One of the biggest weaknesses of any constitutional amendment is that of the 13th Amendment, allowing for unpaid labor by prisoners. Whether its writers thought through the potential repercussions of this, it was used by whites to ensure a whole lot of slave labor by African-Americans, simply by throwing them in jail for doing nothing wrong.
A similar portrait is emerging in Sugar Land, Tex., a suburb southwest of Houston, where researchers are examining the remains of about 95 African-Americans whose unmarked graves were discovered this year. The dead are almost certainly victims of the second system of slavery that arose whens Southerners set out to circumvent the 13th Amendment of 1865, which outlawed involuntary servitude except as punishment for criminal conviction.
Those states imposed what the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Douglas Blackmon rightly describes as “Slavery by Another Name” — sweeping Negroes into custody for petty offenses like vagrancy, then turning them over to plantation owners and others who sometimes notified the local sheriff in advance of how much labor they needed. This practice, which persisted in various forms up to World War II, stripped African-Americans of the ability to accumulate wealth while holding them captive in dangerous, disease-ridden environs that killed many of them outright. The Sugar Land site offers present-day Americans a look at this shameful period from an unusual vantage point.
According to a 2004 study by the historian Amy Dase, the state began leasing inmates to private enterprises outside of prisons in 1867 for construction of the roadbed along rail lines. Subsequent contracts hired out prisoners to chop and mill wood, mine coal and quarry stone. By the 1880s, more than a third of Texas’s inmates were engaged in 12 of the state’s 18 sugar plantations through a contract with two prominent businessmen who needed “a cheap labor supply that could be coerced much as slaves had been” to make sugar production profitable.
The Texas inmate population was whiter than in other Southern states, but owing to racist stereotypes, whites were given more favorable work assignments. African-Americans were typically assigned to swampy plantations where the dangerous, backbreaking occupation of chopping sugar cane often awaited them.
The plantations in Fort Bend County, where the lost graves were recently uncovered, were described as “low, mosquito infested swamp and the sluggish bayous [that] were habitats for alligators and noisome creepers. Convicts labored barelegged in wet sugar cane fields, dying like flies in the periodic epidemics of fevers.” Housing was poor, brutality rampant, and the annual mortality rate is said to have been 3 percent. To demark their suffering, inmates named the region the “Hell Hole on the Brazos’’ — a label that persists to this day.
The new graves were uncovered this year during the construction of a new school in Fort Bend County, where researchers believe the graveyard was used between 1878 and 1911. The timing suggests that some of those buried at the site are likely to have begun their lives in formalized slavery only to be ensnared in the successor system of bondage that Southern states expressly designed to replace it.
This was common all over the South. Among the other victims was a young black American soldier who got in trouble while serving in Richmond, Virginia and who was then convict leased out to a railroad. His name: John Henry.
This is as much a legacy of slavery as actual chattel slavery, yet it rarely gets discussed. Given the unjust oppression of people of color through the penal system has never ended, current struggles around Black Lives Matter is no more and no less than the latest iteration of the centuries-long struggle by African-Americans simply to survive white supremacy.