Tennessee Convict Uprising

Guest post by Karin Shapiro

“Between July 14, 1891, and late August 1892, over a thousand Tennessee miners rose up in arms to protest the use of convict miners in the State’s coal mines.  Most of the miners were white, while a majority of the convicts were black.  The miners targeted three coal companies in east Tennessee: Briceville, Coal Creek, and Oliver Springs, and one in mid-Tennessee, Tracy City.  The largest of the companies, Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCIR) in mid-Tennessee, leased convicts from the State of Tennessee; the smaller east Tennessee companies subleased coal convicts from the TCIR to work in their respective coal mines.  The “convict Wars” (the name given by contemporaries to the rebellion) took place amidst America’s turbulent labor struggles of the 1890s, a period in which workers throughout the country challenged the waxing power of large-scale corporations, portrayed increasingly by unions as fostering unjust workplaces and perverting America’s democratic ideals…”

To read the full article, click here.

“Tennessee Convict Uprising,” by Karin Shapiro. Copyright (2007) from in Encyclopedia of US Labor and Working-Class History, edited by Eric Arnesen, pp. 1366-67 . Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

Karin Shapiro is Associate Professor of the Practice, African and African American Studies, Duke University.  She is the author of A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

 

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Convict Labor in the New South

Guest Post by Karin Shapiro

“The convict lease – a system of prison administration whereby a state leased its prisoners to a private individual or company for a number of specified years – was not a postbellum or a southern invention.  But it was during that time and in that place that the practice acquired its notorious reputation.  The postbellum South is partly defined by images of felons dressed in striped prison garb, laboring on penal farms (a uniquely southern institution) and in dangerous, hot, and unhealthy conditions, whether in southern turpentine, phosphate, or coal mines…”

“The fees the companies paid to the state, together with the costs of taking care of the prisoners, ranged from 60 cents to one dollar per prisoner per day – one quarter to one half of the daily earnings of fee laborers.  Moreover, the presence of convicts kept the earnings of free miners static in real terms over the two decades from 1870 to 1890.  Wages earned by miners in Tennessee, for example, dropped from about four dollars a day to under two dollars a day, paralleling a general decline in nineteenth century prices.  Convict lessees also repeatedly found that the presence of unfree miners constrained the ability of free miners to bargain for higher wages or better working conditions…”

To read the full article, click here.

“Convict Labor in the New South” by Karin Shapiro. Copyright (2007) from Encyclopedia of US Labor and Working-Class History, edited by Eric Arnesen (pp. 317-21). Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

Karin Shapiro is Associate Professor of the Practice, African and African American Studies, Duke University.  She is the author of A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).