Convict Leasing in the Family

A chain gang of young African-American convicts in the Southern United States (Wikimedia Commons/Detroit Publishing Co.)

Around 1920, twenty-four-year-old E. Hooper left her rural hometown of Chester, South Carolina for the big city where she could leave a litany of family secrets behind. Having lived less than half a mile from a Seaboard Air Line Railroad station nearly all her life, she boarded a train to Norfolk, Virginia where she later married a Black man from Alabama and had a son. As the granddaughter of a former slave from Fairfield, South Carolina, Hooper hoped to start a new life separate from the generational trauma of the horrors of slavery. She could also forget about her white father who abandoned her, along with her white grandfather W. Harden, a former slave owner and Confederate soldier, who used Black convicts to labor on his farm during the Jim Crow Era. E. Hooper’s heritage as the descendant of Black slaves and white supremacists is my heritage. She was my great-grandmother.

Today in conservative states like Texas, Florida, and Ohio, History curriculums are being rewritten to erase and underestimate the truth about America’s past wrongdoings. Antiracist History taught in schools, museums, libraries, and public spaces is under attack, so revealing personal histories of racial oppression is a risky task activist-historians should be willing to undertake. In my recent discovery that my third-great grandfather engaged in convict leasing, I went to Chester to learn about the potential origins of mass incarceration and for-profit prisons through the lens of my ancestors. As a Black American who studies the carceral state, this investigation was not only about freeing myself from familial shame, but also refusing to be complicit in the whitewashing of America’s racist history.

Convict leasing in South Carolina officially began in 1877, but the state approved convict labor as early as 1866. Against the backdrop of the Reconstruction era where a select few freedmen entered political positions, Black convicts, mostly formerly enslaved, were exploited, held captive, and forced into harsh labor conditions. County jails often “employed” convicts to labor in local workhouses, but following the Civil War, the general assembly voted to create a seventeen-acre state penitentiary in Columbia and use 100 convicts to erect the facility on a “high bluff” along the eastern bank of the Congaree River. For state officials like Albert D. Oliphant, the future Assistant Secretary of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, a state penitentiary could “relieve the counties of the burden of maintaining convicts,” since the war depleted many counties of their funds. State officials even made deals with local farmers like Columbia planter John C. Seegers who received free convict labor on his Richland County farm for four years in exchange of relieving the State of the “dead expense” to maintain 150 prisoners. As South Carolina centralized its carceral system, county jails became detention centers for people awaiting trial while the penitentiary grew to imprison (and later employ) convicts from every county.    

As the Republican federal government came into effect following the Union Army’s victory over the Confederacy, Reconstruction brought civil rights to liberated African Americans to the dismay of former slave owners, Southern Democrats, and Confederate veterans. With the installation of federal troops in Southern towns, a Republican governor, and the Freedmen’s Bureau working to establish equal access to public welfare, schools, jobs, and voting for all, African American politicians slowly rose in number. Black politicians were former slaves, ministers, teachers, and even Union Army veterans. Black politicians and “scalawags,” white Southern politicians willing to govern alongside African Americans, wrote state constitutions and petitioned Congress to ensure that all people had equal rights, despite the threat of white supremacist violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Republican government in South Carolina also had control over the prison system. However most of the records on convict labor during Reconstruction are either contested or missing because of white supremacist anger and retaliation over the rise of Black political power in the South. When the Compromise of 1877 gave Republicans the gift of the presidency under Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange of Southern Democrats reestablishing “home-rule,” complete with racial oppression, writers, politicians, and some historians described Reconstruction as a period of Black incompetence in government.

The history of South Carolina’s penal system during Reconstruction is wrought with Lost Cause ideology and racist sentiments of a “black deluge” of “Radical Rule” that begot poor recordkeeping, a “looted” state treasury, and a penitentiary in “ruins” where convicts slept on the stone floors of their cells.1 However antiracist historians like Henry Kamerling suggest there are no records of convict leasing during Reconstruction because Black Radical Republicans opposed it. Instead Black politicians like William Beverly Nash and Henry E. Hayne launched investigations into the mistreatment of Black convicts and financial corruption, petitioned for the removal of white racist state officials who tolerated prisoner abuse, and established a prison chaplaincy and schools for convicts. Although Republicans passed an 1872 act to “regulate the labor of convicts,” the legislation was crafted to give convicts employment at wages equal to free laborers outside of the prison system, while also rescuing the penitentiary from $17,400 of debt and reviving its exhausted finances and credit for prisoner care costs and infrastructural repairs.   

By 1875 Superintendent of the Penitentiary Theodore W. Parmele reported to Republican Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain that some of the 350 convicts at the penitentiary labored in brickmaking and repairing buildings. By November 1876 Governor Chamberlain lost his reelection campaign to Wade Hampton III, a wealthy planter, former slave owner and lieutenant general in the Confederate Army, and Southern Democrat who allegedly won the election with assistance from the white supremacist paramilitary group, the Red Shirts, that used violence to suppress African Americans’ right to vote. Within the first two months of Hampton’s gubernatorial administration that began after President Hayes took office, the general assembly legalized convict leasing. In April 1877 Governor Hampton argued before the general assembly that the “penal, charitable and educational institutions of the state” should not only be “self-supporting,” but also “with proper legislation the labor of the convicts in the penitentiary could be made profitable.” State Representative J. Walter Gray later crafted a bill for convict leasing and the general assembly approved the act on June 8th. In this legislation, the governor was to appoint three directors to the penitentiary board who would advertise, lease, and hire convicts to do labor “under terms advantageous to the state.”

The penitentiary board managed contracts with contractors that outlined the food, clothing, lodging, and punishments leased convicts would receive, along with an agreement (under threat of indictment for abuse) that incarcerated men work a maximum of ten hours per day and be kept in good health. This system of racial capitalism was akin to slavery because while the prison population was over 90 percent Black, South Carolina not only shifted the cost of maintaining prisoners to corporations, received cash payments for convict labor, took $50,000 bonds from private companies, and charged penalty fees for escaped prisoners, but also granted contractors rights to work and discipline convicts on their own terms.

In February 1878 the Greenwood & Augusta Railroad made the first official contract with South Carolina’s penitentiary when it employed 100 convicts. As many scholars of convict leasing have explained, Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws regarding vagrancy, gambling, interracial sex, and the legal ownership of farm animals were corrupt and racially-biased policies that filtered African Americans into an exploitative, carceral labor system. Prisoners unable to make bail or convicted of crimes outside of murder, statutory assault, and arson were leased and forced to labor in phosphate mining, railroad construction, manufacturing, street repairs, and farming.

From 1877-1878 Superintendent Parmele discovered three major flaws in convict leasing: prisoner abuse, poor healthcare, and prisoner escapes from worksites at a rate of 12 to 28 percent. Consequently, the penitentiary board still approved of convict leasing, but recommended the general assembly “abolish” the system once the State was able to use convict labor for “its own industries.” In October 1879 approximately 22 percent of South Carolina’s convicts were leased to contractors and Parmele was arranging for prisoners to manufacture shoes, brooms, and cloth for convicts’ clothes within the penitentiary. By January 1879 Parmele’s successor, Colonel T. J. Lipscomb, took note that within two years, 153 prisoners died and 82 escaped. Lipscomb soon investigated abusive contractors like Greenwood & Augusta Railroad with assistance from penitentiary doctors. These investigations led the general assembly to pass a resolution revoking leasing rights from cruel contractors and returning mistreated convicts to the State in 1880, but Lipscomb went on to create more opportunities for convict leasing.

Greed ultimately drove South Carolina to continue convict leasing, even beyond its supposed termination date of 1897. In 1878, South Carolina leased each convict sent to the Greenwood & Augusta Railroad for $3 a month and ordered the corporation to feed, clothe, and house each prisoner at a rate of $79.39 per year. By 1881, the State “advertised” convict labor at $5 per month for a prisoner, but some corporations were even willing to offer the penitentiary as much as $16.66 a month per convict. From 1880 to 1897, corporations like shoe manufacturers A.C. Dibert of Trenton, N.J. and Sample & Wetmore of North Carolina, brooms company Lorick & Lowrance of Columbia, SC, stockings manufacturer Columbia Hosiery, and leather goods manufacturer W. A. Evans of Chesterfield, SC used 100-200 South Carolina prisoners (men, women, and children) to produce their goods. Convict labor was also used for state projects that included: maintenance of 404 acres of “well timbered” farmland; construction of the Columbia Canal, State House, and State Lunatic Asylum; and the building of facilities for Clemson College, the South Carolina Industrial School, Winthrop Normal College, and the Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina. And even after 1897, convict leasing benefiting private contractors secretly continued in the state when my third-great grandfather maintained approximately 6,000 acres of land with assistance from eleven Black convicts who labored on “Harden’s Convict Camp” in 1900.

For many journaliststeachers, and writers, family secrets are often gateways to producing antiracist public history and academic scholarship. Having self-awareness about the complexities of your genealogical roots can usher you into educating the public about difficult histories that matter in our society today. My family’s history of convict leasing won’t remain a secret, but a stepping stone to more meaningful research and writing on why studying historic issues of racism, policing, and mass incarceration are necessary in achieving social justice in the future.


  1. One Black historian who challenged the Dunning School narrative of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina was Alrutheus Ambush Taylor. Taylor was a Washington, DC native who was mentored by famed Black historian, Carter G. Woodson. Taylor achieved a Masters and PhD in History from Harvard University by 1935, did service work for the Urban League and the YMCA, and spent his academic career teaching at three different Historically Black Colleges. His 1924 book, The Negro in South Carolina during the Reconstruction is a foundational text in the history of Black activism and governance in South Carolina.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia (New York University Press, 2024). You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.

Comments on “Convict Leasing in the Family

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    Thank you for this insightful & important piece, Prof. Dirkson!

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