Convicts Leased to Harvest Timber


This early-20th-century photograph shows the harsh working conditions for African-American prisoners caught up in the convict labor system of the state of Florida, which had a notorious reputation for its severe penal labor system. Throughout the American South, African-Americans were far more likely than whites to be incarcerated for minor crimes, and imprisonment and forced labor were tools used by local and state governments to enforce Jim Crow racial restrictions. Agreements between correctional institutions and private corporations such as lumber companies and turpentine manufacturers enabled companies to use convict labor to greatly reduce labor costs in a state that already had very low labor costs. Companies that benefited from the system gave tacit and direct support for the social and legal barriers aimed against the black citizens. Some of these relationships were official, such as within the convict lease system. Others were unofficial, as when African-Americans were arrested for minor or artificial offenses and then rented out to landowners, construction companies, or lumber companies in exchange for kickbacks in what constituted a modern form of peonage.

Last updated: October 22, 2014