Mary Church Terrell

Peonage in the United States - August 1907

Mary Church Terrell
August 01, 1907
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In the chain gangs and convict lease camps of the South to-day are thousands of coloured people, men, women, and children, who are enduring a bondage, in some respects more cruel and more crushing than that from which their parents were emancipated forty years ago. Under this modern regime of slavery thousands of coloured people, frequently upon trumped-up charges or for offences which in a civilised community would hardly land them in gaol, are thrown into dark, damp, disease-breeding cells, whose cubic contents are less than those of a good-sized grave, are overworked, underfed, and only partially covered with vermin-infested rags. As the chain gangs and the convict lease system are operated in the South to-day they violate the law against peonage, the constitutionality of which was affirmed by the Supreme Court two years ago. In the famous case of Clyatt versus the United States, Attorney-General Moody, recently placed upon the bench of the Supreme Court, represented the Government, while Senator Bacon and others appeared for Clyatt, a resident of Georgia, who had been convicted in the Federal Courts of that State and sentenced to four years’ hard labour on the charge of having held two coloured men in peonage on account of debt, in violation of the law. In his brief, Attorney Moody declared that the executive arm of the law, so far as the enforcement of the statue against peonage was concerned, has been practically paralysed.

‘Not withstanding the fact that several United States Courts have held this law to be constitutional’ (said Judge Moody), ‘the Government is powerless to compel its enforcement or observance, even in the most typical and flagrant cases. We think we may truthfully say’ (continues Judge Moody), ‘that upon the decision of this case (Clyatt v. the United States) hangs the liberty of thousands of persons, mostly coloured, it is true, who are now being held in a condition of involuntary servitude, in many cases worse than slavery itself, by the unlawful acts of individuals, not only in violation of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution, but in violation of the law which we have under consideration.’

With one or two exceptions, perhaps, no case decided by the Supreme Court within recent years involved graver considerations than were presented by the questions raised in the Clyatt case, for the constitutionality of the law against peonage was thereby affirmed.

If anybody is inclined to attach little importance to Judge Moody’ description of the conditions under which thousands of peons are living in the South to-day, on the ground that they may be simply the exaggerated statement of a Northerner who, at best, has received his information second hand, let him listen to the words of a man, born and reared in the South, who was commissioned a few years go to investigate the convict camps of his own State. After Colonel Byrd, of Rome, Ga., had inspected every county camp in the State which it was possible for him to discover, he addressed himself to Governor Atkinson, who for years had been trying to improve existing conditions, as follows:

“Your Excellency never did a more noble deed nor one that has been more far reaching in good or beneficent results to a helpless and friendless class of unfortunates than when you sent Special Inspector Wright into the misdemeanor camps of Georgia two years ago. His one visit did valiant service for human beings that were serving a bondage worse than slavery. True they were law-breakers and deserved punishment at the hands of the State, but surely the State has no right to make helpless by law and then to forsake the helpless to the mercies of men who have no mercy. Surely there can be no genuine civilisation when man’s inhumanity to man is so possible, so plainly in evidence.”

Immediately after the constitutionality of the law against peonage was affirmed by the Supreme Court in March 1904, Judge Emory Speer, of Savannah, Georgia, one of the most eminent jurists in the country, began to attack the chain gangs of the South on the ground that they violate both the thirteenth amendment and the law against peonage. Since the thirteenth amendment declares that ‘involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime, whereof the part shall have been duly convicted, shall no exist in the United States.’ Judge Speer attacked the chain gangs, because men, women, and children by the hundreds are forced into involuntary servitude by being sentenced to work upon them, who are not even charged with crime, but are accused of some petty offence, such as walking on the grass, expectorating upon the side walk, going to sleep in a depot, loitering on the streets, or other similar misdemeanours which could not by an stretch of the imagination be called a crime. Judge Speer also declared it to be his opinion that even those who sentence these helpless and people to the chain gangs, and thus force them into involuntary servitude, are guilty of violating the law and are liable to punishment therefore; since it was explicitly stated in the decision rendered by the Supreme Court that even though ‘there might be in the language of the court either a municipal ordinance or State law sanctioning the holding of persons in involuntary servitude, Congress has power to punish those who thus violate the thirteenth amendment’ and the law against peonage at one and the same time.

In spite, however, of the overwhelming weight of evidence showing that atrocities are daily being perpetrated upon American citizens in almost every State of the South, with the connivance of those who endured by the Russian Jew, in spite of the power which the Supreme Court asserts is possessed by Congress, but feeble efforts are being put forth to suppress the chain gangs and the convict lease camps of the South. It is surprising how few there are among even intelligent people in this country who seem to have anything but a hazy idea of what the convict lease system means.

The plan of hiring out short term convicts to an individual or a company of individuals who needed labourers was adopted by the southern States shortly after the war, not from choice, it is claimed, but because there was neither a sufficient number of gaols nor money enough to build them. Those who need labourers for their farms, saw mills, brick yards, turpentine distilleries, coal or phosphate mines, or who have large contracts of various kinds, lease the misdemeanants from the county or State, which sells them to the highest bidder with merciless disregard of the fact that they are human beings, and practically gives the lessee the power of life and death over the unfortunate man or woman thus raffled off. The more work the lessee gets out of the convict, the more money goes into his gaping purse. Doctors cannot be employed without the expenditure of money, while fresh victims may be secured by the outlay of little cash when convicts succumb to disease and neglect. From a purely business standpoint, therefore, it is much more profitable to get as much work out of a convict as can be wrung from him at the smallest possible expense, and then lay in a fresh supply, when necessary, than it is to clothe, and shelter, and feed him properly, and spend money trying to preserve his health. It is perfectly clear, therefore, that it is no exaggeration to say that in some respects the convict lease system, as it is operated in certain southern States, is less humane than was the bondage endured by slaves fifty years ago. For, under the old regime, it was the master’s interest to clothe and shelter and feed his slaves properly even if her were not moved to do so by considerations of mercy and humanity, because the death of a slave meant an actual loss in dollars and cents, whereas the death of a convict to-day involves no loss whatsoever either to the lessee or to the State.

Speaking of this system a few years ago, a governor of Kentucky said:

“I cannot but regard the present system under which the State penitentiary is leased and managed as a reproach to the commonwealth. It is the system itself and not the officer acting under it with which I find fault. Possession of the convict’s person is an opportunity for the State to make money -- the amount to be made is whatever can be wrung from him without regard to moral or mortal consequences. The penitentiary which shows the largest cash balance paid into the State treasury is the best penitentiary. In the main the notion is clearly set forth and followed that a convict, whether pilferer or murderer, man woman, or child, has almost no human right that the State is bound to be at any expense to protect.”

Again, at a meeting of the National Prison Association which was held in New Orleans a few years ago, a speaker who had carefully studied the convict lease system declared that the convicts in the South, most of whom are negroes, are in many cases worse off than they were in the days of slavery. “They are bought as truly,” said he, “are more completely separated from their families, are irretrievably demoralised by constant evil association and are invariably worse off when they leave the camps than when they entered.” “Over certain places where the convicts of Alabama are employed,” said an authority on penology, “should be written the words ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here,’ so utterly demoralising is the entire management.” And so it would be possible to quote indefinitely from men all over the country in ever station of life from judges, governors of States, prison experts, and private citizens, whose testimony without a single exception proves conclusively that the convict lease system in particular, and the chain gang on general principles, are an insult to the intelligence and humanity of an enlightened community.

It is frequently asserted that the convict lease camps and other forms of peonage are dying out in the south. First one State and then another passes laws against leasing convicts to private individuals or attempts to pass such a law, or, if it still adheres to the convict lease system, it tries to provide for the inspection of the camps by men appointed to do this work by the state. But facts which have been brought to light during the last year or two show that those who extract comfort from the reports which announce the disappearance of the convict camps and the chain gangs build their hope upon a foundation of sand. During the year 1906 allegations of the existence of slavery in Florida were made to the department of justice, and evidence was produced to show that hundreds of men, the majority of whom were coloured, but a few among the number white, were virtually reduced to the condition of slaves.

Facts were produced which showed that the officers of the law, the sheriffs themselves, were parties to reducing to a condition of slavery the coloured people who work in the phosphate and coal mines, in the lumber mills or on the turpentine farms of Florida, for instance. These camps were inspected by a woman who was commissioned, it is said, by those high in authority to secure the facts. Only last September a government detective disguised as a man anxious to purchase timber lands, visited the railroad camps of Blount Co., Tenn., and secured evidence against some of the most prominent contractors in that section, which showed that hundreds of coloured men have systematically been deprived of their liberty, while it is impossible to state how many of them lost their lives.

Before the grand jury the victims of this barbarous system of peonage, many of whom had been brought to Tennessee from North and South Carolina, told pitiable tales of their suffering and maltreatment and related stories of seeing men killed, dragged to the river in blankets, weighted, and then sunk into the water, which are too horrible to believe. As a result of this trial one of the largest railroad contractors of Knoxville, Tenn., was indicted by the grand jury on the charge of peonage, the indictment containing twenty-five counts.

Upon the evidence of a coloured soldier who was with President Roosevelt in Cuba, and who sawed his way to freedom through the floor of the shack in which he was confined at night, together with large number of peons, the man who thus held him in bondage in Missouri was sentenced to three and a half years in the penitentiary of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in addition to paying a fine of five thousand dollars and costs. Several others who were engaged in conducting this particular camp, among them the son of the chief offender, were also sentenced to the penitentiary, fined, and obliged to pay the costs. Last spring six coloured people filed suits against a family by whom they had been held in a state of peonage in Ashley, Co., Ark. Their complaint set forth inhuman treatment, imprisonment in gaols in various places, that they were bound like beasts, where they were compelled to do the hardest kind of labour without receiving a single cent.

While coloured people were originally the only ones affected to any great extent by the practice of peonage in the southern States, in recent years white people in increasingly large numbers have been doomed to the same fate. For instance, only last July the chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Bradford Co., Florida, was arrested for holding in a state of peonage an orphan white girl sixteen years old. The girl declares that she was so brutally treated, she started to walk to Jacksonville, Fla. When she had gone six miles, she was overtaken, she says, by her hard task-master and forced to walk back by a road covered with water in places, so that she was obliged to wade knee deep. When she returned, she declared her master beat her with a hickory stick and showed bruises to substantiate the charge. Last October a wealthy family, living in Arkansaw, was convicted of holding two white girls from St. Louis, Mo., in peonage, and was forced to pay one of the white slaves one thousand dollars damages, and the other 625 dollars. The farmer had induced the girls to come from Missouri to Arkansaw, and then promptly returned them to the condition of slaves. In the same month of October came the startling announcement that one thousand white girls, who are rightful heiresses to valuable timber lands in the wilds of the Florida pine woods, wear men’s clothing and work side by side with coloured men who are held in slavery as well as the girls. Stories of the treatment accorded these white slave girls of Florida, which reached the ears of the Washington officials, equal in cruelty to some of the tales related in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the black depths of pine woods, living in huts never seen by civilised white men other than the bosses of the turpentine camps, girls are said to have grown old in servitude. These girls are said to be the daughters of crackers who, like fathers in pre-historic times, little value the birth of a girl, and sell the best years of their daughters’ lives to the turpentine or sulphur miners and to the lumber men for a mere song. To be discharged from one of these camps means death to an employe. Since they receive nothing for their services, their dismissal is no revenge for an angered foreman or boss. The slaves are too numerous to be beaten, and it is said to be a part of the system never to whip an employe, but invariably to shoot the doomed man or woman upon the slightest provocation, so that the others might be kept in constant subjection.

Two white men of Seymour, Indiana, went to Vance, Mississippi, not very long ago, to work for a large stave company, as they suppossed; but when they reached Vance, they were told they must go to the swamp and cut timber. When they demurred, the foreman had them arrested for securing their transportation money ‘on false pretences.’ The squire before whom they were taken fined each of them 45 dollars and costs. They were then obliged to ride twenty-three miles on horseback to Belen, the county seat, where they were kept three days and given one meal. Then they were taken to Essex, Mississippi, turned over to the owner of a plantation, placed in a stockade at night and forced to work under an armed guard. They were ordered to work out their fine at fifteen cents a day, such a contract being made by the court officers themselves. These Indiana men learned during the nine days they were in this Mississippi stockade that there were men on the plantation who had been there for ten years trying to work out their fines. Before one fine could be worked out a new charge would be trumped up to hold them. Only last August a young white man who had lived in New York returned to his home, half starved, his body covered with bruises, resulting from unmerciful beatings he had received in a State camp in North Carolina, and related a story which was horrifying in its revelations of the atrocities perpetrated upon the men confined in it. This young white man claimed that at the time he escaped there were no less than twenty others from New York unable to return to their homes, and enduring the torture to which he was subjected by inhuman bosses every day. According to this young New Yorker’s story, there were about one thousand men at work in this camp, each of whom was obliged to contribute 50 cents a week toward the support of a physician.

‘On one occasion’ (said he) ‘the foreman threw heavy stones at me, one of which struck me on the head, knocking me senseless, because I sat down to rest. For hours I lay on the cot in my shack without medical aid, and I bear the mark of that stone to-day. For refusing to work because of lack of nourishment, for our meals consisted only of a slice of bread and a glass of water, I saw the foreman take a revolver, shoot a young negro through the leg and walk away, leaving him for dead. This fellow lay for days without medical aid and was finally taken away, nobody knows where. Three Italians were killed and two others were severely injured in a fight between the foreman and labourers, and yet not one of these men was arrested. Since the post office was under the control of the men running the camp, the letters written by the New York boys to their friends and relatives never reached their destination.’

The cases just cited prove conclusively that not only does peonage still rage violently in the southern States and in a variety of forms, but that while it formerly affected only coloured people, it now attacks white men and women as well.

From renting or buying coloured men, women, and children, who had really fallen under the ban of the law, to actually trapping and stealing them was a very short step indeed, when labour was scarce and the need of additional hands pressed sore. Very recently, incredible as it may appear to many, coloured men have been captured by white men, torn from their homes and forced to work on plantations or in camps of various kinds just as truly as their fathers before them were snatched violently by slave catchers from their native African shores. Only last February (1906) two cotton planters of Houston Co., were arrested for a kind of peonage which is by no means uncommon in the South to-day. The planters needed extra help, so they captured two strong, able-bodied negroes, whom they charged with being indebted to them, and with having violated their contracts. Without resort to law they manacled the negroes and removed them to their plantations, where they forced them to work from twelve to sixteen hours a day without paying them a cent. The sheriff who arrested the planters admitted that this practice of capturing negroes when labour is needed on the plantations has prevailed for a long time in Madison Co., Texas, where the population is mainly negro. The captured men are worked during the cotton-planting season, are then released with empty pockets and allowed to return to their homes as best they can, where they remain until they are needed again, when they are recaptured.

But the methods generally used by the men who run the convict camps of the South or who own large plantations, when they need coloured labourers, are much more skilful and less likely to involve them in trouble than those which the Texans just mentioned employ. Coloured men are convicted in magistrates’ courts of trivial offences, such as alleged violation of contract or something of the kind, and are given purposely heavy sentences with alternate fines. Plantation owners and others in search of labour, who have already given their orders to the officers of the law, are promptly notified that some available labourers are theirs to command and immediately appear to pay the fine and release the convict from gaol only to make him a slave. If the negro dares to leave the premises of his employer, the same magistrate who convicted him originally is ready to pounce down upon him and send him back to gaol. Invariably poor and ignorant, he is unable to employ counsel or to assert his rights (it is treason to presume he has any) and he finds all the machinery of the law, so far as he can understand, against him. There is no doubt whatever that there are scores, hundreds perhaps, of coloured men in the South to-day who are vainly trying to repay fines and sentences imposed upon them five, six, or even ten years ago. The horror of ball and chain is ever before them, and their future is bright with no hope.

In the annual report of the “Georgia State Prison Commission,” which appeared only last June, the secretary shows that during the year 1905-06, there was a decrease of fully 10 percent in the number of misdemeanour convicts on the county chain gangs in Georgia, notwithstanding the fact that there has been an increase among felony convicts. This decrease of fully 10 percent is explained as follows: ‘Owing to the scarcity of labour, farmers who are able to do so pay the fines of able-bodied prisoners and put them on their plantations to work them out.’ ‘Had it not been for the fact that many farmers have paid the fines of the man convicted,’ explains the prison commission, ‘in order to get their labour, there is no doubt that there would be an increase instead of a decrease in the number on the misdemeanour gangs.’ This very frank admission of the open manner in which the law against peonage is deliberately broken by the farmers of Georgia is refreshing, to say the least. Surely they cannot be accused by prudish and unreasonable persons of violating the thirteenth amendment by mysterious methods hard to detect and transgressing the peonage law in secret, when the decrease in the number of misdemeanants of a sovereign State is attributed in a printed report to the fact that the farmers are buying up able-bodied negroes a bit more briskly than usual.

While the convict lease camps of no State in the South have presented conditions more shocking and cruel than have those in georgia, it is also true than in no State have more determined and conscientious efforts to improve conditions been put forth by a portion of its citizens than in that State. In spite of this fact it is well known that some of the wealthiest men in the State have accumulated their fortunes by leterally buying coloured men, women, and children, and working them nearly, if not quite, to death. Feference has already been made to the report submitted to the Georgia legislature a few years ago by Colonel Byrd, who was appointed special commissioner to investigate the convict lease camps of his State. In reviewing this report the Atlanta Constitution summed up the charges against the convict lease system as follows: ‘Colonel Byrd’s report was not written by a Northerner, who does not understand conditions in the South, or the people living in that section’ (as is so frequently asserted, when one who does not live in the sunny south dares to comment on anything which takes place below Mason’s and Dixon’s line); ‘but it is written by one of the South’s most distinguished citizens who did not deal in glittering generalities, but in facts.’ Colonel Byrd gave a truthful account of his trips to the camps, of his visits in the day time and at night, when none knew of his coming. He made it a rule, he said, to arrive at each camp unannounced, and he has tole us exactly what he saw with his eyes and heard with his ears. Of the fifty-one chain gangs visited, Colonel Byrd discovered that at least half were operated exclusively by private individuals who had practically the power of live and death over the convicts. Seldom was provision made for the separation of the sexes, either during work by day or sleep by night. Little or no attention was given to the comfort or sanitary condition of the sleeping quarters, and women were forced to do men’s work in men’s attire. The murder of the men and the outrage of the women in these camps, the political pulls by which men occupying lofty positions in the State were shielded and saved from indictment by grand juries, formed the subjects of many indignant editorials in the Atlanta Constitution.

Briefly summed up, the specific charges preferred by one of the South’s most distinguished sons who had made a most painstaking and exhaustive investigation of the convict camps of Georgia are as follow:

(1) Robbing convicts of their time allowances for good behavious. According to Colonel Byrd, there were not five camps in the State that had complied with the law requiring them to keep a book in which the good or bad conduct of each convict shall be entered daily. In the event of good conduct the law provides that a prisoner’s term of confinement shall be shortened four days during each month of service. In fifteen out of twenty-four private camps the contractors did not give the convicts a single day off for good service, nor did they even make pretense of doing so.

(2) Forcing convicts to work from fourteen to twenty hours a day.

(3) Providing them no clothes, no shoes, no beds, no heat in winter, and no ventilation whatever in single rooms in summer in which sixty convicts slept in chains.

(4) Giving them rotten food.

(5) Allowing them to die, when sick, for lack of medical attention.

(6) Outraging the women.

(7) Beating to death old men too feeble to work.

(8) Killing young men for the mere sake of killing.

(9) Suborning jurors and county officers, whose sworn duty it is to avenge the wrongdoing of guards.

It is when he struck the convicts leased to private individuals that Colonel Byrd took off his gloves, as the Atlanta Constitution well said, and dipped his pen in red ink. In these private camps Colonel Byrd found the convicts, men committed at the most for some trivial offence or perhaps none at all, had no clothes except greasy, grimy garments, which in many cases were worn to threads and were worthless as protection. These men, women, and children, for there were children only eight years old in the camps inspected by Colonel Byrd a few years go, were badly shod and in the majority of cases went barefoot the year round. In many of the pine belt gangs, where the convicts were buried in the fastness of mighty pine forests, they went from year’s end to year’s end without a taste of vegetables. Usually after the convicts returned from their fourteen hours’ work they were given raw chunks of meat to prepare for their own dinner. In the matter of buildings the report was no less severe. In a camp owned by a well-known Georgian, Colonel Byrd found eleven men sleeping in a room ten feet square and but seven feet from floor to ceiling, with no window at all, but one door which opened into another room. In another camp the convicts slept in tents which had no bunks, no mattresses, and not even a floor. Fully thirteen of the camps out of twenty-four contained neither bunks nor mattresses, and the convicts were compelled to sleep in filthy, vermin-ridden blankets on the ground. And the men were obliged to sleep chained together.

Many of the camps had no arrangements and scarely miserable excuses for means of warming the barn-like buildings in which the convicts were confined during stormy days and wintry nights. The suffering the helpless inmates were forced to endure in winter, according to Colonel Byrd’s description, must have been terrible, while in the summer they were locked into the sweat boxes without ventilation, in order that the lessee might save the expense of employing night guards.

“In two instances,” said Colonel Byrd, “I found by the bedside of sick convicts tub that had been used for days without having been emptied and in a condition that would kill anything but a misdemeanour convict.” But Colonel Byrd’s description of the insanitary condition of some of the camps and the horrors of convict life are unprintable. He calls attention to the fact that the death rate in the private camps in double that of the county camps. In one of the camps one out of every four convicts died during their incarceration. In another camp one out of every six unfortunates who had committed some slight infraction of the law, if he were guilty at all, was thrust into a camp which he never left alive. In twenty-one out of twenty0four private camps there were neither hospital buildings nor arrangements of any kind for the sick. After describing the lack of bathing facilities, which Colonel Burd says gave the convicts a mangy appearance, he refers to the inhuman beatings inflicted upon the convicts. A leather strop was the instrument of punishment found by the commissioner in all the camps, “and my observation has been,” said he, “that where the strap has been used the least the best camps exist and the best work is turned out by the convicts.”

In the camp in which the negroes looked worst the commissioner found very few reported dead. On the very date of inspection, however, there were three men, all new arrivals, locked in the filthy building, sick. They said they had been there a week, and two of them looked as though they could not recover. In another camp there was not even a stove, and the negroes has to cook on skillets over log fires in the open air. There were no beds at all and the few blankets were reeking with filth, as they were scattered about over a dirty floor.

In his report Colonel Byrd called particular attention to a few of the many cases of brutality, inhumanity, and even murder which came under his own personal observation. In the banner camp for heavy mortality the commissioner found two men with broken legs, so terribly surrounded as practically to make it impossible for them to recover. Both in this camp and in others there were numerous instances of sudden deaths among convicts, which were attributed to brain trouble and other diseases. On reliable authority Colonel Byrd learned that the guards in of the camps visited had just as short while before his arrival literally beaten one of the convicts to death and then burned his remains in his convict suit with his shackles on. “A reputable citizen,” said Colonel Byrd, “told me that he had seen the guards beating this convict, and that in their anger they had caught him by the shackles and run through the woods, dragging him along feet foremost.” He stated he had gone before the grand jury of Pulaski Co., where the camp was situated, and had sworn to these facts, but that Mr. Allison, who ran this camp, had friends on the jury and that other citizens had thought it would be best to hush the whole deplorable affair up, so as to keep it out of the newspapers and courts. The superintendent of the camp simply claimed that the murdered negro had died of dropsy and was buried in his stripes and shackles to save time.

The camp of W.H. and J.H. Griffin in Wilkes Co. was described as being “very tough.” It was in that camp that Bob Cannon, a camp guard, beat to death an aged negro named Frank McRay. The condition in this camp was too horrible to describe. The prison was an abandoned kitchen or outhouse in the yard of a large ante bellum residence. Every window in it had been removed and the openings closely boarded up and sealed. It was a small square box with not even an augur hole for air or light.

‘When the door was opened,’ said Colonel Byrd, ‘and I had recovered from the shock cause by the rush of foul air, I noticed a sick negro sitting in the room. How human beings could consign a fellow being to such an existence I cannot understand any more than I can understand how a human being could survive a night of confinement in such a den. There was an open can in the centre of the room and it looked as if it had not been emptied in a fortnight. A small bit of cornbread lay on a blanket near the negro, and that poor victim, guilty of a misdemeanour only, while sick, confined in the sweat-box dungeon, humbly asked to be furnished with a drink of water.

‘It was in this gang that I found Lizzie Boatwright, a nineteen-year-old negress sent from Tomas, Ga., for larceny. She was clad in men’s clothing, was working side by side with male convicts under a guard, cutting a ditch through a meadow. The girl was small of stature and pleasant of address, and her life in this camp must have been on of long drawn out agony, horrow, and suffering. She told me she has been whipped twice, each time by the brutal white guard who had beaten McRay to death, and who prostituted his legal right to whip into a most revolting and disgusting outrage. This girl and another woman were stripped and beaten unmercifully in plain view of the men convicts, because they stopped on the side of the road to bind a rag about their sore feet.’

Be as sanguine as one may, he cannot extract much comfort from the hope that conditions at present are much better, if any, than they were when Col. Byrd made this startling, shocking revelation, as the result of a careful investigation of these camps several years ago, since camps for misdemeanour convicts are being conducted by private individuals today just as they were then. The eight annual report of the Prison Commission, issued May 1905, shows that thirteen of the misdemeanour convict camps in the State of Georgia are worked for and in some cases by private individuals, contrary to law, who hire them directly from the authorities having them in charge after conviction with no legal warrant from the county authorities in those counties where they are worked. These convicts, according to the last year’s report from Georgia, are entirely in the custody and control of private individuals. The officials hire them in remote counties, never seeing them after delivery, and the county authorities where they are worked never exercise supervision over or control of them.

The law explicitly states that the Prison Commission of Georgia shall have general supervision of the misdemeanour convicts of the State.

‘It shall be the duty of one of the Commissioners, or in case of emergency, an officer designated by them, to visit from time to time, at least quarterly, the various camps where misdemeanour convicts of the State are at work, and shall advise with the county or municipal authorities working them, in making and altering the rules for the government control and management of said convicts…. And if the county or municipal authorities fail to comply with such rules, or the law governing misdemeanour chain gangs (reads the statute), then the Governor with the Commission shall take such convicts from said county or municipal authorities. Or the Governor and Commission in their discretion may impose a fine upon each of the said county or municipal authorities failing to comply with such rules or the law.’

But this law is easily evaded, because the county authorities where the convict is sentenced have established no chain gain, and the county authorities where the convict is work none, so that neither can be proceeded against by the commission. ‘The Prison Commission of Georgia has repeatedly called the attention of the General Assembly to this condition,’ says the report, and cannot refrain from again doing so, hoping that some means may be devised by which this violation of the law may be prevented.

Again and again efforts put forth by humane people, both in Georgia and in other southern States, to correct abuses in the camps have been frustrated by men high in authority, who belong to the State legislatures and who make large fortunes out of the wretches they abuse. Colonel Byrd called attention to the fact that the whole political machinery of the State and county stood in with the lessees, because the first money earned by the poor victims paid the cost of trial and conviction. Not a dollar of the rental for the convicts reached the county treasury, he declared, till sheriff, deputy sheriff, county solicitor, bailiffs, court clerks, justice of the peace, constables and other officials who aided to put the convict in the chain gang were paid their fees in full. ‘It is not to be supposed,’ said Colonel Byrd, ‘that these people would be in favour of destroying a system profitable to themselves.’ The following incident throws some light on this point. A coloured man was convicted of larceny and sentenced to twelve months on the chain gang. The county solicitor and sentenced to twelve months on the chain gang. The county solicitor personally took charge of him, carried him to a private camp, where the contractor gave him 100 dollars in cash for this prisoner. A few months latter it was discovered that the man was innocent of the crime. Both the judge and the jury before who he was convicted signed a petition to the Governor praying for the prisoner’s release. The county solicitor refused to sign it, however, because he had received his 100 dollars in advance and distributed it among other court officials and did not want to pay it back.

There are in Georgia at the present time, 1.500 men who were sold to the highest bidder the 1st of April, 1904, for a period of five years. The Durham Coal and Coke Co. leased 150 convicts, paying for them from 228 dollars to 252 dollars apiece per annum. The Flower Brothers Lumber Co. leased one hundred and paid 240 dollars a piece for them for a year. Hamby and Toomer leased five hundred, paying 221 dollars a head. The Lookout Mountain Coal and Coke Co. took 100 at 223.75 dollars a head.

The Chattahoochee Brick Co. secured 175 men and 223.75 dollars apiece per annum. E.J. MeRee took one hundred men and paid 220.75 dollars for each. In its report the Prison Commission points with great pride to the fact that for five years, from the 1st of April 1904, to the 1st of April, 1909, this batch of prisoners alone will pour annually into the State coffers the cross sum of 340,000 dollars with a net of 225,000 dollars, which will be distributed proportionately among the various counties for school purposes.

In 1903 a man whose barbarous treatment of convicts lease to him by Tallapoosa and Coosa Counties, Alabama, had been thoroughly exposed, and who had been indicted a number of times in the States courts, succeeded in leasing more convicts for a term of three years without the slightest difficulty, in spite of his record. The grand jury for the May term, 1903, of the District Court of the middle of Alabama returned ninety-one indictments for peonage and conspiring to hold parties in a condition of peonage. In thess ninety-nine true bills only eighteen persons were involved. Under the convict lease system of Alabama the State Board of Convicts then had no control whatever over the County convicts, and if they were leased to an inhuman man there absolutely nothing to prevent him from doing with them what he wished. During the trial of the cases in Alabama to which reference has been made, a well-known journalist declared over his signature that when the chief of the State Convict Inspecting Bureau, who had been sent to Tallapoosa Co. to investigate conditions obtaining in the penal camps there, reported that some of the largest landowners and planters in the State were engaged in the traffic of selling negroes into voluntary servitude, the Governor took no further steps to bring about the conviction of the guilty parties.

In Alabama a justice of the peace in criminal cases has power to sentence a convicted prisoner to hard labour for a term not exceeding twelve months. He is required under law to make a report of such cases to the Judge of Probate of his respective county, and to file a mittimus with the gaoler of each man who is tried before him who has been convicted and fails to give bond. As soon as a man was convicted in Tallapoosa and Coosa counties by a Justice of the Peace, who was in collusion with the party or parties who has a contract with the county for leasing the county convicts, he would turn each of them over to the lessee without committing them to the county gaol, and without filing a certificate of these convictions with the Judge of Probate. Since there was no public examiner to go over the books of the Justice of the Peace, it was easy, when they were examined by order of the grand jury, to explain away as a mistake any discrepancies upon the docket. Since there was nothing on the docket of the Justice of the Peace to show the length of time the man was to serve, he was held by the lessee, until he broke down or managed to escape. Moreover, the prosecution of the cases mentioned showed that trumped-up charges would be frequently made against negroes in the two counties mentioned for the most trivial offences, such as happened in the case of one convict who was arrested for letting one man’s mule bite another man’s corn. It also came out in the trial that when the sentence of two convicts expired at the same time they were often provoked into a difficulty with each other and then each man would be taken down before a Justice of the Peace without the knowledge of the other, and persuaded to make an affidavit against the other man for an affray. Both would then be tried before a Justice, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment at hard labour for six months, and this would go on indefinitely. It was also developed at this Alabama trial that there was often no trial at all. An affidavit would be sworn out, but never entered upon the docket, and after a mock trial the man would be sentenced for three months or six and the judgement never entered up.

If there was an examination by the grand jury of the county, there would be no way for it to secure the facts, and no one in the community seemed to think it was his duty to make any charges. Between A and B, both of whom were convicted of peonage in Alabama in 1903, it is said that there was an understanding that the men arrested in A’s neighbourhood were to be tried before C, one of B’s brothers-in-law, while those whom B wanted would be tried before one of the A’s, who was Justice of the Peace. If material ran short, the men held by the A’s were taken down and tried before B’s brother-in-law and turned over to B and vice versa. It can easily be seen that negroes--friendless, illiterate, and penniless--had no salvation at all except when the strong arm of the United States Government took them under its protection. Although the grand jury at the May term in 1903 declared that Tallapoosa and Coosa counties were the only localities in the State where peonage existed, subsequent arrests of persons who were bound over by a United States Commissioner to await the action of the United States grand jury at the December term of 1903 proved conclusively that there were many cases of peonage in Covington, Crenshaw, Coffee, Houston, and other counties in the State of Alabama.

Describing the convict lease system, as it is operated in Mississippi, one of the best attorneys in that State said:

“This institution is operated for no other purpose than to make money, and I can compare it with nothing but Dante’s Inferno. Hades is a paradise compared with the convict camps of Mississippi. If an able-bodied young man sent to one of these camps for sixty or ninety days lives to return home, he is fit for nothing the rest of his natural life, for he is a physical wreck at the expiration of his term.”

As in other States, the convict camps of Mississippi are operated by planters or others who have secured a contract from the County Board to work all prisoners sent p by the magistrates or other courts. A stipulated sum per capita is paid for the prisoners, who have to work out their fines, costs, and living expenses, receiving practically nothing for their labour. As spring comes on, officers of the law become exceedingly busy looking up cases of vagrancy or misdemeanor, so as to supply their regular patrons.

It is interesting and illuminating to see what class of men have been indicted for holding their fellows in bondage in the stockades of the South. A few years ago a leading member of the Georgia legislature, together with his brothers, operated an extensive camp in Lowndes Co. Witnesses testified before the grand jury that in this camp, owned by a member of the legislature, the brutalities practised were too revolting to describe. It is also interesting to know that a member of that same family was awarded 100 convicts on the 1st of April 1904, and this lease is good for five years. Witnesses testified that this member of the Georgia legislature operated a camp in which prisoners were stripped and unmercifully lashed by the whipping bosses for the slightest offence. It was also alleged that this lawmaker for a sovereign State and his brothers were accustomed to go into counties adjoining Lowndes, pay the fines of the misdemeanour convicts, carry them into their Ware county camp and there keep them indefinitely.

The grand jury claimed that at least twenty citizens of Ware Co. were held as slaves in the camp owned by the brothers of whom reference has been made, long after their terms had expired. An ex-sheriff of Ware Co. and a well-known attorney of Georgia pleaded guilty not very long ago to the charge of holding citizens in a condition of peonage, and were each fined 1,000 dollars (500 of which was remitted) by Judge Emory Speer. A sheriff in Alabama was recently indicted for peonage. Manufacturers of Georgia and railroad contractors in Tennessee have recently been indicted for holding men and women involuntary servitude. The chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Bradford Co., Fla., was indicted not long ago for the same offence. In March 1905 the Federal Grand Jury indicted the city of Louisville and the superintendent of the workhouse for violating the federal statute against peonage.

There is no doubt whatever that every misdemeanour convict in the chain gangs and convict lease camps in the South operated by private individuals could appeal to the courts and secure release. Incarceration of misdemeanour convicts in these camps is as much disobedience of the laws as the original offence which led to conviction. There is no doubt that every misdemeanour camp in the southern States which is controlled by private individuals is a nest of illegality. Every man employing misdemeanour convicts for private gain is a law-breaker. Every county official who leases or permits to be leased a misdemeanour convict for other than public work transgresses one of the plainest statutes on the law books of some of the States in which the offence is committed, and violates an amendment to the constitution of the United States besides. There is no lack of law by which to punish the guilty, but they are permitted to perpetrate fearful atrocities upon the humane people in this country who know little or nothing about the methods pursued in the chain gangs, the convict lease system and the contract labour system, which are all children of one wicked and hideous mother, peonage.

The negro was armed with the suffrage by just and humane men, because soon after the War of the Rebellion the legislatures of the southern States began to enact vagrant or peonage laws, the intent of which was to reduce the newly emancipated slaves to a bondage almost as cruel, if not quite as cruel, as that from which they had just been delivered. After the vote had been given the negro, so that he might use it in self-defence, the peonage laws became a dead letter for a time and lay dormant, so to speak, until disfranchisement laws were enacted in nearly every State of the South. The connection between disfranchisement and peonage is intimate and close. The planter sees the negro robbed of his suffrage with impunity, with the silent consent of the whole country, and he knows that political preferment and great power are the fruits of this outrage upon a handicapped and persecuted race. He is encouraged, therefore, to apply the same principle for profit’s sake to his business affairs. The politician declares that the negro is unfit for citizenship and violently snatches from his rights. The planter declares the negro is lazy and forces him into involuntary servitude contrary to the law. Each tyrant employs the same process of reasoning to justify his course.


Terrell, Mary Church. “Peonage in the United States.” Mary Church Terrell Papers. Library of Congress. August 1907.