Thirteenth Amendment led to the lease of convicts in the era of reconstruction

The 13th Amendment was a step in the right direction for African Americans across the nation but the freedom movement was short-lived due to the economic crisis the southern economy endured after the bill was passed in 1865. Convict leasing and Chin gangs were formed to help rebuild the Southern after the civil war for free. Which has now continued to affect the African American people for generations. This investigation is going to explore the reasons for this step backward, asking the question:

Of particular importance in answering this question will be the front page of a newspaper article, published by Birmingham News on April 10, 1911.

This Newspaper article depicted the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company’s Banner Coal Mine collapse from an explosion, killing 123 African American Miners. It purpose of this study was to inform American Public about the unsafe working conditions that these prisoners endure. This tragedy then created questions within the legislation about the convict leasing system which later lead to governor Emmet O’Neal to push a mine safety bill through state legislation later in April.

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The value of this newspaper article is that it objectively informed the public by using not using loaded language not favoring for convict leasing or against it.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a book written by Michelle Alexander is the study of mass incarceration targeting African American males in the United States. It purpose of this study is to educate the public, policymakers, and politicians about a wrong that has been continuing to happen throughout American history through the argument that mass incarceration is modern-day slavery.

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Michelle’s use of evidence in both legal and cases and statistical leaves minimal room for confusion. The limitation to this source is that the book was published in 2010 and the author is a known civil rights litigator. She tends to only show one perspective of mass incarceration which influences the reader to believe a one-sided argument and not educate themselves and take their own stance.

According to Jonathan Simon in 2005, mass incarceration which is also known as “mass imprisonment” was coined by David Garland in 2000 to describe the distinctive expansion of imprisonment in the United States between 1975 and the late 1990s1. For the purpose of this essay mass incarceration or mass, imprisonment will be referring to the time period of the reconstruction era. Mass incarceration targets African American males, which have low socioeconomic status and little to no education. It weakens poor families and promotes a devastating effect that potentially lasts for generations. According to Rotteger and Dennison (2018), the U.S. legal system leaves the convicted vulnerable to legal discrimination in the workplace, permanent loss of voting rights, and the ineligibility for social programs2. The institution of mass imprisonment was set in place to control African Americans following the era of slavery and Jim Crow laws

On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and states “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 (U.S. Const. amend. XIII)”3.  This amendment grants freedom to the slaves, but there are exceptions excluding criminals. With this amendment four million former slaves entered the southern economy. Those former slaves played an integral part in the economy of the south. To rebuild the southern economy the New South used that loophole to arrest blacks/African Americans in bulk.

During the Civil War, in 1860 the Southern economy and price of cotton were at an all-time high. The wealth in the south was great due to the economic value of Slaves in the United States being greater than the rest of the nation’s capital. When the slaves were removed from the economy the south plummeted. The south then used the 13th amendment exception on criminals to their advantage to rebuild their economy during reconstruction. African Americans were portrayed in the movie “The Birth of a Nation”.  The depiction of as criminals in this film reflected how white people in the United States viewed African Americans during this time period. Then this allowed states to put prisoners to work through a practice called convict-leasing where white planters and industrialists leased prisoners to work for them.

According to Lichtenstein (2015), chain gangs and convict leasing was an essential part of the political economy in the New South. After the Civil War, new offenses called “malicious mischief” were vague, and could be counted as felony or misdemeanor depending on the supposed severity of the behavior. These laws sent more black people to prison than ever before, and by the late 19th century the country experienced its first “prison boom,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow Laws. “After a brief period of progress during Reconstruction, African Americans found themselves, once again, virtually defenseless,” Alexander writes. “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.” States and private businesses made money doing this, but the prisoners didn’t. This meant many black prisoners found themselves living and working on plantations against their will and for no pay decades after the Civil War.

Like chattel slavery before it, convict leasing was brutal and inhumane. Across the country many African Americans were leased by the state to plantation owners, privately owned railroad yards, These convicts are forced to work for petty crimes such like vagrancy or theft. Many prisoners died in these conditions. In July 2018, researcher Reginald Moore that he found the body remains of 95 black prisoners who died working in Sugar Land, Texas in the early 20th century. More than 3,000 prisoners died in Texas between 1866 and 1912, which is the same year Texas outlawed convict leasing because the death toll was so high. Another instance happened in Birmingham Alabama where 123 African Americans were killed in the

Jim Crow laws were universal southern laws. Jim Crow demanded segregation by color in all public places. The development of the carceral state was intentional and a well-thought-out plan.   This plan had immediate effects of social disaster.  In theory, one would think that with the massive increase of imprisonment, that there would be a decrease in crime because prison is a deterrent. However, public safety did not improve, this suggests that incarceration does not work especially not for nonviolent offenses.  Incarceration is now a much less effective means to reform.  Incarceration is being used as a weapon to disenfranchise blacks. Historically, blacks have experienced systematic disenfranchisement in the U.S. In addition to using the penal system to disenfranchise African Americans, the media was then incorporated to provide a more global effect.

In conclusion, convict leasing and chain gangs allowed the South to gain free labor once again. Convict leasing was the beginning of the prison boom. During this time, southerners arrested the former slaves for very minor crimes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, African Americans males make up 37% of the prison population.  The effects of being incarcerated are lifelong for many.  In some states, the right to vote is stripped away forever. Consequently, African American families have suffered for decades because of incarceration. Black men were portrayed as inhumane, shiftless, criminal, and a threat to society. The Southern economy suffered after the 13th Amendment, because of this they exploited the clause of criminals not being free, to rebuild their economy during the reconstruction era.

Working on my investigation showed me that as a historian you have to put your personal bias and look at the evidence given and try to used what you have learned with the research you have done to create analysis from multiple viewpoints not just the one I viewed as most important to answer the research question. When writing my investigation I found myself using loaded language to and skewing my vocabulary toward the ,ass incarceration of these African American males to be negative instead of understanding that the southerners used the bill to their avenge which then help them rebuild their economy that has been deprived of one of the main factors that kept the south thriving which was free labor. While conducting my research I learned that history is different from many other areas of knowledge because there is no correct way to interpret history, with so many different perspectives there is no exact truth but only interpretations of the event. Historians strive to be objective when analyzing events but because of perspective, the event will be told many different way just due to language. Studies show that the language you speak can create misunderstanding during an event. Spanish speakers put more emphasis on the actual event that happened while English speakers will remember who did it rather than what happened


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Thirteenth Amendment led to the lease of convicts in the era of reconstruction. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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