A mass grave was unearthed in Sugar Land, Texas, where imprisoned and enslaved people worked sugar plantations during the slavery and Jim Crow eras. “One local historian believes this is the tip of the iceberg — that similar sites span the surrounding area.”
Those prisoners were people trapped in racist peonage.
But the most corrupt and abusive peonage occurred in concert with southern state and county government. In the south, many black men were picked up for minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and, when faced with staggering fines and court fees, forced to work for a local employer would who pay their fines for them. Southern states also leased their convicts en mass to local industrialists. The paperwork and debt record of individual prisoners was often lost, and these men found themselves trapped in inescapable situations.
Let’s get some context for these mass graves from Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. Convict leasing was racist, brutal, and unjust.
Black people found themselves yet again powerless and relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery. Sunshine gave way to darkness, and the Jim Crow system of segregation emerged—a system that put black people nearly back where they began, in a subordinate racial caste.
Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” as crimes were enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing, in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor. Laborers were subject to almost continual lashing by long horse whips, and those who collapsed due to injuries or exhaustion were often left to die.
Convicts had no meaningful legal rights at this time and no effective redress. They were understood, quite literally, to be slaves of the state. The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery but allowed one major exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime. In a landmark decision by the Virginia Supreme Court, Ruffin v. Commonwealth, issued at the height of Southern Redemption, the court put to rest any notion that convicts were legally distinguishable from slaves:
For a time, during his service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of the State. He is civiliter mortus; and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.
The state of Mississippi eventually moved from hiring convict labor to organizing its own convict labor camp, known as Parchman Farm. It was not alone. During the decade following Redemption, the convict population grew ten times faster than the general population: “Prisoners became younger and blacker, and the length of their sentences soared.” It was the nation’s first prison boom and, as they are today, the prisoners were disproportionately black.
This harsh reality harks back to the days after the Civil War, when former slaves and their descendents were arrested for minor violations, slapped with heavy fines, and then imprisoned until they could pay their debts. The only means to pay off their debts was through labor on plantations and farms—known as convict leasing—or in prisons that had been converted to work farms. Paid next to nothing, convicts were effectively enslaved in perpetuity, as they were unable to earn enough to pay off their debts. Today, many inmates work in prison, typically earning far less than the minimum wage—often less than $3 per hour, sometimes as little as 25 cents. Their accounts are then “charged” for various expenses related to their incarceration, making it impossible for them to save the money that otherwise would allow them to pay off their debts or help them make a successful transition when released from prison. Prisoners are typically released with only the clothes on their backs and a pittance in gate money. Sometimes the money is barely enough to cover the cost of a bus ticket back home.
This Texas Monthly piece looks into Sugar Land’s history, its willful amnesia, and the connections between convict leasing and today’s mass incarceration.
Off U.S. 90, behind a bustling shopping center, is a small cemetery surrounded by two concentric rings of chain-link fence. Inside are several dozen crumbling headstones, inscribed with the names and prison numbers of the convicts who died working the sugar plantations that gave the city its name. Most of the convicts died young.
Harvesting cane was even more arduous than picking cotton. Slaves worked around the clock during harvest season to cut the sugarcane, press out the cane juice, boil it down, and then pack the finished product onto trains to be shipped around the country. “Sugar work was about as bad as you can imagine,” said Sean Kelley, a historian of early American history at the University of Essex. “People got sick, they died. Women’s fertility rates plummeted. Europeans quickly discovered that you couldn’t get people to work in this voluntarily, which is why there’s a strong historical linkage between sugar and slavery.”
Cunningham and Ellis survived the abolition of slavery by finding a new source of cheap labor: the Texas prison system. Although they weren’t the first growers to use convict labor, they were the biggest: in 1878 they signed a contract with the state to lease Texas’s entire prison population. This was perfectly legal, since the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, made one very consequential exception: “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Italics added.)
After abolition, the prison population exploded, disproportionately with black men. Unable to house and feed all the new prisoners, the state began renting them out to private companies, who were grateful for the supply of cheap labor.
The working conditions in Cunningham and Ellis’s sugar fields were as bad or worse than they had been on the slave plantations. Mosquito-borne epidemics, frequent beatings, and a lack of medical care resulted in a 3 percent annual mortality rate. The plantation soon became notorious across the state as the “Hellhole on the Brazos.”
Almost totally missing from the city’s historical memory, Moore realized, is any trace of the slave and convict labor that made the area’s sugar plantations so profitable. The history on the official city website makes no mention of slavery or convict leasing.
“Convict leasing is the missing link between slavery, which everyone knows about, and the disparate impact of the criminal justice system on African Americans today.”
As a Twitter thread: