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From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...
Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2002 1:15 PM
Subject: H-South Review: Minter on Curtin, __Black Prisoners and Their
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@...
Mary Ellen Curtin. _Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865-1900_.
[Carter G. Woodson Series in Black Studies]. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 2000. xi + 261 pp. Tables, maps, notes, and index.
$59.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-8139-1981-9; $19.50 (paper), ISBN 0-8139-1984-3.
Reviewed for H-South by Patricia Hagler Minter (patricia.minter@...
Department of History, Western Kentucky University
The World They Inhabited: Crime and Punishment in the New South
The story of crime and punishment in the post-Civil War South is one of the
saddest in the region's history, and much of this story has yet to be told
by historians. Edward Ayers started the discussion of this long-neglected
chapter in Southern history in 1984 with _Vengeance and Justice: Crime and
Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century South_ and continued it in 1992 with
_The Promise of the New South_, analyzing the relationships of race and
class to the culture of crime and punishment. Picking up where Ayers'
pathbreaking study ends, David Oshinsky's _Worse Than Slavery: Parchman
Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice_ tells the horrible story of
Mississippi's infamous institution from its founding in 1904 to the era of
the Civil Rights Movement. Against a backdrop of racial and class
distinctions that established a dual system of justice in one state,
Oshinsky weaves together stories about labor, crime and punishment, race
and class; in doing so, his work exemplifies the best of the new narrative
history. Lawrence Friedman's magisterial synthesis, _Crime and Punishment
in American History_, is an excellent analysis overall, but for the most
part ignores the South until the twentieth century, when headline grabbing
cases such as the plight of the Scottsboro Boys brought the nexus of racial
injustice, class inequities, and crime in the South onto the nation's radar
What happened between emancipation and the end of the nineteenth century is
the subject of Mary Ellen Curtin's study of black prisoners in Alabama and
the world they inhabited. Making excellent use of the wealth of pardon
records, governors' papers, and prison bureau records, she pieces together
the creation of a prison culture which had been ninety-nine percent white
prior to the Civil War. After emancipation, the demographics shifted to a
predominantly African-American population. How Alabama slaves moved from
bondage to freedom to prison and then to the quasi-slavery of the convict
lease system is one of her central questions. Curtin finds the roots of
this shift in Reconstruction, when Alabama's Black Codes created new
racially stratified categories of crime (curfew violations and vagrancy)
that could quickly fill the prisons with freedmen. Despite the ratification
of the War Amendments and the repeal of the Black Codes, Curtin argues that
"the law remained a blunt instrument of social control and racial
repression" . Thus, the fate of black prisoners in Alabama at the end of
the century was shaped by the failure of Reconstruction. Convict lease
would become a sad fixture in the New South, but its roots were planted
firmly in post-emancipation political debates.
After white Democrats returned to the statehouse in 1874, Alabama's prisons
filled with African Americans charged with crimes that had not previously
been felonies; prisons became not only profit-making institutions, but also
sources of cheap labor for the burgeoning industries of the New South.
Curtin does a good job describing how African-American prisoners worked and
survived in the infamous prison mines of Alabama, by far the most
profitable prison mines in the region . Why did Alabama's prison miners
produce more than their counterparts in Georgia and Tennessee, where
coercion never turned a profit? Curtin answers this question and makes it
the heart of her argument.
Instead of becoming victims, she argues, Alabama's black prisoners "took
pride in mastering their work" . They insisted that those for whom they
worked treat them as valuable human beings, going on strike, challenging
mine bosses, and complaining about working conditions. Her description of
their daily lives, their sufferings and their acts of defiance, is one of
the strongest aspects of the book. Particularly good is her chapter on
black female prisoners, a group about whom very little has been written.
Her evidence shows that imprisoned women suffered physical and sexual abuse
at the hands of white guards, but they also defied white authority by
refusing to wear prison garb, talking back to guards, and engaging in
consensual sexual contact with male prisoners.
Curtin argues that convict laborers who toiled in mines became, over time,
the black working class in Alabama. There is considerable evidence to
support this argument, much more than there is for many of her arguments
about black agency in the face of white oppression. Curtin tells the story
of Sydney Holman, a convict forced to work in the mines. After several
unsuccessful petitions for clemency and "short time," his final act was to
leave a gate open in the mine, blowing himself up along with several
others. Curtin sees his suicide as a final act of defiance, choosing a
violent death at the time of his choosing to continued service to an unjust
system. But is this suicide an act of agency and defiance, or one of
desperation, of a man who sees no hope for release from the walls of the
mine that imprisons him? The distinction is an important one.
In telling Sydney Holman's story, Curtin attempts to force her evidence
into a theoretical model of black agency, a model that is clearly not
supported by her own sources . To reduce the lives of these men and
women to a model that sees agency in all things is to miss a far more
complex narrative -- that the story of black prisoners in Alabama is both
about agency and oppression; there was both defiance and acquiescence to
white authority. Recognition of this duality would not detract from the
story Curtin tells; instead, it would have painted a much broader picture
of the lives of black prisoners in the New South and given complexity to
This criticism aside, Curtin's study makes an important contribution not
only to African-American and Southern history, but it also adds to the
growing literature on class formation and labor in the New South . Taken
together with Oshinsky's book on Parchman Farm, Curtin's _Black Prisoners
and Their World_ recreates an unjust system of crime and punishment in
which race and class largely determined how justice was meted out. They
paint a sobering picture, and one that reminds us that contemporary
American society, in which prisons are a profit-making growth industry and
new categories of felony crimes for non-violent conduct fill cells, still
perpetuates racial and class-based inequality, instead of justice for all.
1. Edward L. Ayers, _Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the
Nineteenth-Century American South_ (New York and Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1984); see also Ayers, _Promise of the New South_ (New York and
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), ch. 6; David M. Oshinsky, _Worse
Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice_ (New York:
The Free Press, 1996); Lawrence M. Friedman, _Crime and Punishment in
American History_ (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
2. Curtin, 7.
3. Curtin, 98. For data on Tennessee and Georgia, see Karin A. Shapiro, _A
New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee
Coalfields, 1871-1896_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
1998) and Alex Lichtenstein, _Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political
Economy of Convict Labor in the New South_ (London: Verso, 1996).
5. Curtin, 139.
6. See Tera Hunter, _To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Labors and
Lives after the Civil War_ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1997); Julie Saville, _The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Labor
in South Carolina, 1860-1870_ (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press,
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