I chose this shocking image of juvenile delinquents working in the field as my cultural artifact. In a broader perspective, this reflects convict leasing. “Convict leasing is a system in which Southern states leased prisoners to private railways, miners, and large plantations. While states profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, dangerous, and often deadly work conditions” 1 Even after the the Thirteenth Amendment had been ratified by the United States’ (US) Constitution in in 1865, Southerners exploited in a loop-hole. In the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude is illegal, but the law exempted convicts. Southerners realizing this exploitation used this to their advantaged by passing the ““Black Codes” – new laws that explicitly applied only to black people and subjected them to criminal prosecution for “offenses” such as loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, having weapons, and not carrying proof of employment”1. One of the laws passed during this time period was the “Pig Laws”, which evaluated minor crimes into felonies for the sole purpose of incarcerating blacks to exploit their labor.
Southerners, in fear of losing their free labor force, rushed to pass these laws to keep their profits. Most slave owners after the emancipation didn’t release their slaves until harvest season was over to squeeze every ounce of free labor they could from the African Americans. Others… such as loyalist who supported the north during the Civil War. They were ignored by the federal government, so they were able to keep their slaves longer. Many owners in the deep south even tried to keep freedom a secret until freed slaves trying to reunite with family arrived to claim them. This shows how dependent the white slave owners were relying on slaves.
I’m particularly drawn to this image because of how it reflects cruelty of society and the greed of “whites”. White people have been exploiting slavery for centuries and they became so dependent on their skills and labor that when the Civil War ended; they panicked by making all these laws to keep them in check. Convict-leasing was born after whites figured out they could hire out slaves to private companies for money and actually make more profit than they ever made. This photo in particular shows the exploitation of child labor in the form of convict- leasing. These uneducated and literate kids fell victim to the infamous “vagrant laws”, which requires freed blacks to have proof of employment and permanent residence. The problem is that slaves have been given everything during slavery including: food, labor, and shelter. Slaves weren’t prepared to live on their own because they were also dependent on what the white slave owners provided them. Slave were institutionalized the moment they set foot on American soil, so this became a major factor in slowing down their freedom and integration into the American society dominated by whites.
This cultural artifact is presented by a website called http://www.eji.org – which stands for Equal Justice Initiative – during their History of Racial Injustice 2013 calendar. Eji is a unique:
nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment. EJI also prepares reports, newsletters, and manuals to assist advocates and policymakers in the critically important work of reforming the administration of criminal justice.
This article in particle brought up the problem of convict-leasing after the the Civil War and emancipation. Convict-leasing being a prime example of racial injustice was brought to our attention by the EJI Organization who wants to stop unfair treatment in the legal system.The creation of this artifact took place around the 1860’s after the Thirteenth Amendment had been ratified. After the ratification of the 13th, most slave owners had to set their slaves free and lost a massive amount of their labor force. As a result of hundreds of thousands of slaves roaming freely, states passed laws like the “black codes” to keep the former slaves in check. Black codes became the new slave codes because it limited what slaves could do and couldn’t do. Slaves couldn’t possess firearms or sell liquor. It established separate court system to to deal with civil and criminal cases involving blacks. The codes developed laws like the vagrancy laws and pig laws to restrain black freedom as much as possible.
Reconstructing the South is significant to the African American lives because the laws passed during this time period were designed to make Blacks feel inferior to Whites. The Vagrancy Laws passed during this time made it illegal for Blacks to be unemployed, forcing blacks to sign labor contracts. By doing this, plantation owners were able to get some of their labor force back and continue to exploit black labor. Black labor was exploited because they they didn’t pay blacks enough to survive and forced them to take out loans with extremely high interest rates causing them to be a debt peonage system. The debt peonage system is a system where workers work themselves into debt instead of earning money; causing them to become a permanent labor source for whites. Pig Laws amplified the minor crimes into felonies, so whites could put blacks back into chains and force them into the convict-leasing system.
The emergence of this artifact (picture) had no significant impact on this time period because African Americans had no power in society. Whites remained dominate long after the emancipation because of the many unjust-laws passed and the continuation of racial discrimination in America. White people’s view of this image didn’t change during this time period because they were busy trying to come up with laws to detract slaves from fully achieving their equality in society. Blacks on the other hand, were too busy trying to provide for their families and finding work to be worried about this picture of convict-leasing. They couldn’t do anything about this because they have no political power at this point. Over time, the significance of this image increased because it is used to reflect the power whites had over African Americans even after slavery was abolished. Images like these that show the oppression of blacks during this time period helped spark the civil rights movements.
This cultural artifact relates to the course material of AFRAM 101, which is where I got most of my information during this segment of this course. The lecture on the Reconstruction Era during class provided me with enough information to supplement my blog. Professor Pittman went into detail on the various laws used to restrict the freedom of Blacks and the many ways that laws were bent in order to exploit Blacks for labor like the convict-leasing system. The debt peonage system and sharecropping were systems used to take advantage of blacks in need of work to provide for their families. I chose this topic over the rest because it changed my views on racial inequality and the desperation of whites to achieve profits. This made me realize that whites will still ignore federal laws unless they are strictly enforced by the government. I also learned that laws passed during this time period were strictly passed to make blacks second class citizens and enforce the notion of white superiority, which was something I didn’t know about before entering this class.
“About EJI.” EJI. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
1“EJI’s History of Racial Injustice Highlight: Convict Leasing.” EJI. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.