Capitalism and Convict Leasing in the American South: A Symposium

This day-long symposium aims to shed greater light on the convict leasing system and how it influenced key elements of post-Civil War American history.

April 12, 2019

In 2018, construction workers on a property owned by Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas, uncovered the unmarked graves of ninety-five victims of convict leasing from the late nineteenth century. This historically significant discovery has since attracted national media attention from outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today

This symposium seeks to inform the general public about this little-known part of the history of the American South. The event will feature four lectures by leading experts on the history of convict leasing, a system that has been described as “slavery by another name.”

What was convict leasing?

After the Civil War, many states—including Texas—decided to reduce the costs of their penitentiaries and increase state revenues by leasing control over convict labor to private contractors with little public oversight.  For more than half a century after the Civil War, many southern states also used this convict leasing system as one of several tools (along with unjust policing, disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and other acts of racist violence) for rebuilding the racial order that prevailed under slavery. In the process, the system enriched state governments and private citizens who leased convicts to work on plantations, in mines, and in various industries or who benefitted from that labor. Meanwhile, the damages suffered by the families and communities of convict leasing’s victims, especially those who were formerly enslaved, had long-lasting effects that spanned generations. 

Understanding the convict leasing system is therefore vital to understanding key themes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history. The lessons of this history also have continued relevance as Americans today confront and debate topics such as prison privatization, mass incarceration, immigrant detention, convict labor, and the public memorialization of the Civil War era. Unfortunately, the history of the convict leasing system is still invisible to many Americans. The discovery of the “Sugar Land 95” therefore represents an unprecedented opportunity for public education and memorialization about this history, especially since no other burial ground of this scope and significance has ever been found on land where convict leasing occurred. 

Who should attend: This symposium seizes the opportunity for education and scholarly discussion on the history of convict leasing in the American South. Scholars, educators, undergraduate and graduate students, and members of the general public interested in discussing this topic in detail are all welcome and encouraged to attend.

Registration: The event is free and open to the public. Attendees must pre-register as space is limited. Refreshments and boxed lunches will be provided to all registered participants.

REGISTER

Event Location and Campus Parking: This event will be held at the Anderson-Clarke Center on the Rice University campus. Visitor parking instructions and directions to the building will be sent to all registered participants prior to the event. Please note that visitor parking lots require a credit card to enter and exit, and the maximum daily parking charge is $5.

Certificate of Attendance:  K12 educators interested in receiving a certificate of attendance and CPE credit hours may indicate this on the registration form. Certificates will be emailed to those who have requested them after the symposium has concluded and will reflect your hours of attendance.

Schedule:

8:30-9 a.m. - Morning check-in
9-10:30 a.m. - Welcome and content session #1
10:30-11 a.m. - Coffee break
11-noon - Content session #2
noon-1 p.m. - Lunch break
1-2 p.m. - Content session #3
2-2:30 p.m. - Coffee break
2:30-3:30 p.m. - Content session #4
3:45-4:45 p.m. - Panel Discussion on Memorialization of Convict Leasing
4:45-6 p.m. - Reception

Speakers:

Dr. Alex Lichtenstein, Professor of History at Indiana University and the editor-in-chief of the American Historical Review
Dr. Lichtenstein has taught at Rice and Florida International University. His 1996 book, Twice the Work of Free Labor (Verso), was one of the first to call attention to the important role convict leasing played in the redevelopment of post-Civil War south. He is also co-editor of the book Global Convict Labor and author of the recent article “Flocatex and the Fiscal Limits of Mass Incarceration: Towards a New Political Economy of the Postwar Carceral State,” in the Journal of American History. He is a frequent commentator on the recent history of mass incarceration. 

Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, Associate Professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia.

Dr. LeFlouria is a scholar of African American history, specializing in mass incarceration; modern slavery; race and medicine; and black women in America. She is the author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South (UNC Press, 2015). Her work has been featured in the Sundance nominated documentary, Slavery by Another Name as well as C-SPAN and Left of Black. Professor LeFlouria serves on the Board of Directors for Historians Against Slavery and the Association of Black Women Historians. She also serves on the editorial board of the Georgia Historical Quarterly and International Labor and Working-Class History journal. She is the author of a forthcoming book by Beacon Press on black women and mass incarceration.   

Dr. Robert Perkinson, Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Dr. Perkinson received his B.A. in History from the University of Colorado at Boulder (1994) and his Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University (2001). His first book, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, January 2010) is a history of imprisonment, race, and politics from slavery to the present, with an emphasis on Texas, the most locked-down state in the nation. By tracing the story back to the nineteenth century, the book also draws troubling parallels between the development of Jim Crow, lynching, and convict leasing in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the rise of mass imprisonment in the wake of civil rights.

Dr. Megan Ming Francis, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington and Director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Inequality and Race (WISIR).

Dr. Francis received her doctorate in Politics from Princeton University and her BA from Rice University. She is the author of the award winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (2014). This book tells the story of how the early campaign against state sanctioned racial violence of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shaped the modern civil rights movement. She is currently writing a second book about convict leasing and state-building in nineteenth-century Texas and Alabama. 

The day will begin with opening remarks by Mr. Reginald Moore, founder of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project (CLLP) and will conclude with a panel discussion featuring members of the CLLP and moderated by Associate Dean of Humanities Dr. Lora Wildenthal. The panel will discuss the memorialization of convict leasing and focus more specifically on the “Sugar Land 95.”

 

This event is co-sponsored by the Department of History, the Humanities Research Center and the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University.