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Convict Leasing System: History & Explanation

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the decades after the demise of slavery, Southern states sought to once again control black labor through the convict leasing system. Learn about the features and human costs of this system, and then check yourself with a quiz.

The End of Slavery and the Rise of Black Codes

Imagine being forced to work for a logging company. Prior to this, you found yourself in jail on a dubious minor charge. The government then hired you out to work in the dense forests of the Georgia swamps. You received no pay and were shackled together with other unlucky laborers during the work day. At night, you found yourself sleeping outside in a huge iron cage with dozens of other loggers. There was little food and water, and the guards were merciless. The conditions caused a quarter of the loggers to die in the swamp.

Imagine forced labor, logging in a swamp.
swamp

No, this wasn't the Southern slavery of the pre-Civil War period. This was the convict leasing system of post-Civil War period. These two labor systems have much in common, and both stemmed from the desire of planters and Southern governments to control black labor.

Immediately after the demise of slavery, most Southern states passed Black Codes with the goal of putting former slaves back to work. Black Codes operated in a variety of ways. Some states administered extremely high taxes on occupations other than agriculture. Others passed vagrancy laws, stipulating that people without written evidence of employment could be forced into unpaid labor on plantations. And yet another type of Black Codes were apprenticeship laws, calling for orphans or other children of 'ineffective' parents to be sent to work for planters. As the name implies, the clear target of such laws were African Americans.

The Convict Leasing System

During the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), the federal government stepped in and abolished Black Codes in the South. The convict leasing system arose to fill the labor void. In most of the South, state governments began leasing out prisoners to various private businesses, such as coal-mining companies, railroads, planters, or logging companies.

This system was a great deal for Southern state governments, which derived income from renting out the prisoners to work. Also, the government avoided the costs of housing and feeding the convicts. This system was also a boon to the private companies, which received cheap and exploitable labor. Like with Black Codes, it was no secret the convict leasing system targeted blacks. Most historians agree that around 90% of the convicts in the system were African American.

Convicts at work, 1903
convicts

The actual experience of the laborers in the convict leasing system is difficult to imagine. With little food and water, and only scraps of clothes hanging on bony bodies, the workers labored in mucky and oppressive environments like swamps, sweltering cotton fields, and mountainous railway passes. They were chained together by day, abused by sadistic guards, and spent their nights confined in portable cages. Workers in the convict leasing system were literally worked to death in some instances. In several Southern states the mortality rate among convict laborers was 25%.

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