convict keep Lee County Alabama

Exterior of a convict keep in Lee County, Alabama. Photo: E. W. Russell

Douglas A. Blackmon is the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his extraordinary book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

This is part 2 of 4 in this interview, conducted January 7, 2010, in Atlanta, GA. (Click here to read part 1.)

MD: You mention in the book that there were some people in the black community today who wondered why it appeared that African Americans lagged behind in progress, when emancipation happened more than 100 years ago. Do you have any kind of feel for the number of African American men who were ultimately trapped in the convict-lease scheme which potentially affected their progress?

Blackmon: Well, definitions are important in answering this. There were two kinds of leased convicts: felony and misdemeanor. We can actually come up with a pretty accurate number of how many men were convicted of a felony in a state court and were placed into prison at a time when those convicts were leased out. I don’t know that number off the top of my head. In Alabama it would be 200,000 over a 50-year period of time, which is, in some respects, not that big of a number. But then there was the county system that handled the misdemeanor offenses. Because the state records are well documented and there’s a good bit of information there, most penal historians who’ve looked at any aspect of this made the mistake, frankly, of thinking that the county version of it didn’t have as many records or the records were just a mess so no one really knows what happened there. In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of material, if you can find it, which paints the picture of a county system that was much worse, and logic might tell you that’s the case. There are an awful lot more parking tickets written in Atlanta than murder convictions and where there were around 200,000 in Alabama convicted of felonies, there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands sentenced in the county court systems in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas, Louisiana and Texas. We can’t get a firm number on that; it could easily have been a million. There could have been some who went in and went out of the system many times.

In 1910 there were 10-13 million African Americans, so at most, during any given time, the percentage of men involved in this was certainly smaller, as a percentage of the population, than are currently incarcerated in this country. But, it was a substantial thing, because if you were an African American living in this country, living in the south in 1905, 1910 or 1920, then you were aware that every few weeks a bunch of people just disappeared! Sometimes they came back and sometimes they didn’t and when they did come back, they were a mess since they’d been brutalized. If you were a sharecropper, you absolutely knew this was happening. You also knew that if you went against the system by insisting, for instance, that you not be cheated out of your share of the cotton at the end of the season, then that whole apparatus was going to be turned onto you. So, even though many had this difficult life as a sharecropper, at least they were not being sold to go work in a coalmine for six months with nobody knowing where they were. They went along with the “machine” because of their terror of what might happen. That’s the part that’s even more difficult to measure.

In 1910, of the 12 or 13 million African Americans in the United States, the great majority of them were sharecroppers or tenant farmers in the Deep South. These, in one way or another, were affected by the threat of the convict lease system. That’s why it isn’t just the convict lease system; these others were de facto involuntary workers

Because of this, there is no way to put an absolute to the number people who were in the system, but easily at least half of the African Americans were affected in the first part of the 1900s since they were living in fear of all this and were circumscribing their lives in some way or another because of it.

convict keep interior Lee County AL

Interior of a convict keep in Lee County, AL. Photo: E. W. Russell


MD: The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 because of the issue of slavery and apologized 150 years later for those immoral beginnings. Have there been any corporations, state or local governments that you have come across that have issued any kind of apology?

Blackmon: Not in this-no! There are companies like Wachovia Bank who I talk a little bit about in the book, did at one point make inquiries into its connection to slavery and apologized for some of that. AETNA Insurance has issued an apology and some others for their role in antebellum slavery. But I don’t know of anybody who has issued an apology for what happened after slavery.

When I first went to the U.S. Steel Corporation about all this, their response was, “We don’t know about any of that and all of our records are gone.” Which I’m fairly certain is not true. They may believe that to be true, but it’s not true. Essentially their response was, “If what you say is true and we caused the deaths or injuries to some people wrongly, then we regret that. But, it’s in the past and there’s nothing we can do about it today.”

MD: In your research did you find any religious bodies, churches or even synagogues, if there were any in the south back then, who spoke out against the convict lease system or organized to try and stop it?

Blackmon: All of the religious aspects to this are very interesting to me. In almost every public presentation I make of this material, almost every one, someone will ask, “Where was the church in all this?”

This is why I started the book with the wedding of Henry Cottinham and Mary Bishop, freed slaves, with their ceremony being performed by John Wesley Starr who had previously preached to whites that slavery was a human order ordained by God and to blacks that theirs was a glorified place among the chickens and the pigs. The failure of the church to recognize and speak out against slavery was really an important issue that is huge to understanding as to how any of this played out. So my answer is that the church was complicit.

However, it is true that in 1900, there began to be some voices in the south beginning to say that the convict lease system was abusive and there was mistreatment, but these voices were raised loudest when a white person was abused who had been in the system. And there were some preachers who would preach about its abuses on occasion, so there were some voices. There were religious voices, there were the successors to religious abolitionists and there were some voices outside the south asking if the convict lease system was not a continuation of slavery. So there was a sprinkling of those things. It was the kind of thing that a typical historian would be tempted to exaggerate, because they did stand out. If you read 1,000 pages of Alabama newspapers from the first decade of the 20th century you’ll find a fair number of editorials against the convict lease system and it might tempt you to believe that there was a meaningful opposition. But the reality was that those were just voices screaming into the wind, and the odds are pretty good that they only screamed into the wind that week and then stopped screaming.

Perversely, there were some in the religious world who did not like the convict lease system, because it sucked people out of the available pool of sharecroppers. They made their money off sharecropping, so it was a competitive thing.

Ultimately, there were some voices of opposition, but there never was the Methodist Conference of Alabama or the Southern Baptist Convention taking a principled stand against the convict lease system.

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