Thursday, September 8, 2011

Enslavement After Emancipation

On the local level, most southern towns and municipalities passed strict vagrancy laws to control the influx of black migrants and homeless people who poured into these urban communities in the years after the Civil War. In Mississippi, for example, whites passed the notorious "Pig Law" of 1876, designed to control vagrant blacks at loose in the community. This law made stealing a pig an act of grand larceny subject to punishment of up to five years in prison. Within two years, the number of convicts in the state penitentiary increased from under three hundred people to over one thousand.
It was this law in Mississippi that turned the convict lease system into a profitable business, whereby convicts were leased to contractors who sub-leased them to planters, railroads, levee contractors, and timber jobbers.
Almost all of the convicts in this situation were blacks, including women, and the conditions in the camps were horrible in the extreme. It was not uncommon to have a death rate of blacks in the camps at between 8 to 18 percent. In a rare piece of journalism, the Jackson Weekly Clarion, printed in 1887 the inspection report of the state prison in Mississippi:
"We found [in the hospital section] twenty-six inmates, all of whom have been lately brought there off the farms and railroads, many of them with consumption and other incurable diseases, and all bearing on their persons marks of the most inhuman and brutal treatment. Most of them have their backs cut in great wales, scars and blisters, some with the skin pealing off in pieces as the result of severe beatings.
Their feet and hands in some instances show signs of frostbite, and all of them with the stamp of manhood almost blotted out of their faces.... They are lying there dying, some of them on bare boards, so poor and emaciated that their bones almost come through their skin, many complaining for the want of food.... We actually saw live vermin crawling over their faces, and the little bedding and clothing they have is in tatters and stiff with filth.

As a fair sample of this system, on January 6, 1887, 204 convicts were leased to McDonald up to June 6, 1887, and during this six months 20 died, and 19 were discharged and escaped and 23 were returned to the walls disabled and sick, many of whom have since died."

(Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay, by Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D.)

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