Peonage caught millions of Black boys and men in the web of convict leasing by leveraging the freight-sized loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing enslavement in the case of imprisonment. Jim Crow politicians made an end run around the rising labor movement’s demands by resurrecting slavocracy and sweeping Black men and boys off the street for infractions as trite as sitting on a park bench for too long, looking at a White man in the eyes, or attempting to steal a pig. They were sentenced to fifteen to twenty-five years in prisons, where they were leased to wealthy local business owners and forced to do hard labor on farms, on railroads, and in coal mines. They men got nothing. The states got bank. By 1898, 73 percent of Alabama’s GDP was provided by convict leased labor.
As David Oshinsky explains in Worse Than Slavery: “Duringthe railroad boom of the 1870s and 1880s, convicts laid most of the 3,500 miles of new track in North Carolina.” Of the South Carolina-based railroad company, Oshinsky adds: “At the prison camps of the Greenville and Augusta Railroad, convicts were used up faster than South Carolina authorities could supply them. Between 1877 and 1879, the G&A ‘lost’ 128 or 285 prisoners to gunshots, accidents, and disease (a death rate of 45 percent) and another thirty-nine to escapes.”
From “Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World–and How to Repair It All” by Lisa Sharon Harper