On this dayJul 21, 1913

35 Black People Burned to Death in Mississippi Prison Camp

On July 21, 1913, 35 Black men at Oakley Farm, a segregated prison camp in Mississippi, burned to death when the neglected dormitory they were locked into at night caught fire.

Each night, the men who were forced to labor as convicts at Oakley Farm were locked into the second floor of an all-wooden building, where they slept on the floor together. The second floor had metal bars on each window and the building had only one exit—through a single door on the first floor, where the prison stored hay, molasses, and other flammable materials. The dormitory was referred to as an “antiquated convict cage,” and as one report later noted, “everything was in the fire’s favor.”

Shortly before midnight, two watchmen patrolling the prison noticed flames coming out of the windows of the first floor of one of the prison dormitories. Because the prison did not have any fire extinguishing gear, the watchmen simply stood by as the fire grew, failing to take any measures to try to save the individuals locked inside. As flames quickly engulfed the dormitory, the men imprisoned upstairs began shouting for help. With bars on all the windows and the singular exit blocked by the fire, they were left with no way out, and all 35 of the men in the dormitory burned to death.

After the Civil War, the abolition of slavery dealt a severe economic blow to Southern states whose agricultural economies had been built on the backs of unpaid Black people who had been held in bondage for generations. Mississippi, among other states, took advantage of the loophole included in the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” to create the system of convict leasing. 

Through convict leasing, Southern states profited off of the labor of incarcerated people, who were subjected to brutal physical work each day and horrific living conditions—like those at Oakley Farm—that proved deadly for many. Black Codes, discriminatory laws passed by Southern states to criminalize Black people for “offenses” like loitering, vagrancy, or not carrying proof of employment, ensured that the majority of those imprisoned, leased, and forced to work at prison camps were Black people.

Today, the Oakley Youth Development Center, a juvenile correctional facility, operates on the grounds where the segregated Oakley Farm used to be.

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