The Walk Free Foundation recently reported in their 2014 Global Slavery Index that 35 million people in the world today are trapped in different forms of slavery. These include forced labor, trafficking, debt bondage, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation, with the greatest numbers in India (14 million) and the highest proportion in Mauritania (4% of the population). How is this possible in the 21st Century? Looking back at a form of forced labor in the United States—one that lasted well into the 20th century—may well be instructive here.
Convict leasing was a largely Southern U.S. institution that came of age after the Civil War. Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, did much to bring this practice to light, especially after the airing of 2012 PBS documentary based on his book. Blackmon particularly dissected the role of the U.S. Steel Corporation in exploiting convict labor in Alabama coal mines (this was big business: 10% of the state of Alabama’s income was from convict leasing).
Calvin R. Ledbetter Jr., writing about the “Long Struggle to End Convict Leasing in Arkansas,” explained how in the post-Civil War period “impoverished southern states turned to a system of leasing convicts to companies and to private individuals for a fee in order to secure revenues. This solved the problem of building penitentiaries and caring of convicts. Thus convict leasing […] allowed a form of slave labor to continue to exist after the emancipation of black slaves.”
Notoriously, the crimes these men were convicted of were often misdemeanors like “vagrancy.” Conditions in the isolated, privately-run labor camps were brutal: mortality rates among the convicts were often higher than among pre-Civil War slaves. Jeffrey A. Drobney recounts the terrors of the system in Florida’s turpentine industry.
Matthew J. Mancini also wrote a revelatory book on the subject in 1996, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing the American South 1866-1928. In an earlier article, Mancini described the systems as “part of the elaborate social system of racial subordination which had previously been assured by the practice of slavery. That is, the lease system was a component of that larger web of law and custom which effectively insured the South’s racial hierarchy.”
Most Americans probably think that slavery ended in the United States in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But read that short amendment again: “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.” The architects of Jim Crow used that escape clause to perpetuate a form of slavery into modern memory, with effects still felt throughout the nation.