This is a photograph from an exhibit presented at the African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois. The exhibition is titled Black/Inside. The purpose of this exhibit was to take people through the history of incarceration and black men.When I first came across this photo, I saw shock, pain, hurt, frustration, and confusion on this man’s face. This picture, to me, represents to horrors and confusion that came after the so called emancipation of Black slaves in the United States. This photograph is of a Black prisoner who was sold into convict leasing. Convict leasing is when state officials would sell the labor of an African American prisoner to a contractor in exchange for revenue (Pollard, “Slavery by another name”) . The private contractor would then gain full custody and have total control over the prisoner. Once Blacks were in the system,they could spend their entire life there.Sound familiar?
After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed to establish equality amongst newly freed slaves and every other United States citizen, but that didn’t exactly take place. Slavery continued but under a different name and justification ( Bowers). The 13th Amendment states “ “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction (Amendment 13).” Under the 13th Amendment, slavery is legal as a punishment for someone who is convicted of a crime.
After slavery there was growing animosity and attacks on Blacks from White Southerners. In an attempt to keep Black Americans from advancing by using their new found freedom, states came up with many laws that punished petty crimes and offenses that were not seen as crimes before the Civil War. Immediately after the Civil War, black codes were enacted in Southern States. Under black codes, Blacks were not allowed to testify against whites and they had limited access to the courts (Pollard, “Slavery by another name”) . After black codes were repealed in 1866, Southern states made a whole host of laws intended to keep Black people down. Pig Laws were created and they unfairly targeted poor African Americans for stealing small farm animals. Misdemeanors and trivial offenses were treated as felonies..
The question that many people might have right now is, well aren’t these punishments going to pertain to every Southerner? Short answer is no. During slavery, Blacks were punished by their owners and whites were punished by the courts. After slavery only 10% of the people arrested were white. Douglas A. Blackmon author of, Slavery By Another Name: The Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, recalls going on a research trip to a small courthouse in Alabama, looking for arrest records from the 1890s- 1900 and he found a reference to an African American boy who had been charged with a very minor crime and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Mr. Blackmon, looked at the very next page to see another record about two white boys, about the same age as the African American boy, who had committed a more serious crime,but they had the much shorter sentence of about 6 months of doing small farm work.
It is safe to say that some of these “convicts” in this convict leasing system, weren’t even convicts. African Americans were targeted mainly because of the exaggeration of African American crime. Some of these African American men were arrested for trivial things like walking on the side of the railroad; which was made illegal in the south. Men, like the man in the picture, had to work in some of the most dangerous working conditions imaginable. Convicts would drink dirty water, were whipped, chained, and mentally abused. These punishments sound a lot like the ones that were used during slavery. Convict leasing was a way of keep the free labor that was provided to many whites during slavery and for African Americans it represented false promises and broken dreams.
Many of us in the United States, myself included, were taught that slavery ended after the thirteenth amendment was passed by congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified on December 6, 1865. I was taught that African Americans were hard working and after slavery they made organizations and they came together as a people to advance with the help of the government.This is not entirely false, but it is not entirely true either. It wasn’t until I took African American Studies 101, that I learned about the struggles and the many setbacks that African Americans faced after slavery. Everything that I have been told or that I have read did mention that African Americans were not treated fairly, but those mentions were always drowned out by the emphasis on African American resistance.
To me the picture of this man represents the history that I have not been taught and it represents the hopes and dreams that have been viciously robbed of African Americans after “emancipation.” When I first saw this photo I thought of what might be going through this man’s mind. He could be thinking of the men in his family who have fought for the freedom of African Americans, the hopes that his parents or grandparents had for him after slavery, or he could be trying to figure out how this could have happened.
I believe this photograph tells the story of African American life after slavery. A life that was filled with discrimination, injustice, and suffering that is sometimes neglected by scholars and the general public.
N.d. Black/Inside Exhibition, n.p.
“Prison Culture » Black/Inside: Curating An Exhibition about Captivity & Confinement #2.” Prison Culture RSS. N.p., 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Bowers, Devon Douglas. “Slavery By Another Name: The Convict Lease System I The Hampton Institute.” Slavery By Another Name: The Convict Lease System I The Hampton Institute. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/convictleasesystem.html#.VkzANXarSUk>.
Slavery by Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. PBS Distribution, 2012. Film.
The Constitution of the United States, Amendment 13