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Justice, Power, and Politics

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

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In 1868, the state of Georgia began to make its rapidly growing population of prisoners available for hire. The resulting convict leasing system ensnared not only men but also African American women, who were forced to labor in camps and factories to make profits for private investors. In this vivid work of history, Talitha L. LeFlouria draws from a rich array of primary sources to piece together the stories of these women, recounting what they endured in Georgia's prison system and what their labor accomplished. LeFlouria argues that African American women's presence within the convict lease and chain-gang systems of Georgia helped to modernize the South by creating a new and dynamic set of skills for black women. At the same time, female inmates struggled to resist physical and sexual exploitation and to preserve their human dignity within a hostile climate of terror. This revealing history redefines the social context of black women's lives and labor in the New South and allows their stories to be told for the first time.

280 pages, Paperback

First published April 1, 2015

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Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,920 reviews718 followers
June 20, 2016
While a very tough book to read in terms of the human factor, the relevance of this story to our own time cannot be understated. As the author notes at the end of this book,

"Today black women are still afflicted by the social, political and economic vices that predisposed them to arrest, conviction and incarceration in the past...In order to better understand the modern carceral state and the complex relationship black women have with it, we must confront the past and listen even when it seems to be silent."

There are at least four main issues that permeate this book and which continue to resonate over more than a century: gender, race, crime, and punishment; add resistance and you get a good feel for where this book will take you. In this study, the author also looks at African-American women in the "carceral state" and how as bound women they were affected by the ongoing assertion of white supremacy and control in the post-emancipation "New South." This book reveals, analyzes and most thoroughly discusses the above-mentioned contemporary "social, political and economic" factors while allowing some of these women's voices to be heard after more than a century of silence. As the author notes, her work is "chiefly invested in rebuilding the historical viewpoint of the unwaged, bound black female worker."

Don't expect a history for the masses sort of thing here. Chained in Silence is an academic monograph and a solid work of history in which the author offers her arguments, supports them with personal accounts, recorded data, and other research in the field. She then provides in-depth analysis to make her case. In some areas her work is hampered by lack of data, but she makes this very clear in the telling. She also realizes that there is much more work to be done and offers topics for future researchers. At the same time, she makes this book very approachable for readers like myself who believe that the best history is told from the perspective of those whose voices never quite seem to make it into the historical record. This book, for lack of a better way to say it, is just brilliant and deserves widespread attention.

there's more at my reading journal if anyone's interested.
Profile Image for Teri.
637 reviews71 followers
October 28, 2020
In Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South Talitha L. Leflouria details life for African American women in the post-emancipation era. Newly freedwomen had hoped for a new life where they could build or reunite with their families, have a home, and make a living on their own terms. What many found was a life of destitution and hardship and like their male counterparts, were often captured for various small or non-existent charges and relegated to hard labor through convict leasing and chain gangs. As enslaved people, women were regarded as essential to plantation life as producers to perpetuate slavery. Their "maternal skills" helped to keep them guarded as needed resources. After emancipation, their maternal skills became a detriment because it kept them from being able to work and produce by hard labor.

Chained in Silence helps to fill in lost chapters of postbellum incarceration history and African American women's history. Like their male counterparts, the lives of these women caught up in the forced labor in the New South was worse than life as enslaved people. This short book is packed with the stories of women living in convict leasing camps, industries, and chain gangs. The reader gets a glimpse of their backstories and understands that these women were just trying to survive in a world that completely disregarded them.
1 review4 followers
March 26, 2019
Mass incarceration has entered into the collective consciousness of Americans over the last decade with the help of works like Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow’ and Ava DuVernay’s documentary film, ‘The 13th’. The problem of mass incarceration, however, has largely been viewed through the prism of black men. Talitha LeFlouria Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South brings attention to the undervalued role black women have played in the exploitation of the prison industrial complex from its inception. LeFlouria’s research is based on the post Civil War Georgia economy into the early 20th century and the unique ways it utilities convict leasing and chain gangs to achieve modernization. LeFloria particularly highlights the intersection of gender, race, and class--and the ways in which Georgia masculinized black women by assigning them to the same labor as men; arguing that the role black women played in the modernization of the Georgian economy has been understudied. LeFlouria argues that the ways black female prisoners were exploited to modernize Georgia’s economy differed from the ways the South built its economy in slavery. LeFlouria argues that reproductive labor was an asset in the antebellum period because black women's bodies served as factory-like machines to fuel the slave supply, where in the prison system those same babies represented economic disruptions and opened black women to sexual abuse and their offspring to abuses ranging from abandonment to infanticide.

LeFlouria begins the text with the strong personal stories of black female prisoners. These accounts display vivid and disturbing accounts of the hegemonic devices used to control black female bodies---especially sexual violence. Particularly striking was the story of Mary Turner, who was lynched at 8 months pregnant for making ‘unwise remarks’ about her husbands lynching. Her pregnant body was cut open and after her child was born alive and skull crushed (pg 30). This typified the new role of reproductive labor in the Jim Crow south and the economic responsibility of black offspring. Also important to LeFlouria thesis of black skilled female labor in the building of the southern economy was the story of Matte Crawford. Mattie Crawford sentenced to life in 1896 for killing her abusive stepfather. Crawford was noted for having superior strength--which was also a way of masculinizing black women and rendering their womanhood invisible--and ultimately became a blacksmith. Despite the privilege this skill wrought her within the prison itself, she was still unable to profit from it as a free person and had her skill limited to exploitive labor. Crawford is an example of the ways some black female conflicts resisted and even defied gendered roles within a hegemonic system that still exploited them and ignored their right to exist as women.

Also, LeFlouria examines the ways in which black women's bodies were devalued in convict leasing camps such as the Old Town Plantation, and Camp Heardmont. She highlights how blacks in these camps lived under horrendous conditions and how resistance was punished with sexual violence at the hands of white men. These camps were also places where black women were put to hard labor, lest their bodies be wasted on ‘light duty’. These practices were undergirded by a racialized and gendered pseudo-science that diagnosed blacks as prone to ‘criminality’. This racialized dehumanization allowed Georgia to lease black female convicts out to private institutions and allow brutal abuses to take place with impunity and regard only for the economic benefits it brought the state--which, at its height practice in the early twentieth century, allowed southern states that utilized it to recover 267 percent of operating cost and become national leaders in the production of iron and coal (pg. 74). This evidence backs LeFlouria argument that convict leasing served to help rebuild a southern economy that had now lost its primary labor force in the abolition of slaves. LeFlouria clearly acknowledges that convict labor was re-purposed white supremacy at the expense of black bodies, but argues that calling it ‘slavery by another name’ oversimplified the ways prison labor utilized black labor and the different ways dehumanization played out along racial, class and gender lines.

One of the ways these divisions play out are in the Georgia prison system where, from its inception, the convict leasing system was unisex. It is in this system where black women work a wide range of occupations, which build the Georgia economy and enhance the objectives of white supremacy while simultaneously challenging gendered stereotypes about the limitations of female labor. This exploitation continued through the chain gangs, which were a form of ‘reform’ to ‘free’ black prisoners from the abuses of private employers. LeFlouria highlights how this simply represented a repurposing of abuse to the state. Black misdemeanant women were now forced to labor by building roads, harvesting turpentine, and laboring in various public works projects’--critical to the modernization of the Georgia state economy (pg. 19). LeFlouria, however, does not speak about black women as only products of exploitation, but is sure to highlight the personhood of these black women and the various ways in which they determined to resist sexual violence and exploitative labor. Although their efforts were subdued, often with violence, resistance efforts speak to the reality that black women did not ‘accept’ their fate and found ways to subvert white power structures. As noted in the case of Mammie Crawford, the wide range of occupations shared by black women in the unisex Georgia system allowed black women opportunities in the ‘New South’, not otherwise afforded them in the antebellum period. At the same time, the opportunities this afforded capitalist to justify assigning black women to jobs that disregarded their womanhood and allowed for the further justification of the unjust practice of black criminalization to feed the prison labor system. Therefore, the achievement black women secured through asserting their individual merit, where in turn used against them to imprison them without due process.

In conclusion, given the resurgence of discourse around mass incarceration and its impact on marginalised communities, LeFlouria work reminds us to remember the ways in which these conversations ignore the contributions and exploitation of black women. In addition, as was the case with the ‘reforms’ of the chain gangs, we must recognize the ways in which modern reforms may serve as convenient models to repurpose oppression in a democracy that significantly utilized prison labor to grow the southern economy in the late 19th and early 20th century and explore the ways in which reforms may prioritize the economy today--and ultimately, how does that interact with race, class and gender in ways that reaffirm hegemonic institutions and ideas of both racism and patriarchy.
Profile Image for T.O. Munro.
Author 6 books76 followers
December 29, 2022
A harrowing account drawing on fragments of evidence and recorded testimony to give voice to black women who were failed by the many imperfections of emancipation and exploited by a state set on making its carceral system a profit bearing one.
Profile Image for Claire Phoebe Clementine.
87 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2021
"It has become quite clear to me that without the female perspective, it is difficult to fully grasp the complexities of this history. The reality is that incarcerated women experienced captivity in uniquely gendered ways. For them, life in a convict lease camp or on a chain gang was in many ways worse than slavery."
-Talitha L. LeFlouria, Chained in Silence, 4/5 stars

Chained in Silence, a non-fiction tracing the stories of black women imprisoned in the new south, gives a voice to the thousands of those that have been suppressed. It touches on gendered violence within the carceral system, and how it impacted the lives of black women in particular. While slavery was abolished, LeFlouria effectively argues that the lease and chain gang system was simply "slavery by another name." This novel combines statistical analyses, general history, and specific stories to support this argument. While this is not inherently argumentative, but rather aiming to tell various stories of these women, it provides significant information on race and gender, and how they relate to the prison industrial complex thus supporting the assertion that the carceral system was a new form of slavery.

Eliza Randall murdered her sexually and physically abusive father in self defense, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, where she worked at the Chattahoochee brickyard, camp Bolton, and camp Heardmont. She was able to escape these work camps multiple times before guards were forced to keep a close eye on her, and she was forced into "masculine" labor. Her appearance changed completely after she was made the machinist for the camp and dressed in a "suit of male stripes." Randall was "masculinized against her will" and "socially raped." Overseers of these camps often did this to women, which increased a bondwoman's productivity and depraved her of her femininity.

Not only does this novel touch on the violence of lease systems and chain gangs, but it further explains the masculinization of black women in America. In both the carceral system and slavery, black women were thought of as "bearing the closest anatomical resemblance to a man," which in turn led to black women being forced into excruciating labor.
Profile Image for Jim Gulley.
38 reviews
September 20, 2021
Leflouria's book is a heartbreaking account of random anecdotal stories of black females caught up in the penal system of post-Reconstruction Georgia. The book compellingly tells many individual stories of oppression, mistreatment, and unspeakable violence perpetrated on black women.

The book, though, should not be considered a scholarly work. It argues that black female convicts during this era were "an important mechanism used in the construction of New South modernity.", page 62. However all her source evidence points to the irrelevancy of this labor to the Georgia economy (at it's height, convict laborers comprised only 1/100th of 1% of the GA population).

Using scattered anecdotes, unnamed authors as sources, and a heavy reliance on a few monographs also undermines the validity of Leflouria's effort.
Profile Image for Connor Jenkins.
67 reviews
December 21, 2020
3.8 stars - This is an incredibly important and enlightening text with haunting narrative skill. I found it a bit difficult to dig into because it felt overly focused on the economic history of postbellum bound labor, but it definitely was critically informative and detailed. LeFlouria also takes extreme care and diligence in completing this history of "broken silences." Definitely recommend, but keep reading if you have a hard time getting into it.
Profile Image for Karen.
364 reviews
September 8, 2019
Well researched book about female incarceration in post civil war south. While there are few revelations from the prisoners themselves (because of illiteracy presumably), the author has done an in depth search of prison, court and other records to detail the inhumane treatment of mostly African American women convicts.
Profile Image for Luke.
847 reviews14 followers
September 20, 2016
Tough read as this is mostly stringing together accounts of brutality to women convicts in Georgia as indentured labor switches post-civil-war from slavery to the 13th-amendment-allowed "slavery in case of crime". Adds some to the idea that Georgia was able to rapidly industrialize and modernize through leased convicts and chain gangs. The author gives women agency by showing that Georgia's gender-mixed approach to these institutions gave women convicts opportunity to perform skilled labor (blacksmithing, brickmaking) that was otherwise still men's domain, and by reading accounts of whipping etc as acts of resistance.
Profile Image for Erica.
20 reviews1 follower
March 31, 2016
Georgia history is required for all graduating high school students. Most schools teach the Civil War at least 3-times in the course of High School History. This should be required reading.

I knew the State's resources were built on the backs of slaves. It was news to me, however, the degree to which explicit profit was to be made on the backs of freed Black women - & the disparity between Alabama & Georgia's practices. This book discomforted. In a good way. Georgia, know your history!
Profile Image for Kidada.
Author 2 books54 followers
July 3, 2016
This excellent book illuminates state violence against African American women. Examining women in unthinkably violent and exploitative convict leasing camps and penal factories, LeFlouria reveals the role race and gender informed the economies of the New South.
Profile Image for Samuel Roberts.
1 review14 followers
November 1, 2015
This is a fantastic (and deeply affecting) book examining the intersections of race, gender, labor, and punishment in the Post-Emancipation (New) South. Looking forward to using this book in the classroom.
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews

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