Same thing as what is typed below.
For all the brutality, deprivation and misery of slavery, the
slave was the protected property of another. Owners bought Slaves as an investment, and thus had an interest in keeping them alive and seeing that they reproduced. The lessee, on the other hand, had no such protection. If they died of malnutrition or disease, they were simply replaced, at no cost to the leaser, by a new convict. The life of the convict was expendable. As the system of convict lease expanded from a local system to a state and multi-state system, the impersonality and brutality of the system increased exponentially. The labor required of convicts also changed as the South struggled to industrialize during reconstruction, and later as it became the main producer of many high demand raw goods, such as turpentine, at the beginning of the First World War. Chain gang labor replaced plantation labor for the majority of convicts; they were put to work mining coal, tapping turpentine and laying railroad. The free labor of Blacks because of the convict lease program was the driving force behind the economic growth of the South after emancipation just as it had always been.
Convict lease was highly profitable. Not only did it provide an unlimited source of free labor to any and all Southern industry, thus making big money for the owners of such industry, Convict Leasing was profitable in and of itself. In much that same way that private contracts work today, that State only leased its convicts to one or two well connected brokers. âThe exclusive right to lease state convicts quickly became Mississippiâs most prized political contract. â These Brokers served as middlemen. They leased convicts from the state under contract, and then sub-leased them as worker for a higher price. Oshinsky provides the example of Colonel Jones S. Hamilton, who won the contract for Mississippiâs convicts in 1876. He leased them from the state for $1.10 a month, but instead of working them himself, he placed an ad in the newspaper and sub-leased them for $9 month to any interested party.
"From a business stand point, the subleasing was ideal, it plugged the major weaknesses of the old system: the high fixed cost of labor. Under the sublease, and employer was not stuck with a set number of prisoners over a long period of time. He did not have to feed, clothe and guard them when there was little work to be done. He could now lease convicts according to his specific, or season needs."
With the convict lease system an employer could lease convicts only when they needed them. Consequently, the demand for convicts varied according to the production seasons. And so too, did the crime rate. Demand for convicts varied by season and the number of arrest of Blacks varied according to the demand for convicts. Thus planting season, or the start of a major public works project would be accompanied by a so called âcrime wave,â resulting in the mass arrest of as many Blacks as were needed to fill the ranks.
In Tallahassee, for example, Leon County officials made a deal to lease all of their convicts to the Putnam Lumber company the result was predictable, a minor âcrime waveâ hit Leon County. Vagrancy arrests shot up by almost 800 percent in the seven months following the Putnam Lumber deal.
These âcrime waves,â did not actually see any increase in the number of crimes, only an increase in the number of arrests from petty crimes of all sorts. They were accompanied, as they are today, by much hype and propaganda, aimed at stoking the fire of fear and anger that white society felt toward the âBlack criminal.â Though the vast majority of convicts were men, because they best fulfilled the market demand for manual labor, women and children where also caught in the fray.
Oshinsky gives a powerful example of the co-dependent relationship between industry and âcrime.â
"A journalist in 1907 described an all-too-common arrangement between a local sheriff and a turpentine operator in desperate need of men. âTogetherâ he wrote, âthey made up a list of some eight *****âs known to both as good husky fellows, capable of a fair daysâ work.â The sheriff was promised five dollars plus expenses for each ***** he âlanded.â Within three weeks, he had arrested all eighty of them on various petty chargesâgambling, disorderly conduct, assault, and the like. The larger part of the list was gathered with a dragnet at Saturday-night shindies, and hailed to the local justice, who was in on the game.â"
The system of convict lease, rooted in racist laws and made possible by the collusion of law makers, law enforcement, and local industry, was so profitable that it persisted for many years despite rising disgust and opposition on the part of the populous. The South was rebuilt through an enormous publics works effort, made reality in the hands of convicts. The railroads were laid, the coal minded, and the turpentine tapped. As the nation geared up for World War I, all of the raw materials necessary were supplied by corporations that relied on convict labor to do the deadly work without pay.
While it is difficult to pinpoint the end of convict leasing, it certainly experienced substantial decline because of the confluence of economic and moral concerns. Convict lease came under fire from humanitarians who exposed the death, disease and cruelty that dominated the system. As resistance to the system grew, it also became economically less viable. Oregon was the first state to abolish convict lease. As the economy changed and the moral outrage mounted it was gradually abolished on a state level Alabama was the last state to make convict leasing illegal in 1928. This end date is deceptive however, because when states abolished convict lease, it only applied to convicts in state penitentiaries, not those in county jails.
In 1923 Florida ended the Convict lease system after the brutal (though not uncommon) death of convict Martin Talbert âbecame front page news across the country. â Like elsewhere, the abolition of convict lease in Florida did little to change the system, because with state convicts off limits, the populations of county jails simply expanded to fill the void. In Florida the turpentine industry fueled the demand for convicts. So the âendâ of convict lease was not 1923, but rather convict lease declined slowly, along with the demand for turpentine, after the end of World War II.
The state profited directly from the leasing of their convicts to a âBrokerâ who today would be called a private contractor.
The American private companies and corporations profited immensely because they had a reliable source of unpaid labor.
In much the same ways as slavery, the bodies of the convicts were âmined,â not just for their labor but for every potentially profitable element. In 1871, the convicts of the state of Tennessee were contracted out to a single man, Thomas OâConner, a professional card gambler, with some important political connections. These convicts were put to work across the state mining coal and laying train tracks. âEach morning their urine was collected and sold to local tanneries by the barrel. When they died, their unclaimed bodies were purchased by the Medical School at Nashville for the students to practice on. â
 The dual system of sharecropping and convict lease
The convict lease system, which re-instituted de-facto slavery under a new name processed large numbers of recently freed blacks and their offspring born to âfreedomâ. The vast majority of prisoners who were leased out died. In the history of convict lease in Mississippi, no convict leased to the chain gang ever lived more than seven years. The remaining free Black population was processed through the complementary and parallel system of sharecropping.
Much has been written about how sharecropping, also called debt-peonage, re-enslaved many newly freed Blacks. The passage of the Black Codes made it illegal for an ex-slave to be unemployed. The result was that unemployed Blacks were either to sent to prison, and then put to work through the Convict lease system, or in an attempt to avoid prison, went to work anywhere they could. Thus, may Blacks sought employment doing plantation labor, often on the same farm they had previously worked as slaves. The function and conditions of Sharecrop Farming are widely understood, so I will attempt only a rough summary here.
Sharecrop farmers were loaned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the owner a share of the crop at the end of the season. Often the planterâs share was 1/3, though sometime it was much higher. The sharecropper was required to purchase seed, tools and fertilizer, as well as food and clothing, on credit at the plantation store. When the harvest came, the sharecrop farmer would harvest the whole crop and sell his or her portion to the planter at a fixed price. By the time all the debts owed and proceeds made were tallied up the farmer was lucky to break even. The planter set the price of the crop, and all the books were kept and tallied by the planter, such that there was plenty of opportunity to fudge the books, guaranteeing that the sharecropper never made any profit.
In The Yazoo River Congressman Frank E. Smith recounted the story of a shrewd tenant who is told on Settlement day that his cotton proceeds had exactly equaled his debts:
TENANT: Then I donât owe you nuthin, Capâm?
PLANTER: No, you donât owe me a cent.
TENANT: Anâ you donât owe me nuthin'?
PLANTER: You saw the books.
TENANT: Then whatâs I gonna do with them two bales I ainât done hauled in yet?
PLANTER: Well, what do you know! Just look at that! Hereâs two pages stuck together. Iâll have to add this whole account up again.
The scene is funny but sadly true. Often planters were not even that generous, and if it was desired that a sharecropper stay on another season, the books could easily be made to come out with him in debt. Thus the sharecropper was often forced to continue working on the same plantation because of a supposed debt. If the most commonly understood attribute of slavery is that one can be bought and sold, sharecroppers were indeed re-enslaved, as they were sometimes âsoldâ to another planter willing to pay the amount of their debt. Together Convict Lease and Sharecrop Farming ensured that the majority of Blacks remained in slavery, either because of a fabricated debt, or as punishment for a petty crime. Convict Lease, and Sharecrop Farming were two halves of the same system, a system that returned the majority of Black Americanâs to slavery and plantation labor within months of their supposed emancipation