The Role of Convict Labor in the Industrial Development of Birmingham

- Utz, Karen
The story of Alabama’s convict leasing system, in effect from 1866 to 1928 (last state to outlaw this horrific system), is an infamous chapter in the state’s history. Robert Patton, Alabama governor in 1865, declared that the state’s felons, rather than being housed in the penitentiary, should be “leased.” His rationale was that blacks, rapidly becoming the penitentiary’s majority population, did not regard confinement as punishment, and should “feel the hardship of labor in iron and coal mines.” This presentation focuses on early state and local laws enacted by Alabama politicians to justify their use of convict labor. Attention is also paid to the horrendous working conditions, as well as to similarities between the institution of slavery and the convict leasing system. Copies of documents, contracts and photographs add to the overall significance of the lecture.