The other day I recommended David Oshinsky’s book Worse Than Slavery to a friend; he’s finding it painful to read. I’ve read it more than once, and read a chunk of it again after recommending it. It’s a horrific and brutal story – and one that every American should know inside out.

From a review at H-net by Robert M. Goldman (Virginia Union University):

The Parchman Farm story begins with the Reconstruction era. Determined to overthrow Republican regimes, Mississipians devised what would become the model for Democratic redemption elsewhere, the so-called “Mississippi Plan.” It elements were straightforward enough. Use whatever means necessary, from fraud to murderous violence, to regain political control. It worked, and by 1875 Democratic legislatures were back in control and immediately set out to resolve what they considered to be two key problems: a shortage of labor, and the need to restore white supremacy. Criminal statutes were enacted such as the “Pig Law” in which theft of a farm animal worth more than ten dollars was punishable by up to five years in prison. Along with laws such as these, which were almost always aimed at the thousands of poor freedmen, was the “Leasing Act.” This statute allowed convicts to be leased out if their sentences were less than ten years. Since whites were usually only charged and convicted for the most serious of crimes, their sentences entitled them to the relative safety of the state penitentiary at Jackson.

As it developed in Mississippi, convict leasing successfully replaced racial bondage with a system of racial castes while at the same time fueling the economic development of the late 19th century “New South.” The use of convicts for everything from raising cotton, to building railroads, to extracting turpentine gum spread rapidly. It solved the problem of high fixed labor costs, since minimal expenses for food, clothing, and shelter were necessary. Moreover, there was always a ready supply of replacement labor, so incentives against the mistreatment of convict workers were non-existent. Olshinsky catalogs the horrors that awaited a leasee–from ubiquitous lash to the use of metal spurs riveted to the feet to prevent escape. The mortality rate was high, and the system encompassed all ages. The state penal code made no distinction between juvenile and adult offenders, so that by 1880 “at least one convict in four was an adolescent” (pp. 46-47).

Goldman puts that rather mildly, but what Oshinsky details is a horror of overwork in terrible conditions, with torture for anyone who fell behind or screwed up in any way. It was worse than slavery because there was no incentive to keep the prisoners alive. It was profitable, and there was no dainty reluctance to arrest black people for the most ludicrous of reasons.

From a review by Ken Wytsma:

Convict leasing, something I knew little about, was a way of exploiting and profiting off of black powerlessness in Jim Crow South.  For two generations, convicts would be leased out, worked harder and treated worse than slaves had been prior to the Civil War.  These black convicts (the few white male prisoners, usually in jail for heinous crimes such as murder, were kept behind prison walls instead of being placed in convict leasing work details) would die at the mind numbing rate of 15-40% per year.

That’s right.

There was a time in America when convicts – held for such things as petty crimes, stealing food or not being able to pay court fees – were being worked to death at 15-40% per year!

Additionally, when new contracts came up, young black men would be rounded up and incarcerated on trumped up charges (loitering, disrespect, gambling, ‘insinuation’ etc.) simply to fill work ranks.  These young men, victims of racial and criminal injustice, would then die at the rate of 15-40% per year.  Can you imagine?

The criminal justice system under Jim Crow also began the disturbing trend of large scale African American male incarceration that continues till today.

We Americans live in a country with a hideous history…more hideous than the Nazi interlude in many ways, since it went on for so much longer.


  1. xyz says

    Yeah. Post-Reconstruction is a very disturbing era of our history. If you ever doubt that progress is reversible, Reconstruction and the so called “Redemption” era will sort you out quick. It’s some of the saddest stuff I’ve ever researched.

    Another good resource is the book Slavery By Another Name, by Douglas Blackmon. There’s a documentary and a website to go with it that are also very well done.

  2. lorn says

    The prisons and chain gangs were essentially advertisements for a lack of control and what happened to people who bucked the system. It also worked the other way. Any inmate that ran away from a prison gang risked the freedom of anyone who helped them. Odds are the prisoner was sent back, and anyone who helped them.

    The use and rental of prison labor was part of a larger system. Ex-slaves with property were encouraged, in part by the fair deal they got immediately after the war with US troops present, to take out loans and other obligations. Many of these contracts were wildly exploitative but accepted simply because the people signing were illiterate and/or innumerate. Not that even the fairest contract would pose an obstacle to exploitation. When the person reading the contract, the person recording what payments have been paid, or not, and with the sheriff backing up whatever they say as a matter of course, you have no recourse.

    Poor and black with land could be bent over a financial barrel by debts real or imagined and forced to sign away their land. Land that the new land holder would generously agree to let you work, for fee, and a percentage of the crop harvested. It is called sharecropping. Of course it didn’t really matter how much you really owed, or what the contract said, or how much of a bumper crop might allow you to get ahead. The person doing the accounting and recording was alway under the control of the land owner. But even if they were one of the honest few the scales used to weigh crops were usually rigged to favor the owner.

    But it didn’t stop there, the term “the man” may have started as a reference to the furnishings man. Sharecroppers were, because they were only paid after the harvest, forced to live off of credit most of the year. This meant many merchants were unwilling to trade with sharecropping farmers. Combined with difficulties of travel over southern rural roads meant that sharecroppers were dependent upon specialists merchants who went form farm to farm with a wagon loaded with everything one might need and specialist financing. The furnishings man typically operated in cooperation, or at least tacit approval, of the land holder. And again, records were always open to exploitation and reinterpretation to make sure people stayed in debt and under control.

    Sharecropping kept people poor and under control. This meant they were prey for The Man who cinched the indebtedness down hard and overarching it all was the constant threat of being snatched up and sent off to prison for infractions real or imagined where you would be rented out as cheap labor.

    It is like the bastard version of the laws of thermodynamics: You cannot get ahead; you cannot break even; you cannot get out of the game. But remember ” The south was a happy place”.

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