It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that’s completely turned me upside down.
That is until this past week when I was able to find the time to read David Oshinsky’s, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.
It’s a story about the Post-Reconstruction Era South, the plight of the Freedman, Jim Crow Laws and Mississippi, Parchman Farm and the notorious “convict leasing” system that grew to dominate criminal justice throughout the south in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Really, though, it is simply a well written history of injustice or a chapter of America’s ongoing issue of race that most of us don’t know much about.
Jim Crow South, or the Jim Crow Laws, were the laws forcing segregation that were enacted or mandated between 1876 – 1965. “Jim Crow” was a synonym for “Negro” based on a populist song in the early 1800s and therefore the segregationist laws slowly began to be referred to as “Jim Crow Laws” about the turn of the century.
Convict leasing, something I knew little about, was a way of exploiting and profiting off of black powerlessness in Jim Crow South. For two generations, convicts would be leased out, worked harder and treated worse than slaves had been prior to the Civil War. These black convicts (the few white male prisoners, usually in jail for heinous crimes such as murder, were kept behind prison walls instead of being placed in convict leasing work details) would die at the mind numbing rate of 15-40% per year.
There was a time in America when convicts – held for such things as petty crimes, stealing food or not being able to pay court fees – were being worked to death at 15-40% per year!
Additionally, when new contracts came up, young black men would be rounded up and incarcerated on trumped up charges (loitering, disrespect, gambling, ‘insinuation’ etc.) simply to fill work ranks. These young men, victims of racial and criminal injustice, would then die at the rate of 15-40% per year. Can you imagine?
The criminal justice system under Jim Crow also began the disturbing trend of large scale African American male incarceration that continues till today.
“In 1890, blacks comprised 12 percent of the national population and 25 percent of the prison population. By 1910, the figures stood, respectively, at 11 percent and 34 percent.” pg. 95
Share cropping, racial discrimination and the lawlessness of the South (“What made mob violence so terrifying in Jim Crow Mississippi was the virtual absence of opposition.” pg. 105) led to the first of two “great migrations” of African American families to northern cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and more.
As Oshinksy writes, “In December and January, the Delta roads were ‘filled with wagons piled high with household goods, the families perched on top. They are hoping to find something better, but they seldom do.’ For thousands of tenants, migration was an act of power: a way of expressing their resentment, exerting their independence and protecting their meager rights.” pg. 119
The Great Migrations, their causes and effects, are another under discussed and under reported aspect of American history. (For more on these, see Isabel Wilkerson’s, The Warmth of Other Suns, and Nicholas Lemann’s, The Promised Land.)
Many think these issues and injustices are in the past – having been abolished during the Civil Rights Movement and the legislation of the 1960s – but racism and racial injustice continues to exist. We see it in today’s headlines from the hate crime killing in Mississippi to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen simply walking home from the convenience store.
Few books have undone me as much as Oshinsky’s, Worse Than Slavery. It is an amazing work rendered through fine research, historical narrative and empathetic storytelling.
I recommend it to anyone who wants illusion shattered that reality may grow in its stead.