Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South


In 1868, the state of Georgia began to make its rapidly growing population of prisoners available for hire. The resulting convict leasing system ensnared not only men but also African American women, who were forced to labor in camps and factories to make profits for private investors. In this vivid work of history, Talitha L. LeFlouria draws from a rich array of primary sources to piece together the stories of these women, recounting what they endured in Georgia's prison system and what their labor accomplished. LeFlouria argues that African American women's presence within the convict lease and chain-gang systems of Georgia helped to modernize the South by creating a new and dynamic set of skills for black women. At the same time, female inmates struggled to resist physical and sexual exploitation and to preserve their human dignity within a hostile climate of terror. This revealing history redefines the social context of black women's lives and labor in the New South and allows their stories to be told for the first time.


This book is an effort to give voice to a group that has been too long silent. There was no greater inspiration for this effort than memories of my greatgrandmother, a woman of quiet dissemblances, meaningful pauses, and reticence when it came to sharing “too much” about the past. Born in 1904 in Troup County, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers, Grandma Leola had a mental strongbox filled with memories. Though occasionally she would unfetter her recollections and reveal the details of her life, there was much about her youth that never left that sacred container.

As a young girl, I spent many Saturday afternoons at my greatgrandparents’ charming little house on Harvest Lane. I would whiz through the front gate, with my mother trailing behind, and make my way to the front porch, where “Gramma” would be sitting on a sun-bleached wooden bench scouting the “purty cars,” “rowdy chilluns,” and strangers passing by. Among the neighborhood folks, she was renowned for her ability to wield an axe like a samurai, wring a chicken’s neck with half a twist, turn fried meat with her bare hands, and flip blazing-hot cornbread into her leathery palms without scalding her flesh.

Our greeting was always the same: “Hi, Gramma!” “Hi, baby.” Next she would bend down to hug me. Her skin looked and felt like chocolate pudding, and her powder-scented dresses gave off a faint scratching sound whenever she moved. Then I would tiptoe past her snuff can and spit bucket and take a seat on the bench. Now and then, Gramma would reach into her heart and offer me a tiny morsel of her life history.

I enjoyed watching the light come into Gramma’s eyes as she proudly spoke about “birthin’ all thirteen a dem chilluns” or of the days my greatgrandfather spent “makin’ a fool outta hisself “ trying to woo her. She would say, “Yo’ grampa was a purty man. All dem gals wanted em, but not me.” Then an earthquake of laughter would shake her entire body. But when I would ask what it was like coming of age in Rough Edge—a rural farming town on the outer edge of LaGrange, Georgia—all that joy would vanish. A vulnerability would enter her eyes. She would run her wide fingertips against her wrinkled forehead. In a low, serious tone she would say . . .

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