Editor’s note: In two former legal statutes referenced below, a racist term was replaced with the word Black in brackets.
The claim: Convict leasing, an example of systemic racism, was used to force Black people into unpaid labor for private and state industry.
Prior to the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery, a now-unavailable Facebook post asserted that the convict leasing system used in the Southern United States forced Black people into unpaid labor.
It argues Black Codes, or laws specifically for Black people, were used to criminalize many aspects of everyday life for Black citizens and create harsher sentences for petty crimes.
The Facebook post was later shared on other accounts and provides a variety of data related to the convict leasing system, but no sources are cited for the content.
The user who shared the original post could not be reached for comments or clarification.
Due to the length of the post, it requires an examination of the data presented as facts.
Convict leasing in the South
Initial assertions in the June 15 Facebook post reference several Southern states leasing convicts after ratification of the 13th Amendment ended slavery. Nine states — Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina — are mentioned.
These states did use a convict leasing system after the Civil War. Some states, like Louisiana, also used convict leasing pre-war, but the numbers exploded after slavery ended.
An Alabama History Education Initiative lesson explains: “Huge numbers of convicts, primarily Black males, many of whom had been legally but unjustly imprisoned, often on trumped up charges, were leased by governments across the South to various businesses in search of a source of cheap labor.”
The convict leasing system exploited a clause in the 13th Amendment to provide a basis for involuntary servitude.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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."
Black Codes and policing
The Facebook post further asserts states hired hundreds of white men as police officers to assist with the business of arresting Black people.
A U.S. Department of Justice publication, Perspectives on Policing, released in January 1990, features a report titled “The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View” by Hubert Williams and Patrick V. Murphy.
The report argues modern-style American policing finds its origins in slave patrols developed by white slave owners. It also references a passage from “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” by E.E. Foner regarding enforcement of Black Codes, or laws used to regulate Black behavior.
“The entire complex of Black Codes was enforced: ‘by a police apparatus and judicial system in which Blacks enjoyed virtually no voice whatever. Whites staffed urban police forces as well as State militias.”
In 1865, a white person in Mississippi said it was to keep “good order and discipline” among the Black population.
The Facebook posts states police sought out and arrested Black people who were violating Black Codes and leased these people — men, women and children — to plantation, coal mines or railroad companies. The business or plantation owners paid the state for every prisoner who worked for them.
In an 1893 speech manuscript housed at the Library of Congress, Frederick Douglass discusses the convict leasing system:
“Under the Convict Lease System the criminals are leased in bulk in their respective states, to whoever has the political ring, and that party, by paying a small sum to the state, sublets them in gangs to R.R.s and other corporations, and to plantations. The state throws off the entire responsibility of caring for her convicts, and turns them over into the hands of the lessee, whose only interest in them is, to secure for himself, what profit he can for their labor.”
Douglass also said county officials and corporations had a mutual interest in increasing the number of convicts for “selfish and pecuniary purposes.”
How many people were victims of the convict leasing system?
The Facebook post states, “It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system.”
The data provided as an estimate cannot be proven or disproven because accurate records for the convict leasing system do not exist in the various states.
In a 2009 interview with Newsweek, “Slavery by Another Name” author Douglas A. Blackmon was asked for a number and stated, “It is impossible to determine the precise numbers.”
Blackmon said at least 200,000 African Americans were subjected to the convict leasing system in Alabama. Over the 80-year period before the system was formally ended in 1941, he estimates tens of millions were either forced to live on a farm, in a lumber camp or forced into convict leasing by the justice system.
The documentary “Slavery by Another Name,” financed in part by the National Endowment of the Humanities, estimates that 800,000 faced the corrupt justice system with “huge numbers of those arrested forced into involuntary servitude.”
How did the convict leasing system end?
The Facebook post references peonage not ending until after World War II began, around 1940.
In fact, it ended five days after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 12, 1945.
A National Archives record featuring FBI classifications includes Classification 50: Involuntary Servitude and Slavery. It references Department of Justice Departmental Circular #3591 issued on Dec. 12, 1941.
This circular amended a previous definition of peonage “as involuntary servitude plus debt” and removed the debt element. Instead, “Attorneys were instructed to disregard the element of debt and to depend upon the issue of involuntary servitude and slavery.”
Exploitation of the 13th Amendment
The 13th Amendment’s phrasing allowed lawmakers to use criminal punishment to legally force involuntary servitude.
Black Codes and "pig laws" are some of the better-known examples of this abuse.
The term “pig law” derives from Mississippi, where the theft of any property over $10 became grand larceny. According to the Mississippi Department of History’s historic timeline, the prison population subsequently quadrupled. The convict leasing system benefited by providing cheap labor across the state.
Black Codes use a variety of restrictions to limit the freedom of Black people and made arrest easy.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, “A vagrancy law allowed local courts to arrest people whom they defined as idle, fine them and contract their labor if they could not pay the fine”
Local courts were able to force people into any type of labor until a fine was paid. Any person sentenced to time in a county jail for a misdemeanor or petty offense could also be forced into labor.
What are some examples of Black Codes?
Examples of Black Codes featured in the Facebook post are true.
In Louisiana, the St. Landry Parish Police jury established codes limiting the movement of Black people.
Section 1 of the code prohibited Black people from passing within the limits of the parish without a special permit in writing from an employer. Punishment was a $2.50 fine, four days of work on the public road or corporeal punishment.
Section 4 required every Black person to be in the regular service of a white person or former owner who would be responsible for their behavior.
Section 6 is specifically highlighted in the Facebook post and states Black people are not allowed “to preach, exhort or otherwise declaim to congregations of (Black) people, without a special provision in writing from the president of the police jury.”
Of note is the Facebook post states the “president of the police.” In Louisiana, a police jury is the governing entity of a parish and takes the place of a County Board of Commissioners and similar bodies in the counties of other states.
In South Carolina, Black Codes also regulated the children of Black people who were considered vagrants.
In Volume 13 of The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, a section on Master and Apprentice states:
“(Black) children, between the ages mentioned, who have neither father nor mother living in the District in which they are found, or whose parents are paupers, or unable to afford them habits of industry and honesty, or are persons of notoriously bad character, or are vagrants, or have been, either of them, convicted of infamous offense, may be bound as apprentices by the District Judge, or one of the Magistrates for the aforesaid term.”
The accepted age range started at 2 and ended when an apprenticeship term would conclude at age 18 for a Black woman and age 21 for a Black man.
Systemic racism and peonage
In the Facebook post, peonage is framed as an example of systemic racism, or racism established and perpetuated by government systems.
A June 15 USA Today article focused on systemic racism features multiple definitions of the term.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson defined systemic racism, also called structural racism or institutional racism, as "systems and structures that have procedures or processes that disadvantages African Americans."
The implementation and use of the convict leasing system is an example of systemic racism.
Our ruling: True
We rate the claim that convict leasing, an example of systemic racism, was used to force Black people into unpaid labor for private and state industry as true. This rating is supported by our research. Black people were overwhelmingly the victims of the convict leasing system after the Civil War. Laws were passed to create the basis for arresting Black people for a variety of small offenses or, in some instances, for moving freely within a state without written permission from an employer.
Our fact-check sources:
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Convict leasing forced Black people into unpaid labor