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June 30 - Convict Lease Ends in Alabama

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The Rick Smith Show Logo  fiber_manual_record  Jul 1st, 2021

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On this day in labor history, the year was 1928.


That was the day the state of Alabama outlawed the convict lease system that had been in practice for decades.


Slave masters throughout the South had routinely loaned out enslaved people before slavery was finally abolished.


The convict lease system continued this practice, as the South worked to rebuild in a rush of rapid industrial growth after the Civil War.


African-Americans found themselves increasingly subject to sweeps by local and state authorities that coincided with harvest time or when labor agents arrived, looking to man the coalmines.


Many were convicted on trumped up charges and shipped off to prison.


Once there, they were leased to private industries and dispatched mostly to coal mines near Birmingham.


By 1890, the state profited $164,000 a year.


By 1912, prison mining brought in over $1 million in state revenues.


In the PBS documentary, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon and other scholars note that prisoners could be driven in a way that earlier enslaved workers and free labor couldn’t.


Convict labor served to depress wages, curtail union activity, organizing and strikes.


These workers could also be worked practically to death and easily replaced.


Progressive reformers, Socialist Party leaders and UMW District 20 would wage an unrelenting war against the convict lease system for years.


Even the 1911 Banner Mine explosion that killed 123 African American prisoners couldn’t outlaw the practice.


Finally, newly elected Governor Bibb Graves yielded to the public outcry that condemned the practice as a relic of barbarism.


He also ceded to workers demands for jobs.


Graves subsequently put prisoners to work on chain gangs building roads throughout the state, making Alabama the last state to abolish the convict lease system.

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