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The Chain-Gang System

September 16, 1897 — Second Convention of the National Association of Colored Women, Nashville TN


[Because Butler was not able to attend, this paper was read to the members by Margaret Murray Washington.]


Madam President Delegates and Friends: —

I bring to you at this time, not an address filled with rhetorical figures and fine diction, which would fill your souls with admiration and cause your minds to soar to loftier realms, and bask themselves in all that is grand and noble; but I bring to you facts, pure and simple, of a system of dealing with human souls in this age of Christian civilization; intelligence and culture, that causes one to pause and ask the question: “Are we living in the nineteenth century, that boasts of its great advancements along the line of Christianity; or are we living in a period of the “dark ages?” The Armenian massacre, the butchery of the struggling Cubans and the horrors and cruelty of the Siberian prisons, all sink into oblivion when one knows the foul condition of affairs as they exist in the “Convict Lease System” of the South, and especially Georgia.

I shall confine my talk to the “Convict Lease System” as practiced in Georgia.

For the benefit of those who do not understand the system of leasing convicts in Georgia, I quote the following explanation of the three classes of convicts in the State:

First. “The felony convicts, sentenced to the Penitentiary and confined under the State lease system, and regularly inspected by the State Penitentiary Department.”

Second. “Misdemeanor or county convicts, actually employed on the public works, either by the county in which they were convicted or a county to which they were leased, but subject to no State inspection and under the control of no State official.”

Third. “Misdemeanor or county convicts, leased by the county authorities to private individuals, in direct violation of the law and subject to no inspection.”

The legislature leased the first-class convicts for a term of twenty years to convict camp companies. In these camps are employed more than 2,000 convicts.

The State has no control over the county or misdemeanor convicts at all. They are sentenced by the county in which they were convicted, to the chain-gang, and must be employed upon the public works of said county, or they are leased to another county to perform the same kind of work. This is lawful; but if the county officials have contracted to furnish private individuals or corporations, they accordingly convict as many persons as possible, so as to fill the contract. This is illegal, but has been practiced for many years in the “Empire State of the South.” There are at least as many legal county chain-gangs as there are counties in the State, but there are twenty-four operated by private individuals, that have been inspected by the commissioner sent out by the Governor. There may be many more hidden in some lonely part of the counties. The convicts in these private chain-gang camps are worked upon farms, in turpentine distilleries, saw mills, brick-yards, etc. Many of the counties lease their convicts to other counties at the rate of $3.00 per month for well and strong men, and $1.50 for women and men with physical disabilities.

The recent report, which is not yet published, shows that the convicts worked by the counties are well cared for, and only in a few instances, have they suffered from the want of food, clothing and from brutal treatment by chain-gang “bosses.” It is those convicts leased to private corporations who suffer miseries which their poor, miserable selves and God know. The chain-gang bosses, as a rule, are selected from the lowest element in the white race, and rather glory in their office and the freedom of dealing out misery and cruelty to helpless convicts for small offences, and often for no offence at all. Many of the chain-gang camps are situated in places remote from settlements and public roads, where no one can interfere with the inhuman treatment these poor, helpless creatures receive from beings who would be a disgrace to the brute kingdom. Many of the prisoners have scarcely enough clothing on their uncared for bodies to protect them from the gaze of others, or from winter’s cold or summer’s heat. Many of them have garments in which they were convicted months ago, and which to-day are dirty, greasy and worn almost to shreds. The majority of the prisoners in these private camps are poorly fed. Their diet consists chiefly of corn bread and fat meat, and what is worse, many of them work from ten to twelve hours a day, after which they return to their sleeping quarters, to find not even the necessities and comforts which a prisoner is entitled to — good, wholesome food, well cooked, and a good, healthy place in which to sleep. These men return, after a long and hard day’s work, to find no supper prepared, no fire to dry their wet clothes or warm their cold bodies, as the case may be. Each is given his ration, and in turn must cook it over a fire that has been made in the yard of the stockade, four or five using the same skillet to bake their bread and fry their meat.

From the facts just stated, you can judge the sanitary condition of these chain-gang camps. In one camp sixty-one men were found sleeping in a room not more than nineteen feet square and seven feet from the floor ceiling. How they came out alive the next morning, after having spent the night in this room, with but one opening, a door, is a wonder which would puzzle a scientist to solve. Many of these convicts know not the comfort of sleeping upon even a cheap mattress or a heap of straw, but must wrap about their tired and neglected bodies a blanket much worn and filled with dirt and vermin, and lie down, not upon a wood floor, but the dirt floor of a tent, to lose themselves in sweet sleep that knows no color or standing — sleep that will, perhaps, take them back to home, mother, and innocent childhood.

The sanitary condition is repulsive and a reflection upon any civilized people.

Most of the deaths in private camps are caused by the negligence on the part of the “bosses” to secure medical attention when it is needed. Little or no provision is made for the care of the sick; some have been forced to work till they fell upon the ground, dead. The recent report shows the death rate to be twice as large in the private camps as in the county camps. Men have been sent to these private camps, hale and hearty, with strong muscles, and apparently, a long lease on life, but having staid there a short time, exposed to the unhygienic surroundings and the inhuman treatment, if death does not come to them immediately, they leave the camp when their terms have expired, physical wrecks, mere shadows, that scarcely remind one of what the man once was. In some camps the convicts are whipped with a leather strap; in others they are strangled with water.

The convicts are very shy of visitors, and are afraid to expose the treatment received at the camp, especially while they are prisoners. During the trial of some of the lessees of the State, conducted by his excellency, Gov. W.Y. Atkinson, I saw, as did every one in the room, the shyness with which the convicts would answer questions put to them by the State, that would expose the treatment they received. They knew that on their return to their camps they would be at the mercy of their “bosses.”

Many Negro boys are sent to these camps for a trivial offense, made to do hard work, endure cruel beating and to associate with men hardened to crime. This illustration will give you some idea of the treatment which some of the boys are subjected to. In a certain county, a Negro boy was sentenced to the chain-gang. The grand jury sent for this boy, and on his way it was noticed that instead of occupying a seat in the buggy, he rode astride a pole that rested upon the seat and the dash-board of the buggy. An investigation showed that the boy had been so cruelly whipped that he could not sit down.

What grade of citizenship can any town or State expect to have when it “sends up” a boy for thirty days for stealing five cents worth of peanuts, to take his first lesson in a place whose influence is everything that tends to destroy soul and body? In Wilkes county, an aged colored man was whipped so unmercifully that he fell upon the ground in a helpless state and said: “Boss, is you going to kill me?” With an oath, the inhuman white “boss” said “yes.” Then the old man begged to be killed, that he might die immediately. After cruelly beating the old man, the young white “boss” dragged him to a tree and chained him up so that he could not lie down. In this position he remained only a short while for death relieved him of his earthly torture. His murderer is still in jail.

These are but mild illustrations of the torture that has been practiced in many of the private camps for years, not only upon men, but women, who have committed some small offense. In some camps men and women are worked indiscriminately, the latter being dressed in men’s clothes. No provision is made for the separation of the sexes in the sleeping quarters. A young girl was sent to chain-gang camp in Wilkes county, where she was made to put on men’s clothes and dig ditches, just as the men did. For any small offense the white “boss” would beat her on her bare back before the male convicts — her pleadings would have no effect on the white “boss.” The Governor pardoned this unfortunate girl that she might be relieved of her sufferings.

One of the most touching cases that has come before the public, is that of a young girl at Camp Hardmont, a camp for women. The guards became so infatuated with her, that peace did not always reign within the camp among the guards. One day an offspring came; both mother and child died. The matter was kept quiet for some time. Finally one of the sensational papers gave it to the public as it really was. These two cases will give you an idea of the life of a woman committed to the chain-gang camps. Women, though already steeped in sin, find these chain-gang camps and “bosses,” repulsive to their polluted lives.

I have given you but a brief talk on the “Convict Lease System” as it really is. There is much more to be said, but too awful to relate to such a gathering as this. Only a few weeks ago I sat by a young woman who sat in her bed, dying from a loathsome disease, brought on by exposure and aggravated by neglect, while serving out a sentence in these chain-gang camps. Her condition became so alarming that friends secured a pardon for her. She was taken to her home in an alley, where, soon after she died. In these chain-gang camps the women have no moral restraint thrown about them, no one to sympathize with and persuade them to lead better lives. Col. [Phill G.] Byrd, who was recently appointed by the Governor to investigate the chain-gang camps, has made a report that shows a state of affairs to be existing in these private camps, that reflects upon a civilized and a Christian led people. This report has so aroused the press and the good and law abiding people of Georgia, that as the nineteenth century closes this “Convict Lease System,” which is not only illegal, but demoralizing, will be blotted from the records of Georgia.

Too much praise and appreciation cannot be given to Gov. Atkinson for he has done more to bring Georgia to a higher point of civilization than any other Governor she has had.



Source: The Chain-Gang System, Read before the National Association of Colored Women at Nashville, Tenn., 16 September 1897, by Selena S. Butler, (Tuskegee: Normal School Steam Press Print), 1897, p. 7.