistance in East Tennessee from the United Mine Workers and other coal miner organizations. During a thirteen-month period in 1891 and 1892, miners attacked five convict camps, burned one to the ground, and set the prisoners free. As the turn of the century approached, the impact of church and Progressive reformers also began to have an impact. In the mid-1890s Canadian customs barred the importation of pig-iron from twenty-three furnaces in Alabama and Tennessee because it was produced “under the taint of prison labor.”A Georgia legislator argued to the Southern Sociological Congress in 1913, that while southerners through slavery had fulfilled their burden to care for the blacks,

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relegating convicts to a leasing system was “the shirking of governmental duty.” Ultimately, most progressive thinkers settled upon public road construction by chain gangs as the superior alternative to convict leasing. The leasing system was abolished in Tennessee and Mississippi in the 1890s, and was replaced by state-owned coal mines and the state-run Parchman penal farm, respectively. Georgia went to the chain gang in 1908. Florida and Alabama finally removed convicts from the turpentine and coal industries in the 1920s, sending the prisoners out to build roads.

While Lichtenstein’s book is certainly a valuable tool for historians of the “New South,” and traces and contests various viewpoints of those historians, the writing is fluid enough to engage a broader readership. It makes the convincing, if un-flattering, case that convict leasing was not one of the bleak horrors of the region’s past, but a foundation block of the South’s current prosperity.

Tony Dunbar is a lawyer in New Orleans. He is also treasurer of the Southern Regional Council.