At the end of the Civil War large plantation owners and businessmen in the South who had depended on the free labor of slavery were faced with a huge dilemma. Because of the war the South was virtually bankrupt and their primary labor force had been freed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment had abolished all slavery except the slavery of convicted criminals. Southerners and many Northerners who had owned slaves during the war tried to force their former slaves to work in their fields, factories, sawmills or anywhere that they were needed. They passed Black Codes which forced the Freedmen to sign yearly labor contracts to work for their former masters. If they refused they could be arrested for vagrancy and forced to work for free. Of course the former slaves were focused on trying to own their own land and finding work of their own choosing. To remedy the labor shortage the former slave owners instituted a new form of slavery. The convict lease system. They took advantage of the loop hole in the 13th Amendment. The state would lease these men to private farms and industries. I say men because very few women were involved in the system. It was mostly blacks but some whites were also used. In Tennessee at the end of the war only 33% of our prison system was comprised of black prisoners. By 1879 sixty seven percent were black. It was even higher in deep South states. As before the war white Southerners lived in much poverty and squalor because they could not compete with free or cheap labor. These convicts were leased out to Southern land owners and businessmen who in turn were paying the state for their use. The states were making a fortune off of this system.
To a lesser extent the same thing is going on today with the hiring of illegal aliens. Businessmen are making a fortune by paying low wages and regular Americans are losing their jobs that are being filled by this cheap labor. Democrats will not end illegal immigration because they want their votes and Republicans will not end it because they want the cheap labor. Because of the money involved in the convict lease system it was not completely abolished until 1928 in Alabama. It was partly because of moral outrage in the North and that poor whites were outraged because this system was affecting their ability to work for wages. The convict lease system ended in Tennessee because white coal miners couldn't compete. In 1891 there was labor unrest that came to be called the Coal Creek War. At the time free and convict labor was used in the coal mines of East Tennessee. Free workers attacked the prison stockade several times over a period of months. Each time the prisoners were placed on a train to Knoxville and each time they were returned to the stockade by Tennessee governor John Buchanan. Finally the miners burned the prison stockade and released hundreds of black convicts into the woods.
The governor sent in the National Guard. A guerrilla war ensued and men on both sides were killed. The resulting publicity and outrage caused the Tennessee governor to lose his job in 1893 and Tennessee was one of the first states to end the practice in 1896. However Brushy Mountain State Prison had a coal mine that was worked by prisoners until 1966. Because of negative publicity and the tragic beating death of a white man from North Dakota named Martin Tabert, who had been arrested for not paying a 25.00 fare on a train in Tallahassee Florida, the convict leasing system was eventually replaced by the notorious chain gang. The difference was that under the convict lease system prisoners were leased to private industry and farms. Under the chain gangs prisoners could only work on state government projects like roads and bridges for example. The chain gangs were still primarily black. On average 75% black and 25% white. In conclusion the convict lease system was simply slavery by another name.