Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning of World War II, millions of African-Americans were compelled into or lived under the shadow of the South's new forms of coerced labor. Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands were arbitrarily detained, hit with high fines and charged with the costs of their arrests. With no means to pay such debts, prisoners were sold into coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroad construction crews and plantations. Others were simply seized by southern landowners and pressed into years of involuntary servitude.Link.
At the turn of the 20th century, at least 3,464 African-American men and 130 women lived in forced labor camps in Georgia, according to a 1905 report by the federal Commissioner of Labor.
Beginning in July 1908, a commission established by the Georgia Legislature convened a series of hearings into the state's system of leasing prisoners to private contractors. Meeting early every day and late into the night to escape the city's excruciating heat, the panel called more than 120 witnesses over three weeks to give testimony in the state Capitol's regal Room No. 16.
Accounts of Brutalities
Witness after witness -- ranging from former guards to legislators to freed slaves -- gave vivid accounts of the system's brutalities. Wraithlike men infected with tuberculosis were left to die on the floor of a storage shed at a farm near Milledgeville. Laborers who attempted escape from the Muscogee Brick Co. were welded into ankle shackles with three-inch-long spikes turned inward -- to make it impossibly painful to run again. Guards everywhere were routinely drunk and physically abusive.
Testimony described hellish conditions at Chattahoochee Brick and other operations owned by Mr. English, a luminary of the Atlanta elite and a man hardly anyone in the reviving city would have associated with human cruelty. But by 1908, Mr. English -- despite having never owned antebellum slaves -- was a man whose great wealth was inextricably tied to the enslavement of thousands of men.
Born in 1837 near New Orleans and orphaned as a teenager, he served as a young man in the Confederate army, rising to become a captain in a prominent Georgia brigade. After the South's defeat, he went to Atlanta to establish himself in the business and politics of the bustling new capital of southern commerce. He led a drive to make the city the state capital of Georgia, cementing its foundation as an economic center. In 1880 he was elected mayor.
Presiding from an elegant home, Mr. English, a portly man with a thick shock of white hair and a matching mustache, fostered a collection of enterprises that grew as Atlanta emerged from its Civil War ruin.
The base of his wealth, Chattahoochee Brick, relied on forced labor from its inception, in 1878, and by the early 1890s, more than 150 prisoners were employed in the wilting heat of its fires. By 1897, Mr. English's enterprises controlled 1,206 of Georgia's 2,881 convict laborers, engaged in brick making, cutting crossties, lumbering, railroad construction and making turpentine.
Mr. English parlayed his industrial wealth to become one of the South's most important financiers as well. In 1896, he founded Atlanta's Fourth National Bank and became its first president.
Mr. English strenuously denied to the Georgia committee that any "act of cruelty" had ever been "committed upon a convict" under the control of himself or any member of his family. He insisted that he and his son were essentially absentee owners of the brick factory, having little to do with its daily operations.
"If a warden in charge of those convicts ever committed an act of cruelty to them," Mr. English said, "and it had come to my knowledge, I would have had him indicted and prosecuted."
Yet his testimony affirmed how Chattahoochee Brick -- like so many other Southern enterprises -- forced laborers to their absolute physical limits to extract modern levels of production using archaic manufacturing techniques.
Once dried, the bricks were carried at a double-time pace by two dozen laborers running back and forth -- under almost continual lashing by Mr. English's overseer, Capt. James T. Casey. Witnesses testified that guards holding long horse whips struck any worker who slowed to a walk or paused.
By the end of the century, the forced laborers churned out 300,000 hot red rectangles of hardened clay every day. Millions were sold to the Atlanta City Council to pave streets and line the sidewalks of Atlanta's flourishing new Victorian neighborhoods, according to company and city records.
The prisoners of the brickyard produced nearly 33 million bricks in the 12 months ending in May 1907, generating sales of $239,402 -- or about $5.2 million today. Of that, the English family pocketed the equivalent of nearly $1.9 million in profit -- an almost-unimaginable sum at the time.
A string of witnesses told the legislative committee that prisoners at the plant were fed rotting and rancid food, housed in barracks rife with insects, driven with whips into the hottest and most-intolerable areas of the plant, and continually required to work at a constant run in the heat of the ovens.
On Sundays, white men came to the Chattahoochee brickyard to buy, sell and trade black men as they had livestock and, a generation earlier, slaves on the block. "They had them stood up in a row and walked around them and judged of them like you would a mule," testified one former guard at the camp.
Another guard told the committee that 200 to 300 floggings were administered each month. "They were whipping all the time. It would be hard to tell how many whippings they did a day," testified Arthur W. Moore, a white former employee.
A rare former convict who was white testified that after a black prisoner named Peter Harris said he couldn't work because of a grossly infected hand, the camp doctor carved off the affected skin tissue with a surgeon's knife and then ordered him back to work. Instead, Mr. Harris, his hand mangled and bleeding, collapsed after the procedure. The camp boss ordered him dragged into the brickyard and whipped 25 times. "If you ain't dead, I will make you dead if you don't go to work," shouted a guard. Mr. Harris was carried to a cotton field. He died lying between the rows of cotton.
Similar testimony emerged from camps owned by Joel Hurt, the rich Atlanta real-estate developer and investor most remembered as the visionary behind the city's earliest and most-elegant subdivisions. Mr. Hurt was also the founder of Atlanta's Trust Company Bank -- the city's other pre-eminent financial institution.
The 'Water Cure'
In 1895, Mr. Hurt bought a group of bankrupt forced-labor mines and furnaces on Lookout Mountain, near the Tennessee state line. Guards there had recently adopted for punishment of the workers the "water cure," in which water was poured into the nostrils and lungs of prisoners. (The technique, preferred because it allowed miners to "go to work right away" after punishment, became infamous in the 21st century as "waterboarding.")
An elderly black man named Ephraim Gaither testified during the state's hearings as to the fate of a 16-year-old boy at a lumber camp owned by Mr. Hurt and operated by his son George Hurt. The teenager was serving three months of hard labor for an unspecified misdemeanor.
"He was around the yard sorter playing and he started walking off," Mr. Gaither recounted. "There was a young fellow, one of the bosses, up in a pine tree and he had his gun and shot at the little negro and shot this side of his face off," Mr. Gaither said as he pointed to the left side of his face. The teenager ran into the woods and died. Days later, a dog appeared in the camp dragging the boy's arm in its mouth, Mr. Gaither said. The homicide was never investigated.
Called to testify before the commission, Mr. Hurt lounged in the witness chair, relaxed and unapologetic for any aspect of the sprawling businesses.
Another witness before the commission, former chief warden Jake Moore, testified that no prison guard could ever "do enough whipping for Mr. Hurt." "He wanted men whipped for singing and laughing," Mr. Moore told the panel.
In response to the revelations, Gov. Hoke Smith called a special session of the state Legislature, which authorized a public referendum on the fate of the system. In October 1908, Georgia's nearly all-white electorate voted by a 2-to-1 margin to abolish the system as of March 1909. Without prison labor, business collapsed at Chattahoochee Brick. Production fell by nearly 50% in the next year. Total profit dwindled to less than $13,000.
The apparent demise of Georgia's system of leasing prisoners seemed a harbinger of a new day. But the harsher reality of the South was that the new post-Civil War neoslavery was evolving -- not disappearing.
Five days after the Japanese attack, on Dec. 12, 1941, Mr. Biddle issued a directive -- Circular No. 3591 -- to all federal prosecutors acknowledging the history of unwritten federal policy to ignore most reports of involuntary servitude.Link.
He wrote: "It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United States Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered inadequate to invoke federal prosecution."
The Justice Department recently had formed its Civil Rights Section, created primarily to investigate cases related to anti-organized-labor efforts. It began shifting its focus to discrimination and racial abuse -- issues more commonly associated with the term "civil rights" today.
Mr. Biddle wrote: "In the United States one cannot sell himself as a peon or slave -- the law is fixed and established to protect the weak-minded, the poor, the miserable. ...Any such sale or contract is positively null and void and the procuring and causing of such contract to be made violates [the] statutes."
He ordered all Department of Justice investigators to entirely drop reference to peonage in their written reports. Instead, they were to label every file "Involuntary Servitude and Slavery."
In August 1942, a letter from a 16-year-old black boy arrived at the Department of Justice alleging that Charles Bledsoe -- the Alabama man who had received a $100 fine for peonage -- still was holding members of the teen's family against their will. Despite Mr. Biddle's strong directive, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initially saw no need to pursue the matter. The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., Francis H. Inge, was similarly uninterested.
"No active investigation will be instituted," Mr. Hoover wrote to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge.
But seven months into World War II, with the nation anxious to mobilize every possible soldier and counter every thrust of Japan's and Germany's propaganda machines, Mr. Berge directed Mr. Hoover to look further.
"In accordance with the request of the Attorney General that we expedite cases related to Negro victims, it will be appreciated if this matter is given preference," Mr. Berge wrote in a terse letter ordering Mr. Inge into action.
"Enemy propagandists have used similar episodes in international broadcasts to the colored race, saying that the democracies are insincere and that the enemy is their friend," Mr. Berge continued. "There have been received from the President an instruction that lynching complaints shall be investigated as soon as possible; that the results of the investigation be made public in all instances, and the persons responsible for such lawless acts vigorously prosecuted. The Attorney General has requested that we expedite other cases related to Negro victims. Accordingly, you are requested to give the [Bledsoe] matter your immediate attention."
Mr. Biddle's civil-rights lawyers began to reassess the legal breadth of the constitutional amendments ending slavery, the Reconstruction-era statutes passed to enforce them and other largely forgotten laws, such as the antebellum Slave Kidnapping Act. That pre-Civil War measure made it illegal to capture or hold forced laborers in U.S. territory where slavery was prohibited.
As World War II progressed, the Department of Justice vigorously prosecuted U.S. Sugar Co. in Florida for forcing black men into its sugarcane fields. Sheriffs who colluded with the company were brought to trial.
Early in September 1942, a team of FBI agents, highway patrolmen and deputies descended on a remote farm near Beeville, Texas. There they arrested a white farmer, Alex Skrobarcek, and his adult daughter, Susie Skrobarcek.
The two initially were charged in a state court with maiming a mentally retarded black worker named Alfred Irving. But a month later, lawyers at the Department of Justice drew a federal indictment alleging that the pair had held Mr. Irving in slavery for at least four years. They were accused of repeatedly beating the man with whips, chains and ropes -- so much so that he was physically disfigured from the abuse.
Signaling the significance of the case, a special assistant to Mr. Biddle actively participated in prosecuting the trial. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Federal officials made clear that the case was intended to send a message: The U.S. government was finally serious about ending involuntary servitude.
"The Skrobarczyk [sic] trial and its conclusion undoubtedly will be said...to have given a decisive setback to the enemy propaganda machine...urging...negroes that their proper place in this conflict is with the yellow race," editorialized the Corpus Christi Times.
Two years later, President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights recommended bolstering the antislavery statute to plainly criminalize involuntary servitude. In 1948, the entire federal criminal code was dramatically rewritten, further clarifying such laws.