Race and Hard Labor in Georgia, 1890-1908

Scott Libson
Emory University
posted February 22, 2012
revised February 25, 2012

In the years following the Civil War, Georgia and other southern states leased convicted criminals to private individuals and corporations. Lessees forced the convicts to perform the least desirable labor, paying the states pennies per day for the privilege. States avoided responsibility for housing, feeding, and protecting the convicts, turning a government expense into a source of income. Opponents of convict leasing, though, feared the financial disincentive to rehabilitate criminals would result in miscarriages of justice and the creation of hardened criminals. To defend themselves, states produced extensive statistics and reports in attempts to demonstrate the financial and moral benefits of convict leasing.  In recent years, historians have used these statistics to interpret convict leasing as either racial or economic exploitation or some combination of the two.  In Slavery by Another Name, for example, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, Douglas Blackmon argues that emancipation from slavery was “hallow” since convict leases allowed white southerners to “enslave” African Americans at will. Alex Lichtenstein takes a very different position. Far from a relic of the past, Lichtenstein argues that the lease served as a vehicle for southern modernization by using forced cheap labor to build rail lines, mine coal for energy, or work in other dangerous and undesirable trades.[1] The meaning of the convict lease, therefore, continues to be a subject of debate.

Data visualization and exploratory data analysis provide tools for demonstrating the ways in which the convict lease functioned as a mechanism of white supremacy or class exploitation. Since states required lessees to keep statistics about their convicts, exploratory data analysis allows the historian to better understand the victims of this system through comparisons of their ages, races (or perceived races), crimes, sentences, and other factors.

Georgia’s system of punishment was clearly racialized by the ideology of the black criminal.[2] African American were sent to labor camps at a disproportionate rate: for the four camps examined in this study,  African American averaged 90% of the population, although they were only 46% of the general population. But racial bias also appears more subtly, in areas amenable to data visualization. The average age of convicts was 28.3 years for Euro-Americans and 26.1 for African American, a relatively minor difference. A box plot of ages by race (Figure 1), reveals something else. While the majority of convicts for both Euro- and African Americans were in their twenties or early thirties, the range of African American ages was much greater than that of Euro-Americans.

These data visually demonstrate the white supremacist ideology of the South around the turn of the twentieth century. While certain crimes correlate very closely with particular sentences (such as murder with life sentences) regardless of race, southerners were clearly far more willing to incarcerate young and old African Americans than young and old Euro-Americans. The white supremacist ideology conceived of African Americans as natural laborers but also as lazy, so forced labor at nearly any age supposedly suited African Americans’ natural inclinations. The type of crime category demonstrates a particularly interesting example of this ideology. While the courts only sent two Euro-Americans over forty to hard labor as a result of monetary crimes, they sent ten African Americans, one of whom was nearly seventy. Figure 2 is a similar box plot that groups convicts by race and type of crime.

The plot shows different racial disparities by type of crime. The range of ages is enormous for property crime, with African-American convicts ranging from 10 to 68. The range is less dramatic for murder. But the plot for sex crimes and violent crimes by population medians are sharply off: African American convicts were much younger than Euro-Americans. Clearly race was a powerful factor in determining who was sent to labor camps.

Although scholars have frequently argued for the racist nature of the convict lease system, data visualization articulates that thesis most easily and clearly. In addition, use of camp records rather than state records provides a more detailed picture of the convicts themselves and allows the historian to read beyond the rhetoric of state politics. Without exploratory data analysis, though, these statistics lack coherence.

Works Cited


Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Lichtenstein, Alex. Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. London: Verso, 1996.

[1] Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008); Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (London: Verso, 1996).

[2] Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), esp. 52-53; Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (London: Verso, 1996), esp. 21.

Data (xlsx)

Data are from Southern Lumber, Maxwell’s Camp, Pitts Camp, and Arlington Lumber for persons sentenced 1879-1909, but the vast majority were sentenced between 1890 and 1908 . Crime categories are
  • Violent crime: Attempted Murder, Accessory to Murder, Accessory with Intent to Murder, Manslaughter, Voluntary Manslaughter, Involuntary Manslaughter,  Mayhem, Shooting at Another, Unlawful Shooting, Shooting, Stabbing, Robbery by Force.
  • Sex crime: Rape, Attempted Rape, Accessory to Rape, Bigamy, Bestiality, Seduction, Incest
  • Property crime: Burglary, Cow Stealing, Cattle Stealing, Hog Stealing, Horse Stealing, Robbery, Simple Larceny, Forgery, Arson, Highway Robbery, Larceny, Obstructing Railroad Track, Car Breaking, Larceny after Trust, Receiving Stolen Goods, Stealing Street Buggy

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