In 1868, the state of Georgia began to make its rapidly growing population of prisoners available for hire. The resulting convict leasing system ensnared not only men but also African American women, who were forced to labor in camps and factories to make profits for private investors. In this vivid work of history, Talitha L. LeFlouria draws from a rich array of primary sources to piece together the stories of these women, recounting what they endured in Georgia’s prison system and what their labor accomplished.
In the following excerpt from Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (pp. 85-88), LeFlouria investigates how black females imprisoned in Georgia during the late nineteenth century sought to resist disguised versions of postbellum “slavery.”
Rawhide Whips and Resistance
For many Americans, Independence Day of 1884 was an occasion for merriment. Sunrise gun salutes, picnics, orations, wheelbarrow races, greased-pig-catching contests, and pulsating fireworks that blistered the sky were popular scenes implanted in America’s nineteenth-century viewfinder. But for fourteen-year-old Mollie White, July 4, 1884, signified the closing of her innocence and the suspension of her liberty and bodily sovereignty; it was the day that marked her dreadful passage into Georgia’s itinerant state penitentiary system. Convicted of larceny, White was leased to the B. G. Lockett brickyard to serve out a two-year sentence. Upon entry, her pubescent five-foot, 100-pound body was inspected by a camp authority who decided that, based on her frail physique, she would be most useful as a cook and gardener.
At the B. G. Lockett brickyard, Mollie White prepared meals, dished up prisoners’ feed, and cleaned the soiled shovels and buckets used to serve the nauseating fodder. One year into her sentence, she was moved from the Lockett camp to the Chattahoochee brick plant, where she served out the remainder of her term as a cook. Even supposing the youngster’s work assignments were less rigorous when compared with other female inmates’, youth or labor leniency had little effect on her susceptibility to violence. Mollie White recouped in the area of physical cruelty what she was spared in hard labor.
The Chattahoochee brickyard hosted a series of violent episodes starring “Captain” James T. Casey, overseer for the brick plant. The whipping boss excelled in his role as a disciplinarian and enforcer of white supremacy. He practiced his part by beating fifteen to twenty convicts, daily, often until they “begged and screamed,” fell dead on the ground, or toppled over from exhaustion, heatstroke, of the effects of fiendish brutality. Casey was loyal to the antebellum ethos of plantation management, and he replicated the processes of terror and brutality perfected by slave drivers who used excessive violence to intimidate black captives. He supplemented the old formula with fresh rage, exercising immense cruelty to extract as much labor as possible and to create a docile workforce.
When it came to black female convicts, the whip was Casey’s preferred instrument of torture. An assiduous note taker, the “boss” documented his volatile rage in a series of monthly “whipping reports.” On November 3, 1885, Kate Clarke and Susan Hill experienced one of Casey’s fits. Both women were given twenty-five lashes apiece for “fighting.” Whether Clarke and Hill quarreled with one another or formed a joint attack against Casey is unspecified. Yet, given the collective nature of resistance that sometimes surfaced among female offenders, in addition to Casey’s heavy-handed response to these prisoners’ indiscipline, it is conceivable that this incident involved direct action against the temperamental whipping boss.
Like violence, resistance was a universal outcome of captivity. Female convicts actively competed in the contest waged between themselves and their oppressors. In Georgia’s prison camps, bondwomen set fires, escaped, destroyed property, malingered, violated orders, and cursed their superiors. Even with limited victories, female inmates fought persistently to preserve their human dignity and to frustrate the state-certified onslaught on their self-worth.
The methods of opposition utilized by women prisoners are, predictably, akin to the resistance tactics implemented by female slaves. Formerly enslaved women and second-generation captives (1881–1910) shared space at the Chattahoochee brick plant, where ideas were imported that influenced black women’s ability to oppose their white captors. But the plantation was not the only inspirational ground where bondwomen learned how to challenge (or accept) white male authority. Within the grotto of the private lease camp, female convicts constructed their own individual and collective survival methodologies.
At the Chattahoochee brickyard, several women tested Casey’s authority: Emma Clark, Ella Gamble, Kate Clarke, Susan Hill, Mollie White, Minnie Ward, Leila Burgess, and Nora Daniel—one of the most defiant of the bunch. Born a slave on a Baldwin County plantation in 1861, she inherited the gene of dissent. At twenty years old, Daniel was convicted of larceny and sentenced to ten years “hard labor” in the Georgia state penitentiary. Her ordeal commenced in the “cuts” of the Marietta & North Georgia Railroad, where, for four years, she graded miles of terrain on which the tracks were laid and carted debris to the mountainous heaps where it was dumped. The remainder of her ten-year term was spent dueling with “Captain” Casey at the Chattahoochee camp.
At the brickyard, Daniel and Casey regularly crossed swords. The whipping boss quickly became fatigued behind the bondwoman’s shenanigans, which included “disobedience,” stealing, “cursing,” and fighting. On October 3, 1885, Daniel was flogged three times in one day; “5 strokes” for fighting the first time, “10 strokes” for fighting a second time, and “10 strokes” for stealing. In less than one year’s time, she accumulated fifty-eight scores from the strap.
Theft among imprisoned women was a private method of “everyday resistance,” a phrase used by historian Stephanie Camp to describe the “hidden or indirect expressions of dissent” and discreet ways of reclaiming a degree of control over goods, time, or parts of one’s life. Within postbellum prison camps, bondwomen applied “everyday resistance” in the ongoing battle against their oppressors. Power and control were at the heart of these struggles. Even though they were bound to remain captive, black female convicts still sought opportunities to outwit their antagonists and to celebrate silent victories. Getting away with theft, or even simply frustrating one’s aggressor at the knowledge she broke the rules, was an important token.
Incarcerated women drew vital psychological satisfaction from stealing food, or other resources, and applied it to make up for the lack of power they otherwise suffered in everyday life. These tendencies were sculpted in slavery and later put on display by underpaid, overworked domestic servants who boosted supplies as a way of remunerating their missing or paltry salaries. But the legitimate act of “taking” from whites was distinguished from the objectionable practice of “stealing” from co-laborers. Oppressed women workers, bound and free, abided by an informal ethical code that permitted theft on the basis of entitlement. At the Chattahoochee camp, female convicts turned a blind eye when a coworker availed herself to the lessee’s goods. Yet thievery among co-captives was considered inexcusable. From time to time, upsets in the “moral economy” ensued, fostering bickering and fighting among female inmates.
From Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South by Talitha L. LeFlouria. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.
LeFlouria is assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University. Her research was featured in the documentary Slavery by Another Name, based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book. Her book, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, is now available.
- “Whipping Report at Chattahoochee Camp,” 1885, GA.↩
- Camp, Closer to Freedom, 2.↩
- Historian Alex Lichtenstein’s discussion of slave theft is extremely useful in helping to explain how convict women rationalized the act of stealing from their possessors. For further reading, see Lichtenstein, “That Disposition to Theft.”↩