The horrifying, little-known story of how hundreds of thousands of blacks worked in brutal bondage right up until World War II.
In the first years after the Civil War, even as former slaves optimistically swarmed into new schools and lined up at courthouses at every whisper of a hope of economic independence, the Southern states began enacting an array of interlocking laws that would make all African Americans criminals, regardless of their conduct, and thereby making it legal to force them into chain gangs, labor camps, and other forms of involuntarily servitude. By the end of 1865, every Southern state except Arkansas and Tennessee had passed laws outlawing vagrancy and defining it so vaguely that virtually any freed slave not under the protection of a white man could be arrested for the crime. An 1865 Mississippi statute required black workers to enter into labor contracts with white farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer—effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the white man they worked for.
After the return of nearly complete white political control in 1877, the passage of those laws accelerated. Some, particularly those that explicitly said they applied only to African Americans, were struck down in court appeals or through federal interventions, but new statutes embracing the same strictures on black life quickly replaced them. Most of the new laws were written as if they applied to everyone, but in reality they were overwhelmingly enforced only against African Americans.
In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida passed laws making it a crime for a black man to change employers without permission. It was a crime for a black man to speak loudly in the company of a white woman, a crime to have a gun in his pocket, and a crime to sell the proceeds of his farm to anyone other than the man he rented land from. It was a crime to walk beside a railroad line, a crime to fail to yield a sidewalk to white people, a crime to sit among whites on a train, and it was most certainly a crime to engage in sexual relations with—or, God forbid, to show true love and affection for—a white girl.
And that’s how it happened. Within a few years of the passage of these laws, tens of thousands of black men and boys, and a smaller number of black women, were being arrested and sold into forced labor camps by state officials, local judges, and sheriffs. During this time, some actual criminals were sold into slavery, and a small percentage of them were white. But the vast majority were black men accused of trivial or trumped-up crimes. Compelling evidence indicates that huge numbers had in fact committed no offense whatsoever. As the system grew, countless white farmers and businessmen jostled to “lease” as many black “criminals” as they could. Soon, huge numbers of other African Americans were simply being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
The forced labor camps they found themselves in were islands of squalor and brutality. Thousands died of disease, malnourishment, and abuse. Mortality rates in some years exceeded 40 percent. At the same time, this new slavery trade generated millions of dollars for state and local governments—for many years it was the single largest source of income for the state of Alabama. As these laws and practices expanded across the South, they became the primary means to terrorize African Americans, and to coerce them into going along with other exploitative labor arrangements, like sharecropping, that are more familiar to twenty-first-century Americans.
This was the terrifying trap into which Carrie Kinsey’s young brother had been drawn. After a trip through the counties near Kinsey’s home, W. E. B. Du Bois, who was then teaching at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, described in 1905 one such convict farm. “It is a depressing place—bare, unshaded, with no charm of past association, only a memory of forced human toil—now, then, and before the war,” he wrote. He described black farmworkers who never saw wages because charges for rent and food always exceeded any compensation. “A dismal place it still remains, with rows of ugly huts filled with surly ignorant tenants,” Du Bois wrote. “And now and then it blazes forth in veiled but hot anger.”
Du Bois could easily have been describing Kinderlou, where Kinsey’s brother was taken. Encompassing 22,000 acres, it was an enterprise that dwarfed any antebellum definition of the word “plantation.” Owned by state Representative Edward McRee and his brothers, Kinderlou was an unparalleled center of economic and political power in Georgia. By 1900, the siblings had inherited the enterprise from their father, a noted Confederate officer named George McRee. Each lived in a lavish mansion within a square mile of the center of the plantation, basking in the subtropical warmth of the Gulf Coast.
Between them, an empire bustled with enslaved laborers. Consuming the bulk of an entire county, Kinderlou included thousands of acres of lushly fertile sandy loam, and thousands more of dense pine and hardwood. On a private spur of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad thrust into the center of the plantation, dozens of boxcars waited at all times for the hundreds of thousands of bushels of tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, tobacco, and cotton. The McRees owned their own cotton gins, compresses to make bales, and warehouses to store enormous quantities of lint. A five-horsepower steam engine ground the plantation’s sugarcane to make syrup. Five eighty-foot-long barns were built to cure tobacco, and a factory produced thousands of pallets, wooden crates, and baskets for shipping produce. Deep in the forests, McRee turpentine camps collected rosin for their naval stores distillery.
Initially, the McRees hired only free black labor, but beginning in the 1890s they routinely leased a hundred or more convicts from the state of Georgia to perform the grueling work of clearing land, removing stumps, ditching fields, and constructing roads. Other prisoners hoed, plowed, and weeded the crops. Over the course of fifteen years, thousands of men and women were forced to Kinderlou and held in stockades under the watch of armed guards. After the turn of the century, the brothers began to arrange for even more forced laborers through the sheriffs of nearby counties in Georgia and Florida—fueling what eventually grew into a sprawling traffic in humans.
A black worker in 1904 described to a journalist how he arrived at the farm at age ten as a free laborer. A few years later, he attempted to leave to work at another plantation. Before sundown on the day of his departure, one of the McRees and “some kind of law officer” tracked him down. The new employer apologized to the McRees for hiring the young worker, saying he would never have done so if he had known “this nigger was bound out to you.”
“So I was carried back to the Captain’s,” the man said later. “That night he made me strip off my clothing down to my waist, had me tied to a tree in his backyard, ordered his foreman to gave me thirty lashes with a buggy whip across my bare back, and stood by until it was done.”
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