African Americans’ Forced Labor

Against the Current, No. 147, July/August 2010

Heather Ann Thompson

Slavery by Another Name:
The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans
from the Civil War to World War Two
By Douglas Blackmon
Anchor Books, 2008, 496 pages, $17 paper.

AS AMERICANS WE are taught that slavery was abolished after the Civil War. A close reading of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reveals, however, that this was not exactly the case. Although this amendment did outlaw slavery for the majority of American citizens, anyone convicted of a crime could still, quite legally, be kept in a state of bondage without claims on civil liberties and without remuneration for their forced labor.

Historians interested in the history of the South, and most particularly in the fate of African-American Southerners after the Civil War, have been attuned to the significance of this constitutional caveat for some time.(1) As they discovered when researching this region, in the wake of the Civil War white Southerners were utterly unwilling to accept the fact that African Americans now owned their own labor and they deeply feared losing their monopoly on economic as well as political power.

In response, Southern whites turned to the criminal justice system in order to maintain both profit and control. Indeed in the first decades that followed the Civil War, whites completely overhauled local as well as state laws so that, eventually, even the most benign actions and words of newly freed African Americans had become a “crime.” As the numbers of convicted Blacks subsequently soared, whites then leased these men and women from the states and counties that had tried them, and proceeded to exploit these prisoners’ labor as they wished.

As historian David Oshinksky wrote in his pathbreaking 1996 study of convict leasing in Mississippi, “In a region where dark skin and forced labor went hand in hand, leasing [became] a functional replacement for slavery, a human bridge between the Old South and the New.”(2) But while the historical scholarship of the last decade has called much needed attention to the post-1865 turn to convict leasing, and particularly to the ways in which this practice shaped Southern economic, political, and racial relations over the course of the later 19th century, journalist Douglas Blackmon’s recent new examination of forced labor in this region digs much deeper and reveals much more.

As this Pulitzer Prize-winning author makes clear in Slavery by Another Name: the Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War Two, the post-Civil War practice of forcing convicts to labor for white profit was more directly rooted in the infamous institution of slavery, more widespread a practice, and much more devastating to ordinary African-American lives, than we had yet grasped.

Blackmon’s careful recovery of scores of poor Southern African Americans who tried to navigate a better life in freedom, and his gripping expose of the many whites who used the criminal justice system to keep those newly freed Blacks in a state of fear and dependency, is magisterial.

Capitalism Meets Slavery

Blackmon begins his sweeping narrative in the pre-Civil War period when human bondage was still legal. In doing so, he gives readers a whole new appreciation for the extent to which the abuses and exploitation that Southern African Americans suffered after 1865 flowed directly from the form that legal slavery had taken in the late antebellum period.

Contrary to what many assume, the institution of slavery that defined the economy of the Old South was not in any way antithetical to either industrialization or modernization. In fact, it was Southern industrialists’ familiarity with the leasing of slave labor prior to 1865 that led them, so quickly, to embrace convict leasing as a fix for the labor shortage they faced when trying to rebuild their war-ravaged region.

When slavery ended, such burgeoning capitalists simply sought to replace one system of forced labor that they knew well with another that resembled it in every meaningful respect.

Not only had Southern railroad magnates already leased over 20,000 slaves and forced them to work in extraordinarily inhumane conditions before the Civil War ended, but “other budding industrialists” had also begun to traffic in the “specialized labor of slaves.” (47) Antebellum industries such as the Shelby Iron Works, for example, had leased over 400 such slaves by the early 1860s and, when they no longer had Black men to lease from slave owners after 1865, they simply began leasing newly freed, and newly incarcerated, Black convicts from state and local officials. (49)

Like slavery, convict leasing was both profitable and extremely barbaric. The fate of leased convicts was in fact worse than that of leased slaves, Blackmon suggests, because the companies that used prison labor had absolutely no financial incentive to keep their workers alive. Sadistic and relentless torture very quickly became a hallmark of the convict lease system, as business owners sought greater and greater productivity out of each laborer and could easily replace any they might kill in the process.

Because there were absolutely no penalties for mistreating or killing convict laborers after the Civil War, “in the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20 percent of them died. In the following year, mortality rose to 35 percent. In the fourth, nearly 45 percent were killed.” (57) To be sure extra-legal white supremacist organizations also wreaked havoc on African-American lives through violence and abuse in the wake of the Civil War. But as Blackmon’s narrative makes clear, “where mob violence or the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Black citizens periodically, the return of forced labor as a fixture in Black life ground pervasively into the daily lives of far more African Americans.” (7)

After connecting crucial dots between the institution of chattel slavery that existed prior to 1865 and the practice of convict leasing that came to dominate the Southern economy in subsequent decades, Blackmon’s book illustrates in chapter after chapter how very central this system of forced labor was to the rebuilding of the so-called “New South,” and how much more widespread a practice it was than any historian had appreciated. As Blackmon rightly notes, previous scholarly examinations of convict leasing have, “minimized the collective effect of the decisions by hundreds of state and local county governments…to sell Blacks to commercial interests.” (6)

It wasn’t just that Southern industrialists seeking a cheap labor force turned increasingly to state and local courts. Their insatiable desire for a captive Black workforce actually spawned tightly organized local networks of sheriffs, self-designated Justices of the Peace, and self-appointed judges intent upon providing cheap Black labor even if it meant literally kidnapping Black men off of the streets. (64)

In time, “nearly every sheriff and town marshal in southern Alabama made his primary living in some variation in this trade in human labor — some through formal contracts between counties or towns and the big mining companies and timber and turpentine operations. Others limited themselves to the less organized, clandestine capture and sale of Black men along the railroads or back roads.” (127)

Blackmon uncovers numerous harrowing accounts of how these labor procurement networks operated. Time and again, Black men otherwise going about their business would be accosted by local white officials who subsequently accused them of crimes they never committed. These men were then kidnapped and placed under lock and key where no loved one could find them. Then, after being tried in sham of a court proceeding, the men were leased out to local whites in need of a cheap and captive workforce.

One such young Black man, John Davis, was kidnapped off the street on his way to visit his dying wife in a neighboring town. A sheriff working for a notorious rich farmer named John Pace accused Davis of owing another white man some money. Unable to defend himself against this charge, unable to pay the alleged debt, and unable to read the contract that he was forced to sign indicating that he would labor for Pace to pay off his debt, young John Davis was taken away and forced to work as a slave. As Blackmon notes, “For all practical purposes, Pace owned John Davis.” (117-133)

Not Just the South

Blackmon’s book is a triumph not only because it allows us to see how smoothly the convict leasing system replaced the institution of slavery as whites sought to thwart Black freedom in the wake of the Civil War. This at times shocking and epic tale of coercion and abuse is ultimately worth reading because it also offers a particularly devastating account of how seriously African-American aspirations were hindered well after they had been freed from chattel slavery and, thus, it provides a powerful new perspective on why racial inequality has persisted in this country despite the nearly 150 years it has been since passage of the 13th Amendment.

As this book makes clear, African-American self-determination was not simply frustrated by the legacy of slavery. It was, in fact, actively squelched by whites determined to continue slavery long after they lost the Civil War.(3) Ironically, however, as troubling as Blackmon’s powerful narratives accounts of racism, injustice, and brutality are, they tend to suggest that forced labor was uniquely a Southern problem as well as a problem of the past alone.

The true horror of this nation’s history vis-à-vis the forced labor of African Americans goes even deeper. While it was true that some of the most heinous abuses of inmates took place in the South after the Civil War, it was also the case that those ensnared in the criminal justice system of the North suffered extraordinary exploitation and cruelty for profit at the hands of white-dominated companies seeking both profit and power after 1865 as well.

Importantly, a great many of the southern modernization and rebuilding projects that came to depend upon convict leasees in the South after the Civil War were underwritten by Northern industrialists and financiers who themselves were already well-familiar with the practice of exploiting inmate labor, and who indeed recommended a captive workforce over importing immigrant workers into the region who might well try to unionize.(4)

Not only did Northern prisons have a long history of forcing their inmates to labor for the profit of private companies, but like their Southern counterparts convict lessees north of the Mason-Dixon line were also subjected to extraordinarily barbaric punishment. In short, the post-Civil War exploitation of prisoner labor was a national phenomenon that fueled the profits of both Northern and Southern industrialists and that, in both regions, subjected African Americans in particular to the most vicious and abusive treatment.(5)

The Return of Convict Leasing

Just as Blackmon’s focus on the South may unwittingly mute the horror of convict leasing in the entire United States as industrial capitalism boomed, his broader argument that the WW II era was a major turning point in the history of forced labor in this country is also problematic.

To be sure, Blackmon’s evidence that the nightmare of convict leasing was not merely an “olden days” phenomenon, and that it flourished well into the 1940s is staggering enough to readers. As few others have, Blackmon forces Americans to reckon with the fact that, as late as the 1930s, “one in every nineteen Black men over the age of twelve in Alabama were [still being] captured in some form of involuntary servitude.” (375).

His argument, however, that, by the 1940s, “America — as profoundly racist as it remained — had begun a profound change,” and finally had abandoned its practice of keeping its African-American citizenry disproportionately in a state of involuntary servitude, requires a closer look. (381)

Blackmon is correct that something did change regarding convict leasing in America in the 1940s. Indeed in this period, many historical actors, from members of organized labor, to the “free world” unemployed, to progressive federal prosecutors, mobilized very successfully to regulate and thus largely to halt, the private exploitation of prisoner labor by the time the nation entered the 1950s. This, however, put the exploitation of prisoner labor on hold; it did not forever abolish it.

Indeed, by the 1990s, and thanks to energetic activism on the part of conservative legislators, corporations, and the federal as well as state governments in the 1970s, the practice of leasing convicts to private companies for profit-making purposes had been fully resurrected. With passage of the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, virtually every important legal barrier to exploiting prisoner labor for profit was overhauled and, overnight, private enterprises began turning once again, and most enthusiastically, to a captive and overwhelmingly African-American labor force.

By 1995 the incarceration rate for Black men was 5838/100,000 compared with 990/100,000 for white men. That same year scores of companies such as Dell, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Starbucks, McDonalds and Victoria’s Secret had decided that prison labor was a path to higher profits.

A full 50 years after Douglas Blackmon locates the end of profit-motivated and state-sanctioned forced labor, government officials were again touting the business advantages of utilizing a captive work force and, once again, the costs of criminalization and forced labor on African-American lives and aspirations were staggering.(6)

As important then as it is to read Douglas Blackmon’s epic account of Southern racism and labor exploitation — a tale of horror with which we all must reckon and never forget — the story of convict leasing and the attempted re-enslavement of African Americans remains far more of a national story, and not only a “history.”

Indeed, just as the Southern society responded to the possibility of Black freedom by criminalizing urban and rural spaces with myriad and bogus new laws and by incarcerating countless Black men and women after the 1860s, so did the nation as a whole criminalize spaces of color, and engage in the mass incarceration of Black men and women, in the wake of the freedom struggles of the 1960s.

To really gain all that we can from Douglas Blackmon’s gripping and crucially important book, Slavery by Another Name, we must remember that the story is even more of a horror, and a living one.


  1. Mary Ellen Curtin, Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000); Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: the Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. (New York: Verso, 1996); David M. Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery:” Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997); Karin Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896. University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
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  2. Oshinsky, 57.
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  3. See Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006)
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  5. For more on the ways in which a focus on the South obscures the Northern participation in abusive convict labor practices after the Civil War see: Heather Ann Thompson, “Blinded by the ‘Barbaric’ South: The Ironic History of Penal Reform in Modern America.” In Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds. The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (Oxford University Press, 2009).
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  6. Ibid.
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  7. Regarding the appeal of turning to a captive workforce when businesses seek to improve the profitability of their operations, Dennis Harris, director of Utah Jail Industries, points out: “A lot of work is being sent overseas, and U.S. companies must become competitive… Inmate labor is an untapped resource that can help companies do that.” Jennifer Grzekskowiak, “Inmate labor pays off for Business, Counties.” American City & County, June 2005, Vol. 120 Issue 6, pages12-14. Regarding the devastating price that African-American communities have paid for the post-1970s turn to hyper-criminalization and mass incarceration see, for example: Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).
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ATC 147, July-August 2010