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W.E.B. DuBois
Consider DuBois’s essay on the convict lease system:
How does DuBois define the “convict-lease system”?
Based on DuBois discussion, what is the process by which convict leasing follows a crime?
How does DuBois describe the private police run by slave owners before the Civil War? According to DuBois, what difficulties does the tradition of private police raise following the Civil War in the South?
Explain what DuBois means by the following statements:
“The state became a dealer in crime.”
“Above all, we must remember that crime is not normal.”
How does the theory of crime and punishment that DuBois sets forth relate to Marx’s and Engels’s theory of crime? Consider similarities and differences.
How does the theory of crime and punishment that DuBois sets forth relate to Durkheim’s theory of crime and punishment? Consider similarities and differences.
Requirements: N.a
Printed from Black Studies Center 9/21/2020DuBois, W.E.B. ““The Spawn of Slavery: The Convict-Lease System in the South”.” 14 (1901):110–116.The Spawn of Slavery: The Convict-Lease System in the SouthA modified form of slavery survives wherever prison labor is sold to private persons for theirpecuniary profit.—Wines.***Two systems of controlling human labor which still flourish in the South are the direct children ofslavery, and to all intents and purposes are slavery itself. These are the crop-lien system and theconvict-lease sytem. The crop-lien system is an arrangement of chattel mortgages so fixed that thehousing, labor, kind of agriculture and, to some extent, the personal liberty of the free black laborer isput into the hands of the landowner and merchant. It is absentee landlordism and the “company-store”systems united and carried out to the furthest possible degree. The convict-lease system is the slaveryin private hands of persons convicted of crimes and misdemeanors in the courts. The object of thepresent paper is to study the rise and development of the convict-lease system, and the efforts tomodify and abolish it.Before the Civil War the system of punishment for criminals was practically the same as in the North.Except in a few cities, however, crime was less prevalent than in the North, and the system of slaverynaturally modified the situation. The slaves could become criminals in the eyes of the law only inexceptional cases. The punishment and trial of nearly all ordinary misdemeanors and crimes lay in thehands of the masters. Consequently, so far as the state was concerned, there was no crime of anyconsequence among Negroes. The system of criminal jurisprudence had to do, therefore, with whitesalmost exclusively, and as is usual in a land of scattered population and aristocratic tendencies, the lawwas lenient in theory and lax in execution.On the other hand, the private well-ordering and control of slaves called for careful cooperation amongmasters. The fear of insurrection was ever before the South, and the ominous uprising of Cato, Gabriel,Vesey, Turner, and Toussaint made this fear an ever-present nightmare. The result was a system ofrural police, mounted and on duty chiefly at night, whose work it was to stop the nocturnal wanderingand meeting of slaves. It was usually an effective organization, whichterrorized the slaves, and to Which all white men belonged, and were liable to active detailed duty atregular intervals.Upon this system war and emancipation struck like a thunderbolt. Law and order among the whites,already loosely enforced, became still weaker through the inevitable influence of conflict and socialrevolution. The freedman was especially in an anomalous situation. The power of the slave policesupplemented and depended upon that of the private masters. When the masters’ power was broken thepatrol was easily transmuted into a lawless and illegal mob known to history as the Ku Klux Klan.Then came the first, and probably the most disastrous, of that succession of political expedients bywhich the South sought to evade the consequences of emancipation. It will always be a nice questionof ethics as to how far a conquered people can be expected to submit to the dictates of a victorious foe.BSC : Print View…1 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM
Certainly the world must to a degree sympathize with resistance under such circumstances. Themistake of the South, however, was to adopt a kind of resistance which in the long run weakened hermoral fiber, destroyed respect for law and order, and enabled gradually her worst elements to secure anunfortunate ascendency. The South believed in slave labor, and was thoroughly convinced that freeNegroes would not work steadily or effectively. The whites were determined after the war, therefore,to restore slavery in everything but in name. Elaborate and ingenious apprentice and vagrancy lawswere passed, designed to make the freedmen and their children work for their former masters atpractically no wages. Some justification for these laws was found in the inevitable tendency of manyof the ex-slaves to loaf when the fear of the lash was taken away. The new laws, however, went farbeyond such justification, totally ignoring that large class of freedmen eager to work and earn propertyof their own, stopping all competition between employers, and confiscating the labor and liberty ofchildren. In fact, the new laws of this period recognized the Emancipation Proclamation and theThirteeth Amendment simply as abolishing the slave-trade.The interference of Congress in the plans for reconstruction stopped the full carrying out of theseschemes, and the Freedmen’s Bureau consolidated and sought to develop the various plans foremploying and guiding the freedmen already adopted in different places under the protection of theUnion army. This government guardianship established a free wage system of labor by the help of thearmy, the striving of the best of the blacks, and the cooperation of some of the whites. In the matter ofadjusting legal relationships, however, the Bureau failed. It had, to be sure, Bureau courts, with onerepresentative of the ex-master, one of the freedman, and one of the Bureau itself, but they nevergained the confidence of the community. As the regular state courts gradually regained power, it wasnecessary for them to fix by their decisions the new status of the freedmen. It was perhaps as natural asit was unfortunate that amid this chaos the courts sought to do by judicial decisions what thelegislatures had formerly sought to do by specific law—namely, reduce the freedmen to serfdom. As aresult, the small peccadillos of a careless, untrained class were made the excuse for severe sentences.The courts and jails became filled with the careless and ignorant, with those who sought to emphasizetheir new-found freedom, and too often with innocent victims of oppression. The testimony of a Negrocounted for little or nothing in court, while the accusation of white witnesses was usually decisive. Theresult of this was a sudden large increase in the apparentcriminal population of the Southern states—an increase so large that there was no way for the state tohouse it or watch it even had the state wished to. And the state did not wish to. Throughout the Southlaws were immediately passed authorizing public officials to lease the labor of convicts to the highestbidder. The lessee then took charge of the cnvicts—worked them as he wished under the nominalcontrol of the state. Thus a new slavery and slave-trade was established.The Evil Influences.The abuses of this system have often been dwelt upon. It had the worst aspects of slavery without anyof its redeeming features. The innocent, the guilty, and the depraved were herded together, childrenand adults, men and women, given into the complete control of practically irresponsible men, whosesole object was to make the most money possible. The innocent were made bad, the bad worse;women were outraged and children tainted; whipping and torture were in vogue, and the death-ratefrom cruelty, exposure, and overwork rose to large percentages. The actual bosses over such leasedprisoners were usually selected from the lowest classes of whites, and the camps were often far fromsettlements or public roads. The prisoners often had scarcely any clothing, they were fed on a scantydiet of corn bread and fat meat, and worked twelve or more hours a day. After work each must do hisBSC : Print View…2 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM
own cooking. There was insufficient shelter: in one Georgia camp, as late as 1895, sixty-one men sleptin one room, seventeen by nineteen feet, and seven feet high. Sanitary conditions were wretched, therewas little or no medical attendance, and almost no care of the sick. Women were mingledindiscriminately with the men, both in working and sleeping, and dressed often in men’s clothes. Ayoung girl at Camp Hardmont, Georgia, in 1895, was repeatedly outraged by several of her guards,and finally died in childbirth while in camp.Such facts illustrate the system at its worst—as it used to exist in nearly every Southern state, and as itstill exists in parts of Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states. It is difficult to say whether theeffect of such a system is worse on the whites or on the Negroes. So far as the whites are concerned,the convict-lease system lowered the respect for courts, increased lawlessness, and put the states intothe clutches of penitentiary “rings.” The courts were brought into politics, judgeships became electivefor shorter and shorter terms, and there grew up a public sentiment which would not consent toconsidering the desert of a criminal apart from his color. If the criminal were white, public opinionrefused to permit him to enter the chain-gang save in the most extreme cases. The result is that evento-day it is very difficult to enforce the laws in the South against whites, and red-handed criminals goscot-free. On the other hand, so customary had it become to convict any Negro upon a mereaccusation, that public opinion was loathe to allow a fair trial to black suspects, and was too oftentempted to take the law into their own hands. Finally the state became a dealer in crime, profited by itso as to derive a net annual income for her prisoners. The lessees of the convicts made large profitsalso. Under such circumstances, it was almost impossible to remove the clutches of this vicious systemfrom the state. Even as late as 1890 the Southern states were the only section of the Unionwhere the income from prisons and reformatories exceeded the expense. Moreover, these figures donot include the county gangs where the lease system is to-day most prevalent and the net incomelargest.[TABLE]INCOME AND EXPENSE OF STATE PRISONS AND REFORMATORIES, 1890.The effect of the convict-lease system on the Negroes was deplorable. First it linked crime and slaveryindissolubly in their minds as simply forms of the white man’s oppression. Punishment, consequently,lost the most effective of its deterrent effects, and the criminal gained pity instead of disdain. TheNegroes lost faith in the integrity of courts and the fairness of juries. Worse than all, the chain-gangsbecame schools of crime which hastened the appearance of the confirmed Negro criminal upon thescene. That some crime and vagrancy should follow emanicipation was inevitable. A nation can notsystematically degrade labor without in some degree debauching the laborer. But there can be no doubtbut that the indiscriminate careless and unjust method by which Southern courts dealt with thefreedmen after the war increased crime and vagabondage to an enormous extent. There are no reliablestatistics to which one can safely appeal to measure exactly the growth of crime among theemancipated slaves. About seventy per cent of all prisoners in the South are black: this however, is inpart explained by the fact that accused Negroes are still easily convicted and get long sentences, whilewhites still continue to escape the penalty of many crimes even among themselves. And yet allowingfor all this, there can be no reasonable doubt but that there has arisen in the South since the war a classof black criminals, loafers, and ne’er-do-wells who are a menace to their fellows, both black and white.The appearance of the real Negro criminal stirred the South deeply. The whites, despite their long, seBSC : Print View…3 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM
of the criminal court for putting Negroes to work, were used to little more than petty thieving andloafing on their part, and not to crimes of boldness, violence, or cunning. When, after periods of stressor financial depression, as in 1892, such crimes increased in frequency, the wrath of a peopleunschooled in the modern methods of dealing with crime broke all bounds and reached strange depthsof barbaric vengeance and torture. Such acts, instead of drawing the best opinion of these states and ofthe nation toward a consideration of Negro crime andcriminals, discouraged and alienated the best classes of Negroes, horrified the civilized world, andmade the best white Southerners ashamed of their land.What Has Been Done.Nevertheless, in the midst of all this a leaven of better things had been working, and the bad effects ofthe epidemic of lynching quickened it. The great difficulty to be overcome in the South was the falsetheory of work and of punishment of wrong-doers inherited from slavery. The inevitable result of aslave system is for a master class to consider that the slave exists for his benefit alone—that the slavehas no rights which the master is bound to respect. Inevitably this idea persisted after emancipation.The black workman existed for the comfort and profit of white people, and the interests of whitepeople were the only ones to be seriously considered. Consequently, for a lessee to work convicts forhis profit was a most natural thing. Then, too, these convicts were to be punished, and the slave theoryof punishment was pain and intimidation. Given these ideas, and the convict-lease system wasinevitable. But other ideas were also prevalent in the South; there were in slave times plantationswhere the well-being of the slaves was considered, and where punishment meant the correction of thefault rather than brute discomfort. After the chaos of war and reconstruction passed, there came fromthe better conscience of the South a growing demand for reform in the treatment of crime. The worsthorrors of the convict-lease system were attacked persistently in nearly every Southern state. Back inthe eighties George W. Cable, a Southern man, published a strong attack on the system. The followingdecade Governor Atkinson, of Georgia, instituted a searching investigation, which startled the state byits revelation of existing conditions. Still more recently Florida, Arkansas, and other states have hadreports and agitation for reform. The result has been marked improvement in conditions during the lastdecade. This is shown in part by the statistics of 1895; in that year the prisons and reformatories of thefar South cost the states $204,483 more than they earned, while before this they had nearly alwaysyielded an income. This is still the smallest expenditure of any section, and looks strangely smallbeside New England’s $1,190,564. At the same time, a movement in the right direction is clear. Thelaws are being framed more and more so as to prevent the placing of convicts altogether in privatecontrol. They are not, to be sure, always enforced, Georgia having several hundreds of convicts socontrolled in 1895 despite the law. In nearly all the Gulf states the convict-lease system still has astrong hold, still debauches public sentiment and breeds criminals.The next step after the lease system was to keep the prisoners under state control, or, at least, regularstate inspection, but to lease their labor to contractors, or to employ it in some remunerative labor forthe state. It is this stage that the South is slowly reaching to-day so far as the criminals are concernedwho are dealt with directly by the states. Those whom the state still unfortunately leaves in the handsof county officials are usually leased to irresponsible parties. Without doubt, work, and work worth thedoing02/20/09—i. e., profitable work— is best for prisoners. Yet there lurks in this system a dangeroustemptation. The correct theory is that the work is for the benefit of the criminal—for his correction, ifpossible. At the same time, his workBSC : Print View…4 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM
should not be allowed to come into unfair competition with that of honest laborers, and it should neverbe an object of traffic for pure financial gain. Whenever the profit derived from the work becomes theobject of employing prisoners, then evil must result. In the South to-day it is natural that in the slowturning from the totally indefensible private lease system, some of its wrong ideas should persist.Prominent among these persisting ideas is this: that the most successful dealing with criminals is thatwhich costs the state least in actual outlay. This idea still dominates most of the Southern states.Georgia spent $2.38 per capita on her 2.938 prisoners in 1890, while Massachusetts spent $62.96 percapita on her 5,227 prisoners. Moreover, by selling the labor of her prisoners to the highest bidders.Georgia not only got all her money back, but made a total clear profit of $6.12 on each prisoner.Massachusetts spent about $100,000 more than was returned to her by prisoners’ labor. Now it isextremely difficult, under such circumstances, to prove to a state that Georgia is making a worsebusiness investment than Massachusetts. It will take another generation to prove to the South that anapparently profitable traffic in crime is very dangerous business for a state: that prevention of crimeand the reformation of criminals is the one legitimate object of all dealing with depraved natures, andthat apparent profit arising from other methods is in the end worse than dead loss. Bad public schoolsand profit from crime explain much of the Southern social problem. Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana,as late as 1895, were spending annually only $20,799 on their state prisoners, and receiving $80,493from the hire of their labor.Moreover, in the desire to make the labor of criminals pay, little heed is taken of the competition ofconvict and free laborers, unless the free laborers are white and have a vote. Black laborers arecontinually displaced in such industries as brick-making, mining, road-building, grading, quarrying,and the like, by convicts hired at $3, or thereabouts, a month.The second mischievous idea that survives from slavery and the convict-lease system is the lack of allintelligent discrimination in dealing with prisoners. The most conspicuous and fatal example of this isthe indiscriminate herding of juvenile and adult criminals. It need hardly be said that such methodsmanufacture criminals more quickly than all other methods can reform them. In 1890, of all theSouthern states, only Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia made any stateappropriations for juvenile reformatories. In 1895 Delaware was added to these, but Kentucky wasmissing. We have, therefore:[TABLE]And this in face of the fact that the South had in 1890 over four thousand prisoners under twenty yearsof age. In some of the Southern states—notably. Virginia—there are private associations for juvenilereform, acting in cooperation with the state. These have, in some cases, recently received state aid, Ibelieve. In other states, like Georgia, there is permissive legislation for the establishment of localreformatories. Little has resulted as yet from this legislation, but it is promising.I have sought in this paper to trace roughly the attitude of the South towardcrime. There is in that atitude much to condemn, but also something to praise. The tendencies are to-day certainly in the right direction, but there is a long battle to be fought with prejudice and inertiabefore the South will realize that a black criminal is a human being, to be punished firmly buthumanely, with the sole object of making him a safe member of society, and that a white criminal atlarge is a menace and a danger. The greatest difficulty to-day in the way of reform is this race question.The movement for juvenile reformatories in Georgia would have succeeded some years ago, in allBSC : Print View…5 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM
probability, had not the argument been used: it is chiefly for the benefit of Negroes. Until the publicopinion of the ruling masses of the South can see that the prevention of crime among Negroes is just asnecessary, just as profitable, for the whites themselves, as prevention among whites, all true bettermentin courts and prisons will be hindered. Above all, we must remember that crime is not normal: that theappearance of crime among Southern Negroes is a symptom of wrong social conditions—of a stress oflife greater than a large part of the community can bear. The Negro is not naturally criminal; he isusually patient and law-abiding. If slavery, the convict-lease system, the traffic in criminal labor, thelack of juvenile reformatories, together with the unfortunate discrimination and prejudice in otherwalks of life, have led to that sort of social protest and revolt which we call crime, then we must lookfor remedy in the sane reform of these wrong social conditions, and not in intimidation, savagery, orthe legalized slavery of men.Related Schomburg Essays:Bernstein — African Americans and the Criminal-Justice SystemDurable URL: © 2004-2020 ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.Copyright © 2004-2020The HistoryMakers®BSC : Print View…6 of 69/21/20, 3:08 PM