Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900

Article excerpt

Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900. By Mary Ellen Curtin. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Pp. xi, 261; $59.50, cloth.)

In a riveting analysis of black prisoners in Alabama in the late 19th century, Curtin reveals the connections between the profit motive, the alleged increase in crime, the increasing black prison population and white racism. By detailing these interrelationships, Curtin clarifies some very disturbing patterns for any opponent of racism or lover of democracy. She also explains why political reforms to improve the conditions of life of the prisoners failed. Perhaps most remarkable are the numerous parallels that she draws in the last chapter with Alabama a hundred years ago and the mushrooming prison population in the United States today, which at two million, has the largest number of convicts of any nation in the world.

Also impressive are the rich sources she has mined-prison and government records, prisoners' correspondence, testimony from hearings and data from the corporations which leased the convicts. Some earlier historians' and the public's misconceptions concerning the failure of Reconstruction, the corruption of black freedmen, their descent into a life of crime, and the need to punish and discipline them wither in the face of Curtin's relentless analysis. She does not rely upon newly discovered records or sophisticated quantitative or other faddish techniques to disprove these nostrums. In this respect, her approach is similar to that of Peter Wood's Black Majority. She examines documents which others have utilized but with fresh insights and new questions.

Political and economic realities dictated the treatment of Alabama freedmen and the eventual utilization of convict labor in the coal mines, industry and agriculture at every juncture. "The failure of Reconstruction shaped the fate of black prisoners in late 19th century Alabama" (p. 9). During this federal attempt to absorb newly-emancipated slaves into a democratic government and social structure, "a solid practice of whites turning to the courts to prosecute African Americans for purposes of social control" developed (p. 9). The infamous Black Codes were one instrument southerners used to control blacks. Plantation owners were also notorious for not paying black workers. It is noteworthy that Republicans were indifferent to the conditions of life in the prisons when they controlled the state. When Democrats drove them out of power, white supremacists were determined to remove African Americans from any meaningful position in society except as humble subjects and avid consumers.

The economic plight of the "redeemers" regimes caused them to turn to the coal mining companies and other industries for the cash revenue they so sorely needed. The Tennessee Coal and Iron and the Pratt Coal and Coke companies paid for the right to work, house, feed and discipline state and county prisoners, relieving government of the expense of accommodating the growing prison population. Conditions of life were so brutal that, as Curtin explained, "Pratt prison mines sucked in labor and spat out cripples, the dead and the fortunate who survived." (p. 197) An extremely high death rate, prison escapes, mine explosions and crippling accidents, suffocating gases, leg chains and brutal beatings whittled away at the prison population-mostly African Americans. …

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