Tag Archive: history

The State As “Collective Slavemaster:” Criminalizing Black People After Emancipation

From Prison Culture

As I begin to think about pulling together an exhibition about confinement and captivity in black life, I am re-reading several books and articles about slavery and emancipation.

In Alabama, even before the Civil War, prisoners were responsible for their own court and incarceration costs at the county level. After the Civil War, this continued with one day in prison costing thirty cents. If prisoners could not pay, they served extra time and labored to pay the fees. While Alabama state prisoners had always worked, the state had never made a profit off their labor. This changed in 1875 when the state began to lease out prisoners for their labor to coal mines and to railroad companies. This money was essential to Alabama as the state was broke in the 1870s and prisoner labor helped to fill its coffers.

Alabama like many other Southern states desperately needed laborers for the lease system to work and they used the criminal code as a tool of racial discrimination. One cannot understand the racial subordination of black people post Emancipation without also exploring its links to the need in the south for a cheap and stable labor supply. Adolph Reed (1996) has described the state post-Emancipation as a “collective slavemaster.” This is an important insight that underscores the link between slavery and the continued criminalization of black bodies. (more…)