- Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South by Talitha L. LeFlouria
When Mattie Crawford entered the Georgia penal system in 1896 with a life sentence for killing the stepfather who allegedly abused her, she became a critical, if unwilling, partner in the construction of New South modernity. Crawford’s “great strength” (4) did not go unnoticed at the brickyard where she labored as a blacksmith, making her an indispensable part of the convict labor force that exploited women and men alike in order to build the region’s post–Civil War industries. After complaints about private contractors mistreating inmates led to moderate reforms of the convict lease system, Georgia officials moved women like Crawford to the state prison farm, where they worked for the state instead of for private industries. Finally, in 1908, the state outlawed convict leasing altogether in favor of county-run chain gangs, where both male and female inmates performed the arduous labor of building and maintaining public roads. Although black men caught up in the Jim Crow dragnet composed disproportionate majorities on Georgia chain gangs, thousands of black women also served long, brutal sentences building the lifelines of the modern South in the hot Georgia sun.
In her groundbreaking book about incarcerated black women in Georgia between the 1870s and the 1910s, Talitha L. LeFlouria recounts the lives and labors of what she calls the South’s “most inconspicuous workforce” (5). Though small in number, black female inmates made sizable contributions to postwar Georgia’s industries by performing an array of hard labor and domestic jobs in privately run convict lease camps, on the state prison farm, and as part of the state’s notorious chain gangs. By focusing on this small but critical labor force, LeFlouria challenges scholars to think more deeply about the ways in which gender and race shaped white southerners’ responses to the challenges of rebuilding the region’s social and economic institutions after the Civil War.
LeFlouria’s book is an invaluable addition to two decades of critical scholarship on race and punishment in the Jim Crow South. Important work by historians such as David Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1997), Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (1996), Mary Ellen Curtin’s Black Prisoners and Their World: Alabama, 1865–1900 (2000), and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008) has shown that racialized violence and forced labor did not end with the abolition of slavery but were reconstituted in an array of barbarous penal institutions in the decades that followed the Civil War. Much of that work focuses on black male inmates, who were the main targets of Jim Crow “justice” and whose labor was essential to New South industrial expansion. Because the best-paying industrial jobs were reserved for free white labor, imprisoned African Americans did the lion’s share of manual labor to rebuild the region’s railroads, [End Page 91] keep its sawmills and turpentine mills running, and manufacture everything from bricks to brooms.
LeFlouria builds on the main arguments of these works, but her book pushes back against the consensus view that the postbellum convict labor system was merely an extension of slavery. She argues that black bondwomen occupied a different status, stranded between freedom and bondage. For instance, maternity, so critical to the success of slaveholders, was actually an impediment to the labor of black women in the convict labor system. Pregnant inmates received shoddy medical care, and newborns starved in the barracks while their mothers performed heavy labor for twelve to fourteen hours a day. And while LeFlouria argues that female inmates and slaves employed similar forms of resistance against physical, sexual, or medical assaults by white male oppressors, her analysis respects the different modes of resistance used by women...