On this dayMar 30, 1908

Convict Leasing System Re-Enslaves Black Men in Alabama

On March 30, 1908, a Black man named Green Cottenham was arrested and charged with “vagrancy” in Shelby County, Alabama. Vagrancy, an offense created at the end of the Reconstruction Period that was disproportionately enforced against Black citizens, was defined as an inability to prove employment when demanded by a white person.

At just 22 years old, Green Cottenham was quickly found guilty in a brief appearance before the county judge without a lawyer, and received a sentence of 30 days of hard labor. He was also assessed a variety of fees payable to nearly everyone involved in the process, from the sheriff, to the deputy, to the court clerk, to the witnesses. Because Mr. Cottenham could not pay these fees, his sentence was extended to nearly a year.

Because the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery and involuntary servitude explicitly excepted people convicted of crime from its protections, the predominately Black populations ensnared by discriminatory criminal laws passed after the Civil War had no way to avoid being thrust back into the conditions of forced labor they had only recently escaped. Soon after the Civil War’s end, Alabama was one of many states to take advantage of this loophole.

The day after his court appearance, Mr. Cottenham was turned over to the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company. The company leased him from Shelby County for $12 per month, which was to go toward paying off the owed fees and fines. Mr. Cottenham was sent to work in the Pratt Mines outside Birmingham, in Slope No. 12 mine where conditions were brutal. Mr. Cottenham died five months after arriving at the Pratt Mines. Nearly 60 of his fellow prisoners died within that same year of disease, accidents, or homicide. Most of their bodies were burned in the mine’s incinerators or buried in shallow graves surrounding the mine.

The story of Green Cottenham and the convict leasing system that re-enslaved countless Black people for generations after Emancipation is told in Douglas Blackmon's 2008 book, Slavery by Another Name.

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