The Burden of Being Freedmen and the Creation of Parchman Farm and Convict Leasing

Worse than Slavery

In reading Worse than Slavery by David M. Oshinsky, the book provided me with a new perspective on the past and how it is important in recognizing how far society has come in the fight for equality and justice. The title alone was shocking because to most people the worst thing is enslaving an entire race. However, the content of the book showed readers the true struggles of freedmen and how being free was a facade for decades. The novel also conveyed how the Southern court systems failed to protect the lives of African Americans while letting convicts work to death as slaves of the system. Freedmen suffered in a variety of social and physical environments as they struggled to gain equality in a country that has ignored the principle since its founding.

The Illusion of Being Free

Oshinsky goes over the history of slavery in the United States as part of our nation’s fabric. This country will forever be haunted for its vile past because it was built on the backs of the enslaved. I cannot fathom the idea of judging someone based off of their skin color because today we see it as something of great insignificance. Freedmen may technically have been liberated, but they were anything but free. For instance, emancipated freedmen at the time had to choose between moving to the North for a chance at a new start or staying in the South where they knew they would have a stable place to work (Oshinsky, 1996). Mobility is something most individuals— myself included— in the United States take for granted because it is not an issue for us; reading ‘Worse than Slavery’ made me appreciate my life and take fewer things for granted.

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No matter how bad life seems, it is nothing compared to what freedmen had to experience. For example, after the Civil War, Caucasian Southerners would stop at nothing to wield power over African Americans and unforgivably they enacted the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and eventually convict leasing (Oshinsky, 1996). The Black Codes made it extremely simple to jail African Americans which continued the tradition of whites controlling blacks. It is interesting to think about the lengths that racists went to in order to keep the history of slavery alive. The thought reminded me of a lecture I attended by Professor Dixon in his diversity class last semester about the fact that minorities are imprisoned at much higher rates than Caucasians and how one in eight black men cannot vote due to their felon status (Barak, Leighton, & Cotton, 2015, p. 278). In the article, “Florida Law Restoring The Vote To Felons Takes Effect,” Allen stated the law regarding the voting state of felons is being changed in states such as Florida so former criminals— excluding murderers and sex offenders—can get their voice back in the political field (Allen, 2019).

No one’s voice should be silenced for the rest of their life based on a mistake they once made. Since a majority of the people affected by the felon voting restrictions are black, African American voices are still being silenced today just as in the time of Jim Crow laws. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, another part of the South, the Mississippi Delta, was built on the backs of African Americans in the form of convict labor. Convict labor resulted from the passing of the “Pig Law;” this law largely increased the number of prisoners who, by no coincidence, were mostly freedmen (Oshinsky, 1996, p.40). Prisons were filled with African Americans in an unproportionate rate in the past just as they are today. Unfortunately, the American justice system still allows this inequality to occur. For example, a sentencing discrepancy exists between crack and powdered cocaine.

Having possession of crack cocaine results in more severe punishments than having powdered cocaine; minorities are more likely to use the solid version of the drug, so they receive longer sentences unlike those who use the “rich man’s drug,” or powdered cocaine (Barak et al., 2015). To put it simply, minorities are still receiving harsher punishments while using a drug that consists of the same chemical composition as the narcotic that gets the majority less time. This country has had a lot of progress in the fight for equality, but it still has a long way to go and change has to begin in our justice system. The booming convict population led to the creation of Parchman farm that allowed the rental of inmates, or convict leasing (Oshinsky, 1996). In other words, convict leasing was slavery with a different name. Even when sharecropping –something that was supposed to be positive– was introduced, freedmen were often shorted on their portion of the crop because they were illiterate, unlike the people with whom they were working (Oshinsky, 1996). No matter how African Americans tried to get ahead and gain independence, they were mistreated and taken advantage of.

Social Effects

During the late 1800s, Mississippi was rampant with gun and knife violence, but the rage turned to freedmen because “a free negro was nobody’s loss anymore” (Oshinsky, 1996, p.25). Unfortunately, this made sense because if the court system barely cared about white on white violence, then the court system would definitely not care about the loss of an African American. To fully understand how the people of that time viewed the loss of a black life, you would have to view them as society used to; property. Nobody even blinked as black men, women, and children were viciously murdered by locals and they were left unprotected against racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). I have met someone who was in the KKK and bigotry was spewed out of his mouth in every sentence he spoke; he admitted to killing two black men at a construction site by burying them alive. It was extremely difficult to be around the man because hatred for blacks was something I had never before witnessed. It is sad to think about how the man died thinking the same sick thoughts, never learning from his unfounded hatred of blacks. Since violence was so prevalent, Caucasian Southerners would find any reason to be able to torture freedmen; from them giving a “wrong” look or from false accusations such as in the case of the Emmett Till (Oshinsky, 1996).

Before reading ‘Worse than Slavery,’ I first heard about Emmett Till on social media with a post of a picture of his broken body and unrecognizable face along with the story about how the boy met his horrific end. Due to incidents like this, a fear was instilled in the black community; they knew to either stay in line where it was safe or take a risk and fight for the hope of social equality. When it seemed everything about being African American was a crime, a divide was created amongst the freedmen. Educated freedmen did not like criminals of their race and blamed black crime on emancipation because they were not taught how to live a righteous crime-free life after finally being released from their captors (Oshinsky, 1996). I realized that today’s prisoners also face the difficulty of integrating back into society after spending years being incarcerated; convicted felons are often left with street smarts about how to survive in a dangerous prison but have no idea about how to get back on their feet and make something of themselves. Even children are not spared the social inequalities; African American children made up “25 percent” of the convict leasing system (Oshinsky, 1996, pp. 46-47). Child labor laws changed how kids were forced to work and today they would never allow such destructive treatment of our nation’s youth. Before big change occurred in Parchman farm, African Americans were only allowed conjugal visits because of scientific racism which said African Americans were sex addicts (Oshinsky, 1996).

Reading this made me think of the irrational stereotypes that black people currently face. For example, some people state that black people are obsessed with chicken, are always loud, and are thieves. Most of my friends at UNT are African American and some do fulfill their race’s stereotypes, but they are also intelligent, kind, hardworking, etc.; they do not embody the stereotypes of their race and it would not matter even if they did. Stereotypes are also dangerous, especially when it comes to how black people are treated in society. Attempting to categorize people is problematic because the criteria is often flawed, and it can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Reading the novel allowed me to truly appreciate the fact that I was not raised to focus on skin color and instead love people of all colors. American citizens become uncomfortable when discussions center around the topic of race; we love to pretend that racism is dead, but it is very much alive, and the unnecessary stereotypes blacks face today allow the old views of them to thrive in a modern society. Americans pride themselves on the idea freedom, but our country was built on racist captivity. Despite all they experienced, the prisoners at Parchman farm eventually received some of the rights they truly deserved such as prison desegregation and clean facilities thanks to a judge named William Keady. I consider Keady the hero in the book because he saw back then what we live by today: just because someone has committed a crime does not mean they deserved to be treated like animals and worked to death (Oshinsky, 1996).

Conclusion

Overall, ‘Worse than Slavery’ was an astounding and shocking book because it surprised me more and more in a negative way; the United States’ history of slavery and the treatment of freedmen was nothing but abhorrent. It taught readers the truth about the aftermath of this dark period and how suffering continued for decades after emancipation. The text also revealed the injustices of the criminal justice system and how protections were not in place for the whole African American race. Time and time again, freedmen were neglected, abused, and treated in the most detestable ways. Most importantly, the text gave us the history of convict leasing in the South and gave readers the chance to reflect on consistencies between the past and the present. ‘Worse than Slavery’ gave me a glimpse into the past and this is important so it will never again be repeated in the future.

References

  • Allen, G. (2019, January 08). Florida Law Restoring The Vote To Felons Takes Effect. Retrieved February 2, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/2019/01/08/683108763/florida- law-restoring-the-vote-to-former-felons-takes-effect
  • Barak, G., Leighton, P., & Cotton, A. (2015). Class, race, gender, & crime: The social realities of justice in America (4th Ed). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
  • Oshinsky, D. (1996). Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press.

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The Burden of Being Freedmen and the Creation of Parchman Farm and Convict Leasing. (2022, Nov 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-burden-of-being-freedmen-and-the-creation-of-parchman-farm-and-convict-leasing/