Saturday, October 31, 2015

This Day In History...The Convict Lease

On October 31, most of us annually don masks and descend upon the neighborhoods of our city or town, seeking the answer to one question: trick or treat?  In eastern Tennessee in 1891 however, miners donned masks for a much more serious and worthy cause, freeing prisoners being forcibly used as free labor, and giving them the chance at a new life.  In today’s version of “This Date in History” I’ll remind you of events that touch on issues at the forefront of political battle today, such as unions, racism, and the free market.  I’ll also talk about how October 31, 1891 was a turning point in what became known as “The Coal Creek War”.

The "Convict lease" system was nothing short of legalized
slavery, and lasted for about 30 years after the Civil War.
“The Convict Lease” was an agreement originally worked out in Tennessee, which quickly spread across the south in the years following the Civil War.  With hundreds of thousands of freed slaves-many released with no more property than the clothes on their back-roaming the south, petty crime had spiked, and without the use of those slaves, production had declined.  The southern economy hadn’t yet figured out how to work without the use of forced labor, and in an effort to both rebuild the south and continue to grow, they turned to an old reliable tactic of production: forced labor.

“Convict leasing” really began for the first time seriously in eastern Tennessee, when Thomas O’Conner, a professional card player with a very deep wallet and some serious political connections negotiated (and by “negotiated” I mean bribed) the Tennessee legislation into a 5 year lease of what amounted to the state’s entire prison system for the price of $150,000.  By 1871, O’Conner had worked out an agreement with the Tennessee Coal Mining Company as the primary lessee of state prisoners for use as coal miners, and then additionally as railroad laborers.

Opponents to the system pointed out it’s similarity to slavery, with the judge and courts acting as traders, while wardens played the part of owners.  The program also used local police to feed them prisoners, as working conditions were hard, leading to a very high turnover rate-as high as 50% in some areas-due to death from incidents involving explosions (dynamite), landslides, cave collapses, and flooding.  Local police were happy to oblige, picking up sweeps for drunks and vagrants when the need for labor was high, who would then be sentenced to anywhere from 60 to 90 days of hard labor-if they managed to survive.

American historian David Oshinsky writes:
“Railroad fever was sweeping the state, and unskilled labor was in short supply.  After little debate and much bribery, the legislators turned over the entire prison system to a professional card gambler named Thomas O’Conner for $150,000 on a 5 year lease.  By 1871, state convicts were laying track and mining coal from Memphis to Knoxville.  Each morning their urine was collected and sold to local tanneries by the barrel.  When they died, their unclaimed bodies were purchased by the Medical School at Nashville for the students to practice on.”

Forced labor from convicts helped ease the pain of the Civil
War on the south's farming system, and was responsible
for a good deal of construction on the country's new railroad.
He goes on to talk about the flexibility of local laws, according to the company’s labor needs:
“The numbers ebbed and flowed according to the labor needs of the coal companies and the revenue needs of the counties and the state.  When times were tight, local police would sweep the street for vagrants, drunks, and thieves.  Hundreds of blacks would be arrested, put on trial, found guilty, sentenced to 60 to 90 days, plus court costs, and then delivered to a “hard labor agent”, who leased them to the mines.  In an average year, 97% of Alabama’s county convicts had “colored” written next to their names.”

Mine owners found convict laborers were not very cooperative, often sabotaging their own work, or the mines in an effort to get time off due to broken equipment, or poor quality of work and thus a decreased demand for their product. To combat this problem, many coal companies mixed in free laborers as well, hoping that with enough men whose jobs could be lost and who wanted to be there, they’d be able to better combat the issues with quality and sabotage.  Unfortunately, adding these free laborers into an abusive work environment introduced the ability to organize-or at least attempt to.

Throughout the 1880’s, free laborers organized to protest such issues as company checkweight men, who routinely underweighed their production to save money, payment in legal tender vs. “scrip” (basically a company credit, perhaps to the company store), and the Convict lease, which robbed free workers of any leverage negotiating fair wages, or the ability to strike, since they could be replaced by workers at ⅙ of the cost of a free laborer.

By the early 1890’s the struggle between workers and ownership in the coal mines and railroads of eastern Tennessee was flirting with real violence, having gone from protesting and lobbying to fire setting.  The workers’ frustrations mounted, and on July 5, 1891 the TCMC locked them out, replacing them with convict laborers; the straw that broke the already fragile peace between the workers and company.  Nine days later, on the 14th of July workers and their allies would raid the convict stockade in Briceville, breaking their fellow convicts out.  The convicts would quickly be returned, only to be released in another raid 6 days later, on the 20th.

Over the next few months, miners would attack the stockades in Briceville and Coal Creek, and Governor Buchanan would convene with legislators to discuss the convict lease, partly due to the rebellion, but also in part due to the company being 11 months behind on “rent” of the convicts.  On October 31, 1891 however, things took a real turn as the miners’ rebellion made a significant change to their strategy: they started actually freeing their comrades.

On the night of October 31, three days after mining leaders had resigned and issued statements officially endorsing and encouraging pacifism in the resolution of their problems, they donned masks and lead 1,000 armed workers in a charge on Briceville’s stockade and mine. After overcoming and disarming the militia stationed there, the miners freed their comrades, supplying them with clean clothes, and putting them on the train to Knoxville, effectively freeing them from the convict lease.  

Some prisoners remained behind and moved on with their liberators to Coal Creek, where they freed still more prisoners in the same fashion, resulting in 300 freed prisoners that night.  Over the next year the miners would continue with this strategy, freeing most of the forced laborers throughout the summer of 1892.  A few more attacks would follow as negotiations carried on, ultimately ending for good when Tennessee became the first state to abolish the convict lease, under the leadership of former pro-lease judge and sitting Governor at the time, Governor Peter Turney.

Looking back, it’s hard not to see the cycle created by greed, both through the government accepting bribes and a company purely seeking profit and let loose on the free market, completely unhindered by regulation.  First, society released these slaves with nothing, then when they had to steal to eat, or couldn’t find housing, would be locked up as vagrants and thieves, sentenced to months of hard labor which they weren’t likely to survive.  Stuck in this cycle, there didn’t appear to be much hope, and for 25 years this policy dominated most of the southern states, as they were reconstructed on the blood, sweat, and tears of the unpaid black worker in much the same way they’d originally been built in the first place.  Today, locals claim that on a quiet night, you can hear the screams of the miners who died in one of the greatest disasters of that time; the Fraterville mining disaster, which killed 184 of 187 men living in the area.  But that is a story for another day in history.

On this day in history, October 31, coal miners in eastern Tennessee struck a critical blow in a bloody war that began as a labor movement, and ended in the liberation of thousands of forced laborers.  This generation of Tennesseans were surrounded by war veterans; their fathers had fought in the Civil War, their sons would fight in World War 1, and their grandsons in World War 2.  This generation fought an important battle as well however, ensuring fair treatment for miners, railroad workers, and laborers all across the South, as the economy and country healed from the Civil War.

Labor unions have certainly grown, and evolved into colossal organizations that often forget their roots.  The dream of a “free market” dominates certain political airwaves, and most seem to have forgotten the origin of labor unions, and the difficult times that existed prior to some of the regulations that were instituted for a reason, in some cases, what seems like a very long time ago.

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