Worse Than Slavery Essay Free

David M. Oshinsky."Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press, 1996. xiv + 306 pp. $15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-684-83095-7; $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-684-82298-3.

Reviewed by Robert M. Goldman (Virginia Union University)
Published on H-Law (April, 1997)

During the Cold War years an article of faith that distinguished the West from the "Evil Empire" of Soviet Communism was the latter's Siberian Gulag, a vast network of prison camps where inmates faced unspeakable brutality and horrors from both nature and man. Of course, nothing of that kind could flourish here. According to David Oshinsky, the U.S. did indeed have its own gulag, and it went by the name of Mississippi. Parchman Farm was its "first circle."

The Parchman Farm story begins with the Reconstruction era. Determined to overthrow Republican regimes, Mississipians devised what would become the model for Democratic redemption elsewhere, the so-called "Mississippi Plan." It elements were straightforward enough. Use whatever means necessary, from fraud to murderous violence, to regain political control. It worked, and by 1875 Democratic legislatures were back in control and immediately set out to resolve what they considered to be two key problems: a shortage of labor, and the need to restore white supremacy. Criminal statutes were enacted such as the "Pig Law" in which theft of a farm animal worth more than ten dollars was punishable by up to five years in prison. Along with laws such as these, which were almost always aimed at the thousands of poor freedmen, was the "Leasing Act." This statute allowed convicts to be leased out if their sentences were less than ten years. Since whites were usually only charged and convicted for the most serious of crimes, their sentences entitled them to the relative safety of the state penitentiary at Jackson.

As it developed in Mississippi, convict leasing successfully replaced racial bondage with a system of racial castes while at the same time fueling the economic development of the late 19th century "New South." The use of convicts for everything from raising cotton, to building railroads, to extracting turpentine gum spread rapidly. It solved the problem of high fixed labor costs, since minimal expenses for food, clothing, and shelter were necessary. Moreover, there was always a ready supply of replacement labor, so incentives against the mistreatment of convict workers were non-existent. Olshinsky catalogs the horrors that awaited a leasee--from ubiquitous lash to the use of metal spurs riveted to the feet to prevent escape. The mortality rate was high, and the system encompassed all ages. The state penal code made no distinction between juvenile and adult offenders, so that by 1880 "at least one convict in four was an adolescent" (pp. 46-47).

The movement to end convict leasing in Mississippi resulted in the creation of Parchman Farm, and the man behind it was the "White Chief," Governor James K. Vardaman. Using race-baiting and fears of black lawlessness and criminality to gain power, Vardaman was convinced that a prison farm, "like an efficient slave plantation," was necessary to provide young African-Americans with the "proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority" (p. 110) that the end of slavery had eliminated. Set on 20,000 acres in the Mississippi Delta region, the Farm consisted of fifteen work camps, each organized much like an ante-bellum slave plantation complete with "sargeants" (overseers), "trustees" (slave drivers), and "gunmen" (the convicts who toiled under the gun of a trustee). Using a variety of sources, including the many 'blues' songs that came from the farm or those who spent time there, Olshinsky chillingly and graphically documents the story of the "farm with slaves" that regularly turned a profit for the state. The famous song "Midnight Special" was based on the train that left Jackson every Saturday night to carry the wives and lovers to the prison for their Sunday visits. Olshinsky also chronicles the "other Parchman," the white men and women of both races who served their time there.

But Parchman Farm, as bad as it was, was a reflection of larger problems. For one thing, as Olshinsky notes, Mississippi had a long tradition of violence, and a criminal justice system that tolerated it. Prohibition and the great migration of blacks to the north following World War I increased the percentage of white male Parchman inmates. Segregation was simply extended to the criminal justice system as well. Even reform had its grizzly aspects. In the 1930s a number of "bungled" hangings led to calls for change to a more humane form of capital punishment. The solution in Mississippi was Jimmy Thompson and his "killing machine," an electric chair mounted on the back of a pick-up truck. Rather than face possible riots with a permanent execution chamber at Parchman, Mississippi's contribution to American criminal justice was the first portable electric chair. Used until 1955 Jimmy Thompson oversaw the execution of seventy-three people, of whom fifty-seven were black.

Like the end of segregation, real change at Parchman did not come without a struggle. Indeed, during the civil rights years Parchman Farm was the detention place for movement workers and leaders, including the Freedom Riders James Farmer and Stokley Carmichael. And, like other bastions of Jim Crow, Parchman Farm fell only when four courageous inmates brought suit in federal court to put an end to the abuse and conditions at the Farm. The case, Gates vs. Collier, was decided in 1972 by an independent-minded Southern federal judge, William C. Keady. Keady found that Parchman Farm was "an affront 'to modern standards of decency'," and ordered an immediate end to all of the unconstitutional conditions and practices.

Ironically, as Parchman Farm changed so did society. Segregation of inmates was abolished, but was replaced with gang activity organized along racial lines. Following Gates, it was abolished to use inmate farming as a means of paying for prision food and clothing. The farm land leased out. Today, prison labor has become popular again as a tool of correctional "rehabilitation," and the farming of food products by Parchman inmates has been "revitalized." Although a majority of the guards and administrators of Parchman Farm are now African-American, the percentage of black inmates remains at the same 70% level it has been since the 1930's.

This is a solid and well-written monograph that represents the kind of detailed study called for by historians of criminal justice like Lawrence Freidman and Samuel Walker. Unlike several recent Hollywood films dealing with "justice" in Mississippi, Oshinsky has no need of drama and high-priced stars. The men and women who experienced the "ordeal" of Parchman Farm are sufficient testimony to this important chapter in the history of the South and the American gulag.

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Citation: Robert M. Goldman. Review of Oshinsky, David M., "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. H-Law, H-Net Reviews. April, 1997.

Copyright © 1997 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.

by Peter Kelman, Montpelier

(This essay is in response to an opinion piece by Roberta Harold, that appeared in the September 7–September 20 issue of The Bridge)

I’d like to commend the excellent opinion piece “The Civil War Isn’t Over. It Isn’t Even Civil” by Roberta Harold. I would like to add to Ms. Harold’s important piece by slightly reworking a response I made to a post on Front Porch Forum:

The post about indentured servitude, as written, leaves the completely mistaken impression that pigmentation was the only difference between African (slaves) on the one hand and poor white and Native American indentured servants on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. These Africans were captured in their native lands and sold into slavery; forcibly brought across the ocean in the holds of ships under unimaginably harsh conditions on voyages during which a large percentage of them died cruel deaths. Upon arrival in the American colonies, they were re-sold to white colonists (and they and many generations of their descendants were re-sold again and again until the Civil War ended slavery). They were considered to be property under state and federal laws (including the U.S. Constitution) until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Their families were deliberately torn apart. They were deprived of the opportunity to learn to read and write. Most of them were fed and clothed poorly. They were whipped and beaten (often to death) to achieve docility. Slave women were routinely raped by their masters and overseers. Ultimately, slaves were discarded like trash when no longer useful. As sad as indentured servitude may have been, it cannot be compared with the inhuman cruelty of the American slavery system, which was legally permitted under the Constitution of the United States until the Civil War.

Indeed it is the unique and utter depravity of American slavery that continues to haunt our country. In the South, deeply buried guilt and fear of retribution has been passed from generation to generation, spawning the KKK, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, legal racial segregation, Black voter suppression and many more racist beliefs and behaviors. This guilt and fear is also the root cause of the distorted version of history that has been taught, learned, and celebrated throughout the South (with statuary, flags and songs) to this day — a thoroughly discredited and false history that denies that slavery was the primary reason the southern states seceded from the Union, formed the Confederacy and fought the Civil War.

Nor are many white people in the North free of this guilt and fear of retribution, which may account for some of the Confederate flag waving we see from time to time in our midst, but more importantly has resulted in widespread de facto racial segregation in the North (including Vermont) in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system.

Until the wound of slavery is healed, until some kind of public and private restitution is made, I fear that our collective guilt and fear of retribution will continue to haunt our daily lives and ultimately tear our country apart, as our current President and his supporters seem to be bent on doing at this time.


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