Criminalizing Blackness: Prisons, Police and Jim Crow

Episode 15, Season 4

After emancipation, aspects of the legal system were reshaped to maintain control of Black lives and labor. Historian Robert T. Chase outlines the evolution of convict leasing in the prison system. And Historian Brandon T. Jett explores the commercial factors behind the transition from extra-legal lynchings to police enforcement of the color line. We examine the connections between these early practices and the more familiar apparatuses of today’s justice system—from policing to penitentiaries. 

 

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Transcript

Bethany Jay: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Their names are familiar to anyone who watches the news, reads a newspaper, or scrolls through social media. They have become some of the most prominent examples of both the deadly police violence used against Black Americans and the systemic racism that has allowed it to go relatively unchecked. And they have become synonymous with the declaration and the movement “Black Lives Matter.”

Lawn signs, hashtags, t-shirts, and other ephemera proclaiming Black Lives Matter have become prominent in our communities, at sporting events, and in our online profiles. And, largely because of the public attention Black Lives Matter has brought to the issue, street art and memorials depicting the victims of police violence have appeared across the United States and around the world.

The hashtag Black Lives Matter first appeared after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a civilian who shot Trayvon Martin in 2012 and was acquitted on murder charges. It gained traction and visibility after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Today, the movement is guided by the mission “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” While their declaration, Black Lives Matter, is known around the world, the names Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—the three Black women who created the Black Lives Matter Movement—are far less familiar.

On July 13, 2013, when Patrisse Marie Cullors posted to Facebook: “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. I am done. I am so done. Trayvon, you are loved infinitely #blacklivesmatter,” she was, in fact, reigniting a movement—a fight against vigilantism and the legal system that allowed it—a fight that was started by Ida B. Wells during Jim Crow.

Like the founders of Black Lives Matter, Wells’ movement began in response to vigilante violence. She was already an activist when her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward owned the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1892, a group of white men attacked the People’s Grocery Company because it was taking business away from white-owned grocery stores. During the attack, the owners of People’s Grocery defended their store, shooting three police officers that were part of the crowd. Arrested and brought to jail, Moss, McDowell, and Steward were later targeted by a lynch-mob and murdered. Wells spoke out. She advised Black Memphians to leave the city, saying “There is… only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” As a result of her journalism, Wells was forced to move to Chicago for her own safety.

But she didn’t end her crusade against lynching. From Chicago, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. In this tract, Wells brought together data from lynchings across the country and exposed the lie that these acts were, as one article in the Memphis paper, The Commercial, put it: “the most prompt, speedy, and extreme punishment” to “hold in check the horrible and beastial propensities of the Negro race.”

In response, Wells argued, “…the butcheries of Black men at Barnwell, S.C., Carrolton, Miss., Waycross, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn., have gone on; also the flaying alive of a man in Kentucky, the burning of one in Arkansas, the hanging of a fifteen-year-old girl in Louisiana, a woman in Jackson, Tenn., and one in Hollendale, Miss., until the dark and bloody record of the South shows 728 Afro-Americans lynched during the past eight years. Not fifty of these were for political causes; the rest were for all manner of accusations from that of rape of white women, to the case of the boy Will Lewis who was hanged at Tullahoma, Tenn., last year for being drunk and "sassy" to white folks.”

Wells continued to expose vigilante violence and call out a legal system that either turned a blind eye or actively supported it, saying, “[The South’s] white citizens are wedded to any method however revolting, any measure however extreme, for the subjugation of the young manhood of the race. They have cheated him out of his ballot, deprived him of civil rights or redress therefor in the civil courts, robbed him of the fruits of his labor, and are still murdering, burning and lynching him.”

“The result is a growing disregard of human life… especially where an Afro-American is concerned.”

In other words, Black Lives Matter.

I’m Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’re offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.

We know that talking about the realities of the Jim Crow era can be emotional and complex. And this podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges. This episode contains graphic descriptions of racial violence, and we will discuss strategies for sharing this difficult content with your students.

In this episode, historians Robert Chase and Brandon Jett discuss the Jim Crow era legal systems that evolved to maintain control of Black lives and labor. They’ll also explore the connections between these early mechanisms of control and the more modern and familiar legal apparatuses of the justice system, from policing to penitentiaries.

And we’ll begin by taking a closer look at convict leasing. Dr. Chase is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America. He spoke with my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries about what his research uncovered.

I’m so glad you can join us. Let’s get started.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Slavery was a system designed to exploit the labor of African people. And when slavery ended in 1865, the desire to control the labor of African Americans did not dissipate. But instead, new systems emerged to replace the labor controls that were lost once the institution of slavery was abolished. I'm really excited to welcome to the podcast Dr. Robert Chase, my man Robert, to help us make sense of what came after the institution of slavery and how that connects explicitly and specifically to the criminal justice system. Robert, welcome aboard.

Robert T. Chase: Thank you, Hasan. I'm so glad to be here. I always love being in conversation with you. And this is such a pertinent topic both to today's struggles, but also to how we understand our past and indeed our troubled past. And I love the content of the show, so thank you for having me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Glad to have you. And let's dive right in. Help us understand what comes after emancipation.

Robert T. Chase: What comes after emancipation is complicated. Historians have made arguments about a rupture, whether or not what comes after emancipation is a moment of capitalist development. And they've also made arguments about it being actually a seamless shift to a new kind of slavery. And I think one of the things to understand about convict leasing that's really critical is that it was both. It was both a system of a return to enslaving African American people through coerced labor and through a system where the criminal justice system took them from their families, took them from their homes and from their communities, and into a coerced labor. And it was also a system designed for the modernization of the American South and for its development along capitalist lines, along industrial lines. And of course, because it was bound up in very important changes in the law, in the criminal justice system and in the constitutional law, it also meant that it was operating within the framework not of slavery, even as it replicated it, but of criminalization. And so it immediately criminalized Blackness, as the historian Khalil Muhammad has written about in the north in Philadelphia. But in the American South, the very moment of emancipation is dealing with problems in the South, having to do with finances, having to do with emancipation, having to do with a mobile African American community who wants to move off the plantation and into something new—as a politicized body of people who had fought for their own emancipation by leaving the plantation during the Civil War—and then attempts to push them back into a system of oppression through the auspices of a new criminal justice system.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned convict leasing as being one of the core components of this new criminal justice system that is designed in large part to control Black labor. You know, my experience in the classroom is that when I introduce students to convict leasing, they've never heard of it. And I have to back up and explain just in very rudimentary terms, what it actually was. How do you define what convict leasing was? Could you provide a broad definition that would help teachers explain it to students? And then I want us to talk about the legal aspects of it and how it evolves over time.

Robert T. Chase: It is the selling of prison labor, principally African Americans, to private interests. The state was creating new laws that criminalize African American people for a variety of small offenses, such as vagrancy. And they ratchet up the cost of those laws. For instance, the Pig Law in Mississippi, something that had been a misdemeanor, taking a pig or something off the local farm and making that a felony with a long prison sentence. But once given a prison sentence, they were then sold to private interests. Their labor was sold, and in fact, it could be sold from one private company to the next or person, from coal mines, to road building, to the railroad construction in the American South to steel manufacture.

And convict leasing is not just in the American South. The North leased prisoners as well, but it begins first in Alabama in 1846, and it lasts really until 1928 when Herbert Hoover was vying for the White House. And it did exist in both the north and the South, but there are some differences. Alex Lichtenstein, in his work on the convict lease in Georgia, argued that, "Only in the south did the state give up its control of the prison population to the contractor. And only in the south did the physical penitentiary become synonymous with private enterprise." So that by the end of reconstruction in 1877, every former Confederate state, except Virginia, had adopted the practice of leasing—largely African American prisoners—into private hands. So it's a 50-year moment in the criminal justice system of leasing, African American largely, prisoners into private hands, private companies from, well, beginning in the mid 1860s, but really accelerating in the 1870s until the early 1920s.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But how, Robert, is this even legally possible given the 13th Amendment?

Robert T. Chase: The 13th Amendment has that exception clause that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…" And it's within that loophole of the exception clause that allowed states to then make someone what became known as "a slave of the state." As the Virginia decision, Ruffin v. Commonwealth declared in 1871 that "a convicted felon is, for the time being, a slave of the state. He is civilly dead and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man." And out of that came a whole series of laws that accelerated the criminal justice system. So, for instance, a minor theft like picking a strawberry, for instance, something that was kind of open and common during the system of enslavement, where slaves lived in an agricultural space, where they might have access to some of the agricultural goods and products of the plantation. So picking a strawberry in that context might not create punishment. But in this moment of emancipation, picking that same strawberry could land them into the system of convict leasing.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you explain a little bit more about what you mean and what scholars mean by the criminalization of Blackness and how that evolves from the era of slavery into this new era of freedom?

Robert T. Chase: It's important to understand that convict leasing was initiated almost immediately after emancipation. It traversed the moment of enslavement to freedom and then re-enslavement through the criminal justice system. Because the system was so potentially profitable and revolutionary for modernizing the South, there was an effort to look for any opportunity to re-enslave or re-coerce Black labor. We can look at the Black Codes, for instance, passed immediately after emancipation. These restricted African American people's access and rights to own property, conduct business, buy and lease land or move freely through public space, because public space itself was criminalized. And that was a contentious space, because the first thing that people who had been enslaved wanted to do was to reclaim their mobility, to move off the plantation where they had been. But planters were very interested in securing their labor through labor contracts. And if one didn't sign those labor contracts, that might get one a prison sentence. And that prison sentence would be then leased to these private companies.

Vagrancy laws criminalized public space, and any African American man out of work, for instance. Or failure to pay a tax, could be counted as vagrancy. Other laws included things like loud talk in a public place, engaging in sexual activity, or riding a freight car without a ticket, challenging employers without permission.

If you don't mind, I'm just going to read a little bit of this Mississippi Black Code: "That all freedmen, free negroes and mulattos in the State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night [time], and all white persons assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattos… shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction [thereof] shall be fined.” And in the case of a freed man, free negro or mulatto, $50. A white man, $200." But what's going on in this Black Code? One, they're criminalizing the idea of vagrancy, which simply means being in public space or moving in public space. They're also criminalizing the association of white folks and Black folks in that public space. And so that is one of those examples of how this criminality worked.

Another that's often cited is what's known as the Pig Law, passed in 1866 in Mississippi. And this redefined grand larceny offenses that had previously been minor misdemeanors, punishable now by five years, to include minor theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more. This Pig Law had a particular effect. Arrests quadrupled from 272 in 1874 to 1072 in 1877. So it lengthened the stay of someone in the convict lease system and made more severe the penalty. But in practice, these laws that were passed about loud talk, engaging in sexual activity, abrogating a lifetime labor contract, riding a freight car without a ticket, how they were practiced and how they were policed was targeted and focused on the Black community with the knowledge that incarcerating someone who was African American, one, meant that you had cheap labor for the convict lease system. But two, it also meant that the criminal justice system itself, through the process of criminalization and through the laws itself, was upholding the creation of the Jim Crow, white supremacist space of racial oppression.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the cornerstones of the institution of slavery was the use of violence. Do we see a similar exercise or use of violence when it comes to convict leasing?

Robert T. Chase: Sadly, I think it is impossible to root out violence from the criminal justice system. Violence is the very edifice that upholds the criminal justice system, and we see that particularly through the convict lease system. First, let me say that the daily labor itself was a punishment all of its own. Convicts were woken up at 4 a.m. in the morning, immediately put to work. That work was dangerous—in mines, on industrial lines—where during slavery, the loss of an enslaved person was also the loss of someone's commodity, someone's access to credit. A slave owner would not want to have one of their enslaved people die from their labor. That would be a loss of their wealth. But within convict leasing, they adopted the idea, as one lessee said, "One dies, get another." Also, the title of Matthew Mancini's book on convict leasing.

The death rates among leased convicts were ten times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In the first two years that Alabama leased its prisoners, nearly 20% of them died. And the following year, mortality rose to 35%. The fourth, nearly 45% of them died, almost half. As one convict said, "This place is nine kinds of hell and suffering death every day here." Of the five-and-a-half decades, 55 years of convict leasing, historians estimate that as many as 30,000 people died. So life became less valuable.

Violence happened within the individual camps. There were overseers. There were whippings, the lash, as they called them. They called the lash "a certain kind of medicine" to push them back into labor. There also were torture. One was called 'the come along,' which are steel bracelets that are snapped onto the wrists and fastened by chain to a small metal crossbar. And the lessees, the owner of these convicts, could twist the crossbar and twist a man's arms into a knot like a pretzel. And this would force him to his knees and potentially break his bones. Or the chains, when a prisoner was placed in handcuffs attached to a 30-inch long steel bar, which was then hoisted with a pulley until the man hung clear of the floor and he was suspended, stretched out. There was another really sort of medieval design called the 'alakazan degree,' in which a victim's ankles were cuffed behind his back and his feet drawn upward until his entire body was in the shape of a bow. And this was an incredible amount of torture. One convict said, "The intense agony inflicted by this method of torture is indescribable. Every muscle throbs with pain."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, what you describe is just, is just horrifying. Often when we think about convict leasing, we think about men and boys being caught up in the system. But they certainly weren't the only ones. Women get trapped in the convict leasing system as well, Black women in particular. Could you say a little bit about their experiences, both what they were and perhaps how they differed in some respects from the experiences of their male counterparts?

Robert T. Chase: They comprised a small number of the convict labor. Black women in Georgia, for instance, comprised about 2 to 3% over the years 1873 to 1908. But importantly, they represented 98% of all leased women prisoners. So the process of leasing a woman prisoner was exclusively meant for Black women. They, in some cases, did the same work as men. They worked in iron mills. In some cases, they were forced to dress as men as well. The historian Talitha LeFlouria calls that denial of their womanhood a kind of a social rape. They also, of course, experienced medical terror, as LeFlouria calls it, in that they had to have their bodies inspected. And they were stripped often in front of other male prisoners. And they were housed alongside of the men, in many occasions. In Georgia in 1874, one keeper of the convicts wrote this, "We have on hand about twenty-five female convicts, one of the number white, apportioned promiscuously to the several leases and employed as cooks, washer, women and at other light work in and about the prison quarters. They have separate lockups at night and with strict orders to keep them apart from the males. Still, the guard and trustees come in contact with them. And the result is there are children born in the penitentiary." And the legislative committee found similarly that, "In some of the camps, men and women chained together and occupying the same sleeping bunks. The result is that there are now in the penitentiary twenty-five," and this is their term, "bastard children, ranging from three months to five years of age. And many of the women are now far advanced in pregnancy."

So that also meant that there were children born in bondage, some perhaps of a consensual relationship, but more often than not a forced relationship of sexual violence. It's difficult to teach that, but important to talk about it because that was an experience that had broader cultural and societal ramifications for it did that association we've been talking about of associating Blackness, in this case Black womanhood, with criminality. And uplifting white womanhood as a more Victorian, high-minded ideal, as these white women who may have been convicted of a similar crime would almost never be placed in a convict lease camp. And then finally, women received what these historians have called sexualized rituals of punishment, where they would be stripped down and forced to be nude in front of the male prisoners. And only women would take this position. They would force their head down to the ground between their legs and then whip them in that position. They also experience different kinds of torture arrangements. For instance, the ‘blind mule,’ where a prisoner would have a rope tied around a girl's wrist and then pulled onto a pulley, quite horrible, and hoisted in the air until her toes barely reached the ground.

I'll read one last document by Lizzie Boatwright, who offered this testimony of her whipping. And it's, it's hard to read but important to grapple with. The guard "whipped me and a Negro woman convict from Greene County twice each. Both whippings were to punish us for trivial offenses, one time because our feet were sore and we stopped on the side of the road to fix the rags so as to protect them from the heavy brogan shoes that we were wearing. He ordered us to take down our trousers. We begged him to take us where the men convicts could not see us exposed. And he answered, ‘[with a pejorative], you strip.’ One time I had my monthlies, and I told him so. But he said it made no difference. And so we stripped us down and beat our naked skin with a strap. Several male convicts were all about us when we were whipped.” So that is the example of the kind of sexualized violence that women faced that made their position even more perilous than that of the men.

And historians like Mary Ellen Curtin in her book Black Prisoners and Their World; Talitha LeFlouria's book on Black Women in the Convict Lease in Georgia, Chained in Silence; and Sarah Haley's book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, have brought women to the fore. And so teachers need to reflect that and think about how the system operated for women.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we need those kinds of reminders that there was a real human cost suffered by those who were victimized by this system, especially the women who suffered in this way. This is something that we need to always keep in mind, especially when we're dealing with this subject.

Robert T. Chase: Hard to talk about, but important.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Do you have recommendations and suggestions for teachers with regard to how they should approach this subject so that it is conveyed accurately and effectively, but with the sensitivity and care that it needs to be treated with in the classroom setting.

Robert T. Chase: How do we not get overwhelmed by violence itself when we're trying to create understanding and empathy? That's always a very hard question to answer, and I have two thoughts about that. The first is that when we're talking about systems of oppression, it is critically important that we deal with them directly and honestly, because the history had been to forget, to ignore, to not put in our textbooks this really critical story. And the reason why it is so critical is because it's a story that we're now reliving today through the system of mass incarceration. And we cannot fully understand, countenance or confront today's mass incarceration unless we also understand its origins being bound up in the moment after emancipation and a return to a kind of re-enslavement and coerced prison labor.

But even within that, the other thing to think about, as a teacher, is to also tell stories of resistance, survivals, so that these people are not just being acted upon but also have agency and voice. And also to connect it not just to a series of lurid tales of violence, torture or sexual violence, but to the system that drives it and bounds everyone in it—white and Black—a system that relies on exploitative labor and sexual violence.

So, for instance, I think it's really important to point out that convict leasing also depressed wages. It also meant that people were less likely to join a labor union. So it had consequences for even those who were not incarcerated. And so that connection, that human empathy that we need to have, also needs to come with understanding the systemic problem of a system of industrialized re-enslavement and coerced labor. What that meant to people both bound up in that system and those having to live within a system of such exploitation who were not in prison but who had their lives impacted by it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about the parallels to the institution of slavery, sometimes we get caught up in just looking at the brutality and thinking about it as this senseless, inhumane system. But it was for a purpose. The controlling of Black labor, the use of violence, was for a purpose. And that was to generate some profit for some people. And so who was profiting from this new system?

Robert T. Chase: I think there are a couple of things to note. First, that the criminal justice system in the American South before the Civil War was very small. Most Southern states had perhaps one penitentiary and very small prison populations. After the convict lease, the movement of prisoners out of the penitentiary, either to the fields or to these industrial spaces, were those occupied mostly by African American people. For instance, in Georgia, the antebellum penitentiary, in its entire existence from 1817 to 1854, received only 1343 prisoners. In 1850, Georgia with a total population of 900,000, had only 43 prisoners and convicted only 80. But in 1868, just three years after emancipation, Georgia had 205 prisoners and 177 of them were African American, and only 28 were white. And thereafter, year after year, African Americans comprised 90% of the Georgia prison population.

So it was a system that shifted from a penitentiary that held largely white prisoners. African Americans in the South were disciplined on either the prison plantation or through extralegal violence, through vigilante white violence, not so much within an institutional setting of the criminal justice system. And the crucial point to your question is that this process not only conditioned questions of race, but it also created a new capitalist design in the American South. And we have to understand that the convict lease system also created political power within the system. It created what historians have called that Bourbon southern alliance between capitalists and planters.

There was political power in the lease, for instance, Joseph Emerson Brown, who called for the abolition of the penitentiary in Georgia in 1865, then made a fortune leasing convicts as a senator in the 1880s. Jeremiah W. South, a lessee in Kentucky, who leased convicts from 1869 until his death, supposedly exercised greater political power over Kentucky government than any other official. "He controlled the legislators," it was said, "as absolutely as he controlled the convicts." And then in Alabama—from state to state we can see this—Governor Robert Patton, for instance, in a return for the sum of just $5, leased for six years 374 prisoners to a firm called Smith and McMillan. And this firm, Smith and McMillan, was actually controlled by the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad System, which he had invested in. So it's this direct linkage between Southern political power, and the development of the convict lease as a modern capitalist system and the profits that come out of this system, that we can see across various Southern states, including Georgia, where Governor Bullock, who leads the entire penitentiary to the railroad contractors, Grant Alexander and Company, for a very small amount, 3 cents a day. And at the end of that year, Grant Alexander and Company held 109 convicts. And then they would invest in these railroads, for instance, and gained great profits from them.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So are we literally talking about the modernization of the South on the backs of African Americans who are imprisoned?

Robert T. Chase: Well, that's precisely it, Hasan. That's precisely it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.

Robert T. Chase: It's about profitability. In Tennessee, for instance, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, they charged the convict labor that allowed them to build the railroads that crisscross the American South. And it's estimated that that effort of using almost-free convict labor, paid very little per person to the state, that that gave them a $70,000 annual advantage over all the other mines that depended on free labor. So it thrust them into a position of being able to build more, faster and cheaper. And they're doing that, as you said, on the backs of Black labor.

And it's important to note that then Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad was then purchased by U.S. Steel. Right? U.S. Steel, the biggest national steel maker and the country, at the moment when steel was king during the Gilded Age outside of the South, in the north. And U.S. Steel acquired the Tennessee Coal, and Iron Railroad Company in 1907. So this is about creating a new breed of industrialist in the American South, men like John T. Milner and James W. Silas. Milner, who famously said that, "Negro labor can be made exceedingly profitable in manufacturing iron and in rolling mills, provided there is an overseer, a southern man who knows how to manage Negroes." And so that link is very clear, even in how they imagine the industrial world that they're building—industry, and capitalism and racial oppression.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The racial oppression. I want us to pause there and probe that a little bit, because I'm curious as to what the public justifications were. What rationalizations were being offered by those individuals, companies, politicians and the like, for this kind of inhumane treatment that enabled this system to proceed, as you said, for half a century?

Robert T. Chase: I think the first thing to note is that the inhumanity of it took time to come into the public's awareness and consciousness. There were moments where the public decried what was happening. But for the most part, at its inception, it was argued that this would create an economic boom that the South sorely needed. The South was beset with Confederate scrip, now worthless. The enslaved were not only coerced labor, they also meant access to credit. And the loss of that, in addition to a war-torn economy, devastated the American South. And what those who lived in the South saw was not the human degradation or the beatings, but they heard the beat of the railroad line coming through their town, the rush of mercantile interest through the mines or the steel mills that started to redevelop the American South.

And at its very beginnings, for instance, there also was, I think, a desire among white Southerners to find a system that would deal with some of the political energy that had been unleashed by Reconstruction, with African Americans going to Congress, in their state militia or police, taking up arms. And these whites wanted to re-instill white supremacy. And the criminal justice system allowed them to do that. In Mississippi, one future warden, A. Phillips, for instance, made a thorough study of what to do after emancipation with the penitentiary system. And he said in the study, "Emancipating the Negroes will require a system of penitentiaries. The one in Jackson," Jackson, Mississippi, "was nearly full when the courts had it, but little to do with the Negroes. So how will it be now after emancipation?" So a clear sense that the system of convict leasing was modernizing, industrializing the South, making it a more palatable space for capitalists and industry and, at the same time, creating the kind of racial oppression that those who were white elites wanted the South to embrace. So it also erected the Jim Crow South.

I would say too, Hasan, it had another advantage economically in the labor system for planters, in that while the industrial convict labor was going on this depressed wages in the American South. It also meant that organizing of labor unions in the American South would be more anemic. Because if one wanted to organize a labor union and you were African American, well, you could be then the target of the criminal justice system. So it depressed wages in the South, kept labor anemic and at the same time modernized it and brought to those who wanted to re-embrace white supremacy, a system to uphold it.

As the historian Edward Ayers said, "Convict leasing drew on the worst of the past," meaning enslavement or here a kind of re-enslavement, "and the worst of the future," meaning capitalism and the profitability margin that drove convict leasing.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And African Americans, whether they were caught up within the system or were viewing it from the outside, were clearly aware of what was happening. What were some of the ways in which they responded and resisted?

Robert T. Chase: Within the system, those who were convicted had a whole variety of ways to try to resist what James Scott called the everyday 'weapons of the weak.' Some things involved theft, taking a small amount of material out of a steel mill, for instance, malingering, slowing their labor, timing it in a way that they were trying to reserve whatever strength they had to get through their day. Women, for instance, they would burn the shirts of the convict laborer. They would burn these clothes. Escapes were common. In Georgia, between 1866 and 1877, 555 convicts attempted to make their escape, which tells us that they were trying to take freedom in their own hands, in the same way that runaways from slavery did just a generation before. The company, Grant Alexander and Company, one of the overseers wrote that he whipped convicts for, "disobeying orders, for not working, for impudence, for running away or plotting to run away, for fighting, for screaming from each other and for abusing stock." Now, while he talks about it in terms of punishment, all of the things that he's punishing them for are the convicts themselves trying to confront the system in the very few tools that they have at their disposal.

Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources,as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Hasan’s conversation with Robert Chase.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We talked a little bit earlier about how the system of convict leasing ends. Could you explain what leads to its eventual demise? And then I want us to talk about what follows in its footsteps.

Robert T. Chase: Convict leasing was phased out across the South beginning in the late 19th century, continuing on in some places until the 1920s. Only two states completely abolished the lease before the end of the 19th century. But by 1920, only Alabama had failed to pass a law to end the system. So it was coming to its decline. Georgia ended in 1908, Mississippi and Tennessee by the 1890s, so it was a system in decline.

For a long time, historians argued that it ends because it's a blemish on the Southern sense of honor, of that Lost Cause rhetoric of a renewed New South coming at the same moment of Jim Crow. But historians, beginning in the mid 1990s, revised that to think about the ways in which two things happened. One, they were affected by some of the progressive humanitarian impulses. There were proceedings in state legislatures about its inhumanity. There were exposés that did damage the system. But at the end of the day, Hasan, it's not a matter, I think, of conscience, but it's the end of its profitability. In an economic downturn, you can fire someone when your business goes south, but you can't diminish the number of convict labor that you have. And so as the economic winds changed at the turn of the century, suddenly convict leasing went from being very cheap, and a way to modernize the South, to increasingly expensive.

And it's really important to point out that the oppression that we see in convict leasing just simply moved from the private sector to the public sector. Roadwork became really important, and that was run by the state. The state would take convicts that had been once part of the convict lease system in Georgia, for instance, and move them into developing roads all across the state. And then another thing I would note, it also created another form of white supremacy. In my own book, I call them prison plantations, but at the time they were called farms.

So let's talk about James Vardaman, elected in Mississippi in 1903, a populist champion of white supremacy. But he thought convict leasing was bad. He thought it was bad for poor whites, that it hurt them in the labor market. And he believed that it hurt the image of the New South and the idea that somehow plantation life for African Americans was benevolent or paternalistic. And he turned to what's known as Parchman Prison Farm, even calling it these false nomenclatures to create this idea of a bucolic return to a rural, ideal space. Parchman Farm returned prisoners from private companies back to the state. But there they labored like slaves, picking the cash crop of cotton, clearing the land, a return to agricultural work but for state-made use. For in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, a series of three successive laws at the national legislature more or less outlawed the private leasing of prisoners to companies or individuals, but it returned those prisoners to state-made use. And across the American South, prisoners continued to labor, but they did so for the benefit of the state. So it changed the shape of how the prison system operated in the American South, but not the fact of its racial oppression.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So does the desire to exploit Black labor then end when we see the end of the convict leasing system?

Robert T. Chase: No, far from it. Convict leasing propelled and placed Black labor at the center of the criminal justice system, but it never left that center once it was achieved. African Americans are continuously incarcerated in the system. But important to note that from the 1930s until the mid 1960s, the rates of incarcerated people who are African American are less than they are after the 1960s. On the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, African Americans are incarcerated at four times the rate of whites relative to their number in the population, so still more than whites. But after 1965, after the Civil Rights Act of '64, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the acceleration of mass incarceration leads us to a number today where African Americans are incarcerated almost twice as often as they had been on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education, seven times the rate of whites. And of course, we know that a prison population of nearly 2.2 million draws heavily on Black and brown populations. Latinos are the fastest growing number of prisoners, along with women, in the modern-day prison system, such that the majority of our prisons today are filled with African American and Latinx people.

And there they work. They work for over a $2 billion industry. They are paid an average daily wage of about 89 cents. Four states, including the one that I study, Texas, pays them nothing at all. So that is coerced labor with no pay. And the work that they do builds a prison industry. The tables and chairs that we have in our universities are bought by state-made prison use. Prisoners produce all manner of commercial goods. In some political campaigns recently, prisoners were the ones who made the phone calls for politicians calling for more law and order. So while it changed from the period of 1930 to 1979, in 1979 the national legislature passed the Prison Industries Reorganization Act, which in many ways, Hasan, returns us to a moment where prisoners can labor once again for private companies and for profit.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One thing has become clear as we've been discussing, that this is no simple thing. What suggestions do you have for teachers to help them unpack this history for their students?

Robert T. Chase: One thing I would suggest is that there's a vibrant literature of prisoner memoirs, stretching from the period of the convict lease system to today. In Texas, for instance, Andrew George wrote The Texas Convict in 1893 [(sic) A Texas Prisoner]. A very vibrant memoir was written by Charles C Campbell called Hell Exploded: An Exposition of Barbarous Cruelty and Prison Horrors. There's also a book called Mama Emma's Boy [(sic) Racehoss: Big Emma's Boy], which is about African American prison labor in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.

But I would also say importantly that some of the other sources are these state legislative committees that reviewed the convict lease system. There also was just a plethora of material that one can find in newspapers on the system of convict leasing. And then, of course, African American organizations also tried to address this problem. For instance, Carrie Steele Logan and Martha Holsey found philanthropic institutions to keep children out of the prison system. And Carrie Logan then founded the Orphan's Home in Atlanta. Mary Church Terrell has written about the number of African Americans in the prison system, and particularly the children born through moments when convict guards sexually assaulted convict women who had no other choice but to consent.

I like to use, in my class, convict labor songs. I find them to be really powerful material. And we have recordings of these at the Smithsonian. Bruce Jackson, who was an anthropologist who went down to Texas in the 1960s, recorded prison work songs. Now, you know, they may have been changed a bit from convict leasing, but they're there. And he has a book called Wake Up Dead Man, as well as a recording by the same name of these work songs that one can use in the classroom. And if it's okay, I'd like to read and interpret a couple of lyrics. These are things I use in the classroom. Would that be all right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.

Robert T. Chase: So here's one. And it reads as follows: "The Captain hollar 'Hurry.' I'm going to take my time.’ Says he's making money and trying to make time. Says he can lose his job, but I can't lose mine." So one thing to think about, that cadence when we move into agricultural labor. The cadence of these songs are hammers and hoes hitting the ground or trees, and that is the percussion element, just as it had been in some slave songs. But the lyrics also allow them to have some resistance or speak back to their keeper. In this one, he says, "The captain is hollering, 'Hurry.' But I'm going to take my time." Right? I'm going to slow it down. "Says he's making money and trying to make time. He can lose his job, but I can't lose mine." Right? So I'm still going to be here tomorrow, no matter how much I produce for him.

Another one that I like, which Bruce Jackson recorded, is called "Jody." And I'll just read a little portion of it. "I've been working all day long picking this stuff called cotton and corn. We raise cotton, cane and corn, taters and tomatoes. The boss is on a horse." The boss is the prison guard up on a horse above them. "And he's watching us all. Better tighten up if you don't want to catch the hall, wonder if the major will go my bail or give me 12 hours standing on the rail. I see the captain sitting in the shade. He don't do nothing, but he get paid. We work seven long days in a row, two packs of Bull and a picture show. In the wintertime we don't get no lay, cutting and cane and making syrups every day."

Now that that is a language that one has to decipher in the classroom. The boss on a horse is the prison guard “watching us all.” “Better tighten up,” means you got to work faster, harder. Or if you don't want to catch “the hall,” what could that mean? “Catching the hall” meant that you were put out into the hall of the prison and standing there with your nose in a circle for 24 hours, as people file past you. And if you moved, tried to sit down, tried to sleep out of that circle, you'd be beaten. They then say “12 hours standing on the rail.” That meant standing on a rail, two by four, with your hands extended outward and balancing on that rail. And if you fall off that rail on either side, you will be beaten.

"I see the captain sitting in the shade. He doesn't do nothing, but he gets paid. We work seven days in a row." Meaning they're working seven hour days, ten hour days, which they were. And what they get is two packs of Bull. That means Bull Durham, the cigarette rolled in the prison, and a picture show, meaning a movie. But the point at the end of the song is, they can never go home. This is their existence day after day. But within that existence, these songs allowed them opportunity to mock their keeper, to have some say and some resistance, to time their labor and to have some control over their day.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. I can see teachers, you know, playing those songs. I can see teachers dissecting those songs. Are there documentaries or films that you would suggest teachers use as well?

Robert T. Chase: There are some really important documentaries that have come out. Of course, The 13th situates the criminal justice system principally after 1965 and its growth to mass incarceration. But if we were looking at the convict lease, Douglas Blackmon's book, A Slavery by Another Name, also developed a very good documentary. And what I liked, Hasan, about that documentary is they hired actors to read the words of convicts, and their letters and so on. And when I show it to my students, that really humanizes them and brings them into the conversation. And then, of course, there's a whole host of fictional movies from the 1932 I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Orange is the New Black. Both films though, or film and TV show, I should say, are interesting in that it takes a white protagonist in that condition to elicit human sympathy. And then, of course, there are those that had a more humorous take, like. Oh, I can't think of it, Hasan. What was the George Clooney convict lease?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, yeah. I thought you were going to say Life with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence.

Robert T. Chase: Oh, Life. Right, right. Life. And even, you know, I grew up in the late seventies, 1980s. I'm a Richard Pryor guy.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.

Robert T. Chase: So Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in their film where they go to prison and perform in a rodeo. I mean, there's a whole thing to talk about there with performance of Blackness in public space and these prison rodeos. One in Angola, in Louisiana, which was known as the worst, baddest farm. And I mean bad in a bad way for being violent. And then one in Texas, which operated all the way until the early 1980s. But the performance that was going on there, for instance, there was a greased pig contest where African American prisoners, principally women, would be forced to catch this pig or 'convict poker' where they released an angry bull, and the prisoner that sits the longest at that poker table gets the money. It's a kind of public minstrelsy that is performing the condemnation of Blackness in public space as criminal and worthy not of human empathy, but of degradation and also of mockery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And whether it's the movie Life or O Brother, Where Art Thou, the 2000 film with George Clooney, often there's not enough time to show the whole film in the classroom. But what can be done is to use clips from the films. And then you also are able to sort of limit some of the exposure for younger high school audiences with language and the like. But a clip then put into context and interpreted can be used quite effectively, I think, in this context of teaching.

Robert T. Chase: Yeah, I would agree. The thorny problem of using the Hollywood fictionalized accounts, particularly when they're depicting the convict lease system, I can't think of a film that's handled it seriously.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mmm hmm.

Robert T. Chase: It's always through the realm of making it a joke.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm hmm. Yeah.

Robert T. Chase: Now, why is that? Why is that? I think it's because of that reason you’d pointed us to earlier, Hasan, that most schools don't teach this. And if they were to teach it, as we're trying to do now, think of all the things we've had to talk about. We've had to talk about economic exploitation. We've had to talk about sexual violence. We've had to talk about torture. We've had to talk about mortality through labor, all of these things that are really hard subjects. On the one hand, these films give us opportunity to talk about them. But on the other hand, I think that they have yet to make a film that deals with these things in the way that, say, 12 Years a Slave did in depicting slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Robert Chase, I can't thank you enough for coming on and enlightening us about the criminal justice system and the Jim Crow era, and especially about convict leasing and its origins and long legacy. Thank you so much.

Robert T. Chase: Thank you, Hassan. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. I always enjoy our conversations.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.

Bethany Jay: Robert T. Chase is an Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America from UNC Press. Dr. Chase is also the editor of the anthology Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance.

The Jim Crow era saw a changing Southern landscape that promoted reliance on formal methods of racist social control. Brandon Jett is the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South. In our next segment, he examines the social and commercial factors behind the transition from extralegal lynchings to police enforcement of the color line. He shows us how his students use a local lynching case to begin examining this subject.

Here’s Dr. Jett.

Brandon T. Jett: When people think about the role of racial violence in the Jim Crow period, I think the thing that immediately pops out is these extralegal acts of violence known as lynchings, which are typically understood as extrajudicial killings or killings that happened outside of the formal processes of criminal justice, whereby a group of people—could be three people, it could be twelve people, it could be hundreds, in some cases thousands of people—who participate in these spectacles of violence and brutality. But it's a mob of people, a group of people who are exacting some form of punishment against someone who has in some way, shape or form, transgressed community ideals or in some cases, laws—segregation laws or really any kind of law on the books that we would think of today.

Extralegal violence, like lynchings, had occurred throughout American history, typically in places that didn't have robust criminal justice institutions that we would typically associate with communities that are kind of on that western cusp of American migrations or white-Anglo migrations into the territories that were previously claimed by Native Americans.

But lynching was something that was taking on new forms in the 1890s and early 20th century. We know about those legal things, right? The segregation laws. The disenfranchisement laws. And they were clearly racially biased and racist in design and implementation. But it's this aspect of violence that really plays a crucial role in creating and perpetuating this new racial hierarchy and enforcing a lot of those legal aspects of Jim Crow.

There were something like 4000 African Americans lynched in the late 19th and early 20th century. And again, these are all people who were in some way, shape or form charged, although not always in the way that we would think of someone being charged of a crime, but at least suspected of committing some kind of crime or violating some social custom. This could range from murdering a white person. This could be alleged criminal assaults on white women. It could be something as small as owning land or even looking a white person in the eyes. So there's there's there's accounts of myriad issues that resulted in the lynching of an African American, largely men, but but there were also African American women who were subjected to lynch mob violence as well.

Lynching acted as a form of social and racial control. What more terrifying thing to make sure you abide by the rules and customs of this new white racist society that's being created and implemented in the Jim Crow period than the threat of being brutally killed and tortured, hung, burned alive, in front of dozens, if not thousands, of onlookers. And this proved to be a fairly effective way at reimposing white supremacy in the Southern landscape in particular, again, in the wake of the end of Reconstruction.

But what was widely accepted in the 1890s—at least among white Southerners and to an extent white Americans, broadly speaking—by the early 20th century, and especially into the 19 teens and 1920s, became increasingly problematic. The real specter of mobs of white people parading through towns and destroying property, taking lives, without going through these formal criminal justice processes was really problematic from the perspective of white ‘civic boosters,’ is the phrase I've associated with them. These are people who are promoting their cities and in some cases their states to outside investors. And in many ways, the name of the game in terms of the economy in the South and in the late 19th and early 20th century was cotton agriculture—reliant upon sharecroppers, largely African Americans, although not solely. And this kept them in a cycle of peonage, basically, that they could never pay off their debts that they owed at the end of the sharecropping season. And so they were kind of stuck to the land perpetually, producing a cotton crop for a white plantation owner.

But another part of the southern economy and one that these civic boosters were really pushing for is outside investment, largely from northerners. So banks in the north, private investors in the north, businesses in the north coming into the South and opening up new factories and really diversifying the Southern economy. And this was part and parcel of a larger strategy, and basically PR campaign by many of these boosters, that tried to depict the South as something that was fundamentally different. In fact, they called this the New South ideology. So not the Old South, that Antebellum South, the South of plantation slavery. But this was a new South, this was a progressive South. It is a place that is more economically diversified, attractive to outside investment, a place where new businesses, manufacturing businesses can come in and be successful. This was the South that was not mired down by the institution of slavery. It was not solely devoted to mono crop agriculture. But it was diverse and, as they would argue, ripe for investment from outsiders.

But by the early 20th century, investors were increasingly wary of placing their money in Southern locations, especially locations where it seemed like lynch mobs ran rampant and rarely, if ever, met with any kind of actual prosecution. And so as part of this promotion of the New South ideology, the ideas of lynching became challenged in ways that they really hadn't been, at least among white society in the 1890s. Many white Southerners defended the institution of lynching in the 1890s as something that was necessary to control this Black population that had been untrained by the civilizing, as they called it, the civilizing influences of slavery. So this was that first generation that was born free.

And part of their argument—that was completely discredited by Ida B. Wells and her really important investigative journalism in the 1890s and early 20th century—there's this idea that this new generation of African American men in particular, that that were born free, had this almost insatiable sexual appetite for white women, and there was this outburst of Black men raping white women. And to stop that from happening, to stop those Black men from engaging in that type of criminal activity. lynching was required. The criminal justice system was too slow. It was too undependable. It let people off for trivial reasons. This is what they argued. And so they needed lynching to demonstrate to African American men, in particular, and again, this is the argument that white southerners are making to defend lynching, that they couldn't get away with criminally assaulting white women. And while this may be held up for a little while in the 1890s, by the early 20th century that had largely been discredited too. And so the conversations around lynching also changed. This wasn't something that was necessary or required to protect the white community. At least many outsiders suggested, instead, this was just an example of sheer brutality and was really out of place and anachronistic, in terms of what the South was trying to present itself as and what the United States was trying to present itself as.

And so what we begin to see in the early 20th century is this move away from reliance on extralegal forms of racial and social control like lynching and an embrace of more formal institutions of criminal justice assuming that role from the community. These civic boosters, state officials, local criminal justice officials, like county sheriffs, police chiefs and county prosecutors, really wanted the onus of maintaining control over their community to place in their hands, not the wider community as a whole. And this was supposed to curtail instances of lynching. It's not necessarily done because they feel sorry for African Americans, who are overwhelmingly the victims of lynch mob violence in the late 19th and early 20th century. But it's really done out of their economic self interests.

Another thing to consider is the changing demographic of the Southern landscape, a region that had been largely rural and agricultural in the mid-19th century, still was that way by the late-19th century, but this was beginning to change, especially in the first several decades of the 20th century. And so another thing that is encouraging this idea of reliance on formal institutions of criminal justice is just the sheer growth of Southern cities at the time. The city of Birmingham in 1880 had 3000 people in it. By 1950, it had almost 330,000. Memphis had 15,000 people in 1880 [(sic) 33,592 people]. By 1950, almost 400,000 people living in the city. New Orleans, which was in many respects the most important and the largest Southern city in the Antebellum period, in 1880 had 216,000 residents. By 1950, it had 570,000 residents. And so relying on informal methods like lynching to control a population that is in the hundreds of thousands just really didn't seem to be effective or as effective as it could be in a small rural place of only a couple of thousand.

And so what we began to see in the early 20th century is a real robust investment in formal institutions of criminal justice on behalf of the southern states and southern localities. We see investments in prisons. We see investments in the police, which a lot of people don't realize were a relatively new invention. Modern policing, in terms of the police department, really wasn't introduced to the United States until the mid-19th century, in places like New York and Boston, to an extent. And so in the South, this is something that's relatively new. And it isn't until the late 19th and particularly early 20th century that southern cities began investing in their police departments and the police departments begin to look like things we could readily identify today.

Another really fascinating thing that the police do, in particular, in this 1920 to 1945 period is become increasingly militarized. And this is a result of a number of different factors, one being the end of World War One, which comes about right before 1920. And all of a sudden, the American military finds itself with a bunch of equipment. And police departments start getting their hands on some of these things, like grenade launchers, vehicles and weaponry that was previously used in wars, are now being introduced into the streets of American cities and in the South, in particular.

We don't really hear much about police forces in the South. Like if you think about the typical US History since 1877 or since 1865 course, we kind of talk about the Jim Crow South. And perhaps you talk about segregation, and disenfranchisement and maybe to an extent the violence that was used to maintain Jim Crow. But we don't really talk about formal institutions of criminal justice or their development over this time period. But by the time you get to the civil rights movement, there's Bull Connor with this robust police force. And they are relying on these aggressive military-style tactics, using weapons of war, in many respects, to thwart any progress that civil rights activists might make, especially in their street protests. And I think this is the link that's missing—in between that discussion of Jim Crow and then the efforts to really push back against civil rights activism using the police and the jails—is just where these police forces came from, where these institutions came from, that really allowed white southerners like Bull Connor, to tap into and really thwart efforts by activists during the civil rights movement.

And so as these formal institutions of criminal justice are expanded—as they're invested in, as they incorporate new technologies, prisons are being built, police are being invested in, prosecutors become stronger—we see a rise in incarceration rates. This can't be separated from this larger question of race and capitalism developing in industrialized ways in the South, not for the first time, but for much of the South for the very first time. Something that relies on more formal processes of criminal justice, like arrest for offenses ranging from, you know, typical things we would think of as as criminal acts—murder, assault, theft. But also smaller things, like vagrancy or not having visible means of employment, also became crimes in the context of the Jim Crow South that African Americans could be arrested for, placed behind bars, upending their life in many ways.

And so law enforcement and formal criminal justice service serve these dual roles of maintaining the racial status quo and perpetuating this racial hierarchy that has been created by Jim Crow, while also kind of stymying threats to this capitalist development that emerges in this more industrialized New South, but also kind of working-class activism that might develop from the working class. And if you're talking about the South, African Americans comprise a very large segment of that working class. So they're intimately bound up in questions of race, and class, and labor and the role of these institutions, in creating an atmosphere that is conducive to capitalist exploitation of the resources of the South. And also imposing this Jim Crow, white supremacist system that also has to be monitored and maintained.

And so that's this larger transformation that's taking place during this late 19th, early 20th century period. This shift away from reliance on informal methods of social control and racial control to more formalized institutions—the police, prosecutors, prisons, jails and the like—to maintain and perpetuate the system of racial inequality.

Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity, just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastpd. PD for professional development. That’s podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode, all lowercase. You’ll also find a link in the show notes. It’s a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.

Brandon T. Jett: When we think about this transition period—from this central role that extralegal violence played in establishing and perpetuating the new racial hierarchy that Jim Crow created, to this period where we've got this robust criminal justice apparatus that has in many ways supplanted the role that extralegal violence played—the way I like to introduce this into the classroom is through looking at lynching and the ways in which the responses to lynching unfolded over time.

One of the things that I think is really important to do in the classroom is not only look at what lynching was. There are professional websites that have been created with a vast number of lynching photographs to provide the larger public with access to some of these things to fully grapple with the atrocity that was racial violence and lynching in the Jim Crow period. One of the ones I used to use was Without Sanctuary, but the Equal Justice Initiative has also been doing a lot of work toward publicizing just how widespread and violent lynchings were. So you can certainly find some photographs on their website as well.

One of the things that I find useful for students is engaging with primary sources, these actual responses to lynchings that took place in the United States. And much like photographs were widely available, both then and now, so are newspaper reports of lynchings and other forms of extralegal violence. There are also books that were written, pamphlets that were written, in response to a lot of these actions. So I've had students delve into into both of those things, both the photographs to kind of grapple with what lynching was, what it looked like, the crowds that are there, how people are seemingly responding to these things. But also the responses. And the responses that I like to show them are, again, this kind of juxtaposition between the response that was there in the 1890s that is largely supportive and defensive of the institution of lynching to some of these responses that come later, like in the 1920s, that are that are critical of lynchings.

So I'd like to just kind of walk you through a couple of things that I've tried in the classroom. Some of them went very, very poorly. Some of them went and went really, really well. The very first thing I tried was to recreate this exhibition that the Without Sanctuary book and website grew out of. James Allen collected lynching photographs for a series of years, and then they displayed all of these photographs somewhere in New York City, I believe, and I think it was also a traveling exhibition in the early 2000s.

And I tried to recreate something like that. This was an undergraduate course, so largely freshmen students, and I just hung pictures that I found off the Internet of lynchings that had taken place around the classroom. And this came on the heels of our larger conversation about the Jim Crow system that had happened in a previous class. And I told them what we were going to be doing beforehand. But they essentially walked in, and then I kind of briefly introduced the concept of lynching and the role that it played in the Jim Crow system. And then just had students walk around silently, individually and take notes on all of the photographs that they saw around them. And then we just had a larger conversation about it.

And that was okay. There were a lot of mixed responses. I think it was an awful lot for students to handle for, you know, a 50-minute class. It was almost too much for them to handle and really adequately process what they were looking at and why this is significant. And so I would really discourage teachers out there from doing something like that, where you just throw these really traumatic images in front of students. Even if you kind of preface it the class before, I still think it is almost too jarring to really have a robust conversation about what this means and the roles that it played in American society.

But the second time I tried it, I actually introduced the idea at the beginning of the semester, and this was actually in a US history survey course from 1865 to the present. I told them we were going to be doing this at the beginning. And I actually encourage students to find a photograph that they thought was really significant. And they posted it in an online forum that I created for the class. And each student picked a photograph, and they explained why they thought it was significant and what their reactions to it were. And this allowed them to grapple with some of this stuff more, and also on a personal level, before it was just thrust upon them in a very public setting in the classroom. And this actually went better than the first approach of just kind of throwing it up there and having students react to it in real time. It allowed for a much more robust conversation about what lynchings meant. Students were particularly drawn to the mobs and more drawn to this conversation around what it meant that so many people seemed so comfortable and even proud of their participation in these acts of violence.

And I asked for student feedback at the end of the semester when we had these discussions. And I got a couple of reactions. Some students were not all that interested in doing this kind of assignment. They were really turned off by the violence of it, by the brutality of it and just found it a little off putting. Others didn't like it at first. I had several students who were very angry, they told me, that this was an assignment that they were having to do in class, when they first started looking into it. But they said that this 2-to-3 week window that I gave them from when they were supposed to find images and then come to class and have our conversations about it, they said that it really helped them process and went through this kind of mental transition away from just being mad, angry or overly upset, and instead recognizing the importance of grappling with the reality that was lynching and racial violence in the late 19th and early 20th century.

And I thought that was really an important experience for students to have and share that I would really encourage educators to incorporate into their classes, if they're interested in doing something that grapples with the photography and photographs related to lynching and racial violence, is provides students enough time to kind of process this stuff on their own, with your assistance, with their peers. Because I think in many ways it's that reaction and reflection that is more important than anything that could really happen, in real time in class, when you just try to get these knee-jerk reactions.

Introducing photographs of lynchings into classes is something that needs to be approached very delicately. Make sure that they have enough time and space and preparation to fully engage and understand what they're going to be looking at, because these are really graphic images. In some cases, they are hard to look at. And without appropriate framing, and contextualization and preparation, it can be an exercise that goes really poorly, really quickly.

I just try to prep them for what they are going to see. And I introduce the idea that we're going to be looking at lynching photographs well before we ever get to that point in the semester. Sometimes I've introduced it at the very first class. When we're talking about the syllabus, what we're going to be doing, I point out that, 'Hey. Understand, we're going to be engaging with primary sources, and photographs and music recordings throughout the course of the semester. But some of these are going to be pretty difficult images.’ And I'll point their attention to the week that we're going to be discussing Jim Crow, and the week that the activity will take place. And usually at that initial conversation, it's just a brief introduction. I'm not dwelling on it because it's an overview, but I do just prep them that these photographs depict people who are participating in the killing of other people. They, in some cases, are dead bodies. And they can be really, really difficult to look at. So I just kind of give them the sense that, 'Hey, something pretty hard and emotionally complicated is coming up in a few weeks. So I need to be ready.’

And then when we get closer. Say, when we're two weeks out, and I give them the assignment of, 'I'd like you to go see if you can find a lynching photograph that really resonates with you, that you find really powerful, or upsetting or something that you think helps us understand the context of of the Jim Crow South more broadly'. And when I introduce that idea, first, I tell them about how lynching photographs originated. Why it was unique to this period. I also introduce the idea of how long it took for photographs to be taken. Photography is relatively new. This isn't like our time period, where you can just snap it with your phone. But this is something that takes time. People have to set these things up well in advance in many cases.

We talk about the fact that many of these photographs were actually postcards that people were sending around to each other, kind of bragging about their experiences, what they did, the role that they played in this, or just to let their extended family and relatives know what's going on in their lives. And then I just remind them again about what's being depicted. These are human beings whose lives were brutally taken from them in front of dozens, hundreds in some cases, thousands of onlookers. And just really solemnly explain what lynching was in the context of the Jim Crow South. I show them a picture of a mob. So not a lynch mob victim, but the zoomed out photograph of what the mob looked like. I just say, like, 'These are all people who gathered to watch a human being be tortured to death,’ so we can just have conversations about what that means.

Again, I give them the opportunity to just reflect, and respond and grapple with this stuff on their own. And if they need to reach out to me, of course, I'm always available. I also give students the option to opt out. Just in case this is something that they are wholly uninterested in engaging with or don't think that they are emotionally comfortable exploring. So I always give students the opportunity to opt out.

Giving them that two-week window, and kind of explaining what lynchings were, broadly speaking, without any imagery, I think really helps. And then framing it, and introducing it, and prepping at multiple points throughout the semester, emphasizing what they're going to be looking at, the context within which these photographs were taken, what the Without Sanctuary exhibition was and why it's significant, and how what we're doing is not an exercise in continuing to push these these violent images to oppress African Americans, which is what the motivation was at the time. But instead try to come to a full realization of what Jim Crow was, what the United States was in this late 19th and early 20th century in very visible ways.

I’ve found that coming up with a local topic, as localized as you can get it, really helps. It kind of gets buy-in from school administrators too. You say, 'This isn't just about criminal justice change. This is local history. And this is something that public schools should be engaged in anyway,’ really provides buy-in, or at least in my case provided some buy-in from the institutions and also from the students as well. They were already interested in this topic because it was local.

And so just to give you one example that I've used in the classroom, There's a small town in Texas. It's called Paris, Texas. It's a small town in northeast Texas. It kind of hugs the Red River. You probably never heard of it, but in the 1890s, it rose to infamy. It first rose to infamy in 1893, when white residents there basically committed one of the first spectacle lynchings that took place. This was a lynching of a man named Henry Smith. In 1893, he was accused of assaulting and killing a four-year-old white girl named Myrtle Vance. He was captured, tortured, burned alive.

But the thing that really stood out to a lot of Americans at the time was that this was photographed. Photographers set up cameras. It was advertised in local newspapers. Train companies redirected more routes to Paris so people could come and watch. Thousands of people watched, watched this barbaric act take place. And in response to that, one of the local residents of Paris, Texas, a well-to-do businessman, J.M. Earley, actually publishes this really robust defense of the lynching of Henry Smith, in response to all of the attention that is being focused on Paris, Texas.

He says, "What have we done or left undone as a people of pride, as a people capable of being wrought up to indignation, in the vindication of our homes, our wives or daughters against ravishment. That when it is wired abroad, we have burned at the stake a monster for having ravished a baby to death. That it should not be credited, we go on record now as being credible." So he's essentially arguing that they're not ashamed of what happened. They are very proud of what they did.

He continues, "The burning of Smith for the crime, as herein related, was an act at the hands of the citizens of Paris, Lamar County, Texas, the sublimity of which has no precedent upon the American continent, perhaps not on earth. The sun will never rise upon another day in which another act more just, more sublime, in the vainly attempting by man, an eye for an eye." So he's simply saying this was perhaps the most just action that has ever been committed by a group of people. So you can just clearly see how enthusiastically he is supporting the lynching of Henry Smith.

And he's got economic interests in this town. This town is trying to attract outside investment. It's trying to attract newcomers to come to the city and set up shop. And J.M. Early is someone who's positioned very well to capitalize on some of that. And instead of saying this lynching was an aberration. This was something that, you know, a couple of rabble rousers participated in. He defends it as completely necessary and just. And one of the really fascinating things at the end of this book that he publishes, it's called *Eye for an Eye*, is he basically ends by saying 'this is a really great town. This is a really great place. You all should come and move here. We've got fertile ground. You can grow cotton. And we are really proud of our ability to protect white women and our community. And he kind of makes this offhanded remark, "even if it takes a little fire." So his defense of the lynching is also a kind of PR move designed to attract people to Paris, or at least assuage their concerns about the violence they just read about or saw on those postcards and those photographs that were taken.

But if you fast forward to 1920. Once again, whites in Paris, Texas, burn two Black men alive. These are two World War One vets who've returned. And they express some dissatisfaction about their continued employment as sharecroppers at a local landowner's plantation. And there's some confrontation, and they kill the white landowner. And they end up fleeing. They're captured, eventually tied to a stake and burned alive. But after this lynching takes place, you don't see that same robust defense of it that took place in 1893. Instead, you see the local Chamber of Commerce, religious leaders in the community, really condemn this lynching as something that is horrific, shouldn't be allowed to happen, and, they argue, won't happen again.

It's not necessarily that the J.M. Earley's of the world, and the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce in Paris, Texas, really changed their views on African Americans in 30 years. Instead, they probably had very similar views about the proper role of African Americans in American life and in Southern life, in particular. And that was to be decidedly below or subordinate to white Americans. Yet they are they are different in their reactions to lynching, because they feel like the economic well-being of themselves and their community, at least in 1893, depends on them defending and justifying what had happened. But by 1920, certainly suggesting that this is something that won't be able to happen again, because it is so problematic from an economic standpoint.

And again, this is all part of this larger PR campaign that Southerners are undertaking—it's not necessarily coordinated across a region, but within these communities—to try and bring people in. And we are making sure that things like this won't happen again, because we are going to handle things through the formal criminal justice system. The sheriff is going to be more responsive and reactive in these cases. So you begin to see this uptick in sheriffs moving prisoners and suspects who have been charged with crimes that could spark a lynching. They begin moving those in their custody around to protect them from the lynch mob and then prosecute them through the formal institutions of criminal justice.

The South in 1890 is really creating or recreating this racial hierarchy. They are enacting segregation laws. They are introducing disenfranchisement measures. That hierarchy isn't necessarily firmly entrenched just yet. It's getting there. And so they're relying on extralegal violence to help put it in place, right. 'If you don't abide by these new rules, this is the potential consequence.’ By 1920, in many ways, the Jim Crow system is more advanced. Some of those legal mechanisms, like segregation, disenfranchisement, are fully implemented. They had been upheld by the Supreme Court and broadly implemented across the South, and in some cases the country. You've also got this increased development of the more formal apparatus of criminal justice.

And I think having students play around with those different reactions, those defenses at the local level, is really important for helping them understand this change in mindset. And so I push the idea of motivation. I push the idea of motivation and audience a lot when I ask students to analyze primary sources. And I always tell them, you know, ‘The things they say me, and how they say them to me, are fundamentally different than how they would talk about me to their peers. So audience matters, motivation matters, when talking about analyzing primary sources.’

And so one of the assignments that I did with with looking at these different responses to lynchings that took place in Paris, Texas, one in the 1890s, one in 1920, is have students assess ‘Why.’ Why white people in the same town, who are presumably just as inculcated in the larger mindset of white supremacy and the Jim Crow South, even if they don't believe that that African Americans should be lynched, but they still certainly don't believe that they are equal to white Americans and still firmly ensconced in the kind of zeitgeist of the Jim Crow South, ‘Why are they responding differently?’

And so, I would have students come into class, and they would read both of these primary sources. And we’d just talk through what potential motivations could be. ‘What are some of the changes that had unfolded over the course of the 1890s, 19-tens, 1920s?’ And again, just try to put themselves in the shoes of these two groups of people. 'Why are they saying the things that they're saying? Who is their audience? What are they trying to accomplish? And what changes have occurred over that 30-year period that would maybe prompt this different response?'

If you think about it from the perspective of a rural place. You know, a place like Paris, Texas, has a relatively small population. Maybe they're trying to modernize in certain ways, introducing electricity, and paved roads and things like that. But one of the things that hurts Lamar County, Texas, which Paris is the county seat, really after 1920, is this exodus of African Americans from the region and from the county in particular. I forget the numbers, but the drop in Black population in Lamar County, Texas, from 1920 to 1930 is dire from the perspective of landowners there. They're just fleeing. They're going to places north. They're leaving a county that had proved to be incredibly violent, again and again and again and again. And so the threat of violence and Jim Crow is really pushing many African Americans. And this is obviously bound up in the larger Great Migration narrative of millions of African Americans leaving the South and going to northern cities where they had more job opportunities and didn't face the same vehemence, and violence and threats that they did in the South. There were certainly still threats and racial discrimination in the North, too, but wasn't quit as problematic. You treat people like the way white Southerners were treating African Americans for generations, eventually they're going to leave. And they did. So that's the labor pool that many of these rural places that relied on agriculture. That's their workforce. And all of a sudden they're leaving. So part of this is, 'Hey, we can't keep lynching African Americans, because they're just leaving. And now we don't have a pliable labor force to pick all of our cotton and continue to subjugate in economic ways.' So that's one way.

The second way is, if you're trying to convince an investor to sink a significant amount of money into your town, into your city, they're going to want to make sure that there aren't going to be mobs of lawless, violent people rampaging through town. There are numerous examples of these mobs kind of spiraling out of control and attacking businesses. And so that's not a very conducive place for investors to sink a bunch of money into, if this kind of lawlessness, at least from their perspective, is allowed to go unpunished and unmitigated. What's to stop this mob from turning on their businesses if they happen to employ African American laborers?

The other side of it that also needs to be emphasized in terms of this transition to the police in particular, especially in these urban spaces in the South, is that police become a very effective source of labor control. In northern cities, like Chicago and New York, many historians have argued fairly effectively that the police are introduced at the exact same time that industrialization is really picking up speed. And they are imposing regulations. They are breaking up strikes. They are challenging labor leaders and the like. And that's also true in the South.

Some of the most violent places in terms of police violence are places that have incredibly robust union efforts in the South. Birmingham, Alabama, in particular, had a pretty robust Communist Party presence there. And they were focused on organizing the working class and largely on working-class African Americans. And they are organizing at the exact same time that the police are becoming more aggressive, more violent, more technologically advanced. And they are the focus of police activism in many ways. They are facing threats of violence. They are actually being killed and threatened multiple times. There's one case where I believe it's the Communist Party in Birmingham holds a meeting, and something like 25 to 30% of the Birmingham Police Force was tasked with just monitoring that meeting. So in a city that has hundreds of thousands of people, a significant chunk of the police has just focused on the organizing activities of just one group. It’s pretty telling.

So the police are attacking labor organizers, labor leaders, chasing them out of town. They're arresting them. They are coming up with rules and laws in these places, like you can't distribute radical literature. Well, this gives the police a tool and an incentive to now go into these Black communities, and these working-class communities, and arrest and prosecute people.

And so one of the reasons why these civic boosters are also turning to formal institutions of criminal justice is they think this will be a way to limit the likelihood and the chances that that kind of lawlessness, as they would call it, mobs, destruction, would be present in their communities. But also they can rely on these more formal institutions of criminal justice and the law to also impose this kind of labor control. And in the context of the South is also very much bound up in racial control as well.

Those are the ways, I think, that this concern about lynching, and the buildup of the criminal justice apparatus in response to it, is also bound up in these notions of making the South look like a viable place for economic growth, and in some cases economic diversification. And so that was one of the ways I encouraged students to engage with this shift, in not only response to lynching, but the criminal justice apparatus.

So if I could give advice to any teachers out there who are interested in exploring how you can introduce these topics into the classroom, I always find doing things at the local level is way more impactful. Even though I didn't teach classes in Paris, Texas, I was teaching in Texas when I first came up with this idea and this teaching strategy. And so even something from the state that you are working in, and especially if you're in the South, there will be hundreds of examples that you can tap into.

This will really allow this kind of more intimate connection with what's going on, because it's places that students can recognize in many ways. But it also allows you to look at local newspapers, which most local historical associations will have. You can even find some of these readily available through the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America. There's just myriad digital resources that are also available for you to look at how how white Southerners are responding at the local level to lynchings that take place in their community.

And that just opens the door for you to explore these changes in legal processes that would probably typically be fairly boring to a class of students, if you just 'bullet point' talked about these changes. But this allows you to tap into the issue of lynching, and look at the ways in which reactions are related to the changing nature of criminal justice in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Bethany JayBrandon T. Jett is a Professor of History at Florida Southwestern State College. He is the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South: African Americans and Law Enforcement in Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans, 1920-1945. Dr. Jett is also the creator of the digital history project Lynching in LaBelle. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.

Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.

Thanks to Dr. Chase and Dr. Jett for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintiss and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback. I’m Dr. Bethany Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.

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