Created Equal: Slavery by Another Name
I began my career at the Virginia Historical Society almost thirty years ago as an archivist. In 1987, I processed a collection of papers of Leon M. Bazile, a Hanover County native, lawyer, legislator, and judge of Virginia’s 15th judicial circuit. Bazile’s name may be familiar to you. He was the judge who sentenced Mildred and Richard Loving each to a year in prison for violating the state’s ban on interracial marriage and suspended the sentences when the couple agreed to leave the state. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Bazile’s decision in the landmark ruling, Loving v. Virginia. As I processed the papers, I kept an eye open for materials related to the case but found very little.
What I did find however was something I hadn’t expected. The collection contained dozens of letters written to Bazile by inmates who had been convicted in his court. Most often, these letters contained pleas for reductions in sentence and support for pardons. Many were sent from the state prison on Spring Street and the state farm in Goochland, but others were written from the state’s convict road camps. At these camps, state and local prisoners worked on the highways. One letter in particular caught my attention—a letter written by Arthur Page requesting a conditional pardon because of an injury he received working on the roads.
“I was sent to a road camp #7 in Strausburg Va. And was working under Sergt. F. B. Bishop While working in the quarry I was struck in the right eye with a small piece of rock and loss the entire sight of my right eye.”
For much of the twentieth century, convicts worked on Virginia’s roads. This practice grew out of the convict lease system that began right after the Civil War. Virginia and other southern states leased convicts for profit. Most were African American. Virginia provided convicts to railroads, quarries, and the James River and Kanawha Canal Company. The practice served several purposes—raising revenue, alleviating overcrowding in jails, and controlling a newly emancipated black population. Leased convicts often faced hardships and cruel treatment. An 1881 report claimed that the death rate in the convict camps of the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad was seven times higher than the death rate for inmates inside the penitentiary.
Nonetheless, historian Matthew J. Mancini, author of One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928, cites Virginia as an exception to the rule. Many Virginians opposed convict leasing, and the practice began to taper off in the 1890s. In 1906, however, the General Assembly established the State Highway Commission and set up a system of convict road camps operated jointly by the commission and the penitentiary. Convict roadwork became the last vestige of the lease system.
This was not the case in most other southern states. Unlike Virginia, many former Confederate states had no prisons at the close of the Civil War. Determined to maintain control over a large free black population, they coerced thousands of innocent men and women into forced labor between the 1870s and 1940s. Many were charged with offenses such as vagrancy, brought before a county judge and fined. When they could not pay the fine and court fees, a sentence was determined and the convicts leased out to turpentine camps, coal mines, and railroads as well as individual farmers.
On Thursday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m., the VHS will explore convict leasing in the South by showing the documentary film Slavery by Another Name. A facilitated discussion follows. Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name tells the stories of black men who were unfairly imprisoned and subjected to deadly working conditions as convict laborers between the 1870s and the Second World War. The documentary is one of four being shown at the VHS in 2014 as part of the Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle film/discussion series. Underwritten by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through its Bridging Cultures initiative and offered in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Created Equal uses the power of documentary films to encourage communities to re-examine the meaning of civil rights in America in the twenty-first century.
The film screenings and public programming are hosted by the VHS in partnership with the Richmond Peace Education Center and supported in part by the Gay Community Center of Richmond’s VHS Guy Kinman Research Award.
The second film, The Loving Story, will be shown on June 19.
For more information please contact Bill Obrochta, manager of educational services, at 804.342.9651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check the calendar on the Society’s website, www.vahistorical.org.
Bill Obrochta is the manager of educational services at the Virginia Historical Society.
Image credits – Slavery by Another Name (Jon Van Amber and Omni Studio); The Loving Story (photo by Grey Villet); Freedom Riders (Birmingham Civil Rights Institute/Mississippi Department of Archives & History); The Abolitionists (©WGBH Educational Foundation/Antony Platt)