After the Civil War, Georgia and other Southern states faced economic uncertainty. Dependent on enslaved black labor that was no longer available after emancipation and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern economies struggled to find a new solution. For many, leasing state convicts to labor for private businesses seemed the perfect answer.
Ratified in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime” and seemingly permitted the forced labor of prisoners. At the same time, Southern prison populations had grown greatly following the Civil War, and that increase was disproportionately fueled by newly-emancipated black men and women incarcerated for violating discriminatory Black Codes that criminalized unemployment and vagrancy and severely punished even the most minor thefts.
On May 11, 1868, in the midst of Reconstruction, Georgia Provisional Governor Thomas Ruger leased 100 black prisoners to William A. Fort of the Georgia & Alabama Railroad for one year for $2500 under an agreement that made Mr. Fort responsible for their well-being. Sixteen prisoners died before the end of the contract. Undeterred, Georgia officials expanded the system the following year, leasing all 393 state prisoners to work on another railroad. Over the next several years, convict leasing in Georgia proved both deadly and profitable. The state legislature routinely turned a blind eye to reports of inhumane treatment and even murder and, in 1876, authorized the state to enter into long-term, twenty-year convict leasing contracts valued at $500,000.
From the Equal Justice Initiative’s A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar.
“The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is proud to present A History of Racial Injustice – 2018 Calendar. America’s history of racial inequality continues to undermine fair treatment, equal justice, and opportunity for many Americans. The genocide of Native people, the legacy of slavery and racial terror, and the legally supported abuse of racial minorities are not well understood. EJI believes that a deeper engagement with our nation’s history of racial injustice is important to addressing present-day questions of social justice and equality.