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Prison labor that built a business empire

Margie Mason and Robin McDowell, Associated Press

More than 150 years ago, one of Tennessee’s largest coal mines operated a prison complex known as Lone Rock Fence.

It was primarily supported by African-American men arrested for petty crimes such as stealing pigs. Among them he sent a 12-year-old woman and a child.

Dangerous and sometimes deadly work was their punishment.

The state was renting these prisoners out to private companies for a fee. This is a practice known throughout the South as convict leasing. In states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, prisoners were also used to build railroads, cut timber, make bricks, harvest cotton, and grow sugar on plantations.

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In a joint investigation, reporters for The Associated Press and the Investigative Reporting Center Reveal spent months unearthing this history. We focused on US Steel, which acquired the

The team found living humans today whose ancestors were imprisoned in the Lone Rock stockade nearly 140 years ago. They also interviewed the grandson of a boy who became rich from his role as a pioneer of Tennessee’s convict lease system.

Reporters also spoke to US Steel. For the first time, he said he was prepared to discuss the past with members of the affected community.

Listen to the podcast here:

Convict leasing was essentially a new form of slavery that began after the Civil War and continued for decades throughout the South. became.

The Thirteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War, prohibited slavery and involuntary slavery. However, it made an exception for those convicted and provided legal cover for convicted leases.

Tennessee and many other states adopted similar language in their constitutions that still exist today.

What is Lone Rock Stockade?

Lone Rock barn in Tracy City, Tennessee for over 25 years. Prisoners lived in cramped and unsanitary conditions. The prison, which he built to hold 200 people at a time, sometimes held 600.

Every day, men risked their lives on the ground as well, manning the fiery dome-shaped coke ovens used in the steel-making process.

They were helping Tennessee to prosper in coal, iron, and railroads. The company was an economic powerhouse and was later acquired by the US Steel Corporation, the world’s largest company at the time.

How did the prison population change after liberation?

The racial composition of the prison population changed almost overnight after the Civil War. In Tennessee, less than 5% of his prisoners were black during slavery. After his liberation in 1866, that number jumped to 52% for him. and he soared to 75% by 1891.

The Black Code is a law passed by the state targeting African Americans for minor offenses such as loitering, jumping on trains, and lacking proof of employment.

In Tennessee, he was sentenced to up to five years of hard labor in a coal mine for having an interracial relationship.

What does US STEEL say about the use of prisoner leases now?

The United States Steel Corporation, also known as US Steel, was founded by American giants including JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. The company has operations in the United States and central Europe and remains a major steel producer.

The company did prison labor for at least five years in Alabama in the early 1900s, but never spoke publicly about this dark chapter in its history. It misrepresents the use of prison labor and does not acknowledge the men who died in the mines.

After being contacted by reporters from AP and Reveal, the company for the first time agreed to sit down and talk with members of the affected community. US Steel also confirmed that it owns a cemetery on the site of a former coal mine. “Unfortunately, given the time that has passed, there is no comprehensive record of this situation.”

“If members of the affected community show interest, we are happy to consider a commemorative plaque, and we would be happy to meet with them to discuss these topics.”

This article was supported by the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University and the Arnold Foundation.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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