On this dayFeb 02, 1909
Police in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Arrest Over 200 Black Men for Unemployment
On February 2, 1909, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, police raided the city’s Herron Hill neighborhood and arrested over 200 Black men for being unemployed. Officers sought and charged Black men with vagrancy if they could not prove their employment status, resulting in mass arrests. The next day, city officials sent the arrested men to the workhouse and consigned them to forced labor.
In the days leading up to the mass arrest, the city had increased police presence in response to vague reports of “numerous attacks upon white women.” While there was little evidence to substantiate these claims and no formal investigation into any reported offense, the deep racial hostility burdening Black people with a presumption of guilt and dangerousness made Pittsburgh police immediately consider these vague accusations as a reason to target Black men. In response, without any evidence or particular suspects, the police indiscriminately raided every Black home in the neighborhood, arresting every Black man they could find who could not provide proof of employment. These men had not committed any crime; they were simply unemployed, as were many white people in the city as well. Due to their race, however, these Black men’s unemployment led to arrest, vagrancy charges, and forced labor in the city workhouse.
Beginning soon after Emancipation, vagrancy laws were among the discriminatory policies used to criminalize and re-enslave Black people. Though the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865 and claimed to abolish enslavement in the country, a large loophole allowed this abuse to continue: the amendment’s language prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.” Soon after the end of the Civil War, Southern state legislatures quickly passed Black Codes—new laws that explicitly applied only to Black people and subjected them to criminal prosecution for “offenses'' such as loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, having weapons, and not carrying proof of employment.
As Black people migrated to the North in increasing numbers to escape racial terror, unjust laws, and limited opportunity, northern cities also began to pass new laws—and apply existing ones in discriminatory ways—to ensnare Black people and maintain racial hierarchy. These mass arrests in Pittsburgh are just one example of the way Black people were re-enslaved for decades after the “end” of slavery in America.
To learn more about the history of the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that burdens Black and brown people today, read EJI’s Lynching in America report and Reconstruction in America report, as well as Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon.
The Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.Learn more
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