by Andrew Fowler, Education Program Intern
Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an explosion in the population and economic growth. In Atlanta, civic and business leaders strived to transform the city into the industrious and progressive capital of the “New South.” Across Georgia, new industries and the development of manufacturing centers diversified the state’s primarily agrarian economy. These economic developments demanded human capital, and Georgia’s prisoner population emerged as a source for cheap labor. As the practice of convict labor leasing took hold in Georgia, it became evident that progress came with a human and social cost.
Under this system, states could lease out convicted prisoners to work for local planters, entrepreneurs, and industrialists for a fee. The employers were then responsible for feeding and housing the prisoners. While the convict leasing system was immensely profitable to both state governments and private companies who used the cheap forced labor, prisoners suffered under dismal and dangerous working conditions. Under the initiative and influence of progressive Gov. Hoke Smith, Georgia ended convict leasing in 1908 through a series of events that intertwined with the stories of several Oakland Cemetery residents.
Convict leasing was employed for nearly a century across the United States, but it maintained a firm concentration in many southern states. First institutionalized in Alabama in 1848, the practice lasted in some form until President Franklin D. Roosevelt permanently abolished it in 1942. Although both white and black prisoners were impacted by convict leasing, blacks were overwhelmingly targeted as a labor source through institutionalized discrimination. Black Codes – restrictive laws enacted after the Civil War to suppress and essentially criminalize black life – caused a significant number of African Americans to be arrested for minor, and in several cases non-existent, infractions. Vagrancy laws were particularly unethical, making it legal for police to round up, arrest, and indenture African Americans for simply being (or appearing to be) unemployed.
Many wealthy and influential Georgia entrepreneurs benefited immensely from this system. Several of these entrepreneurs and businessmen buried at Oakland Cemetery include developer Joel Hurt, former Atlanta mayor James English, and former Gov. Joseph Brown. Convict leasing was used throughout the south, but eyewitness accounts of the brutal working conditions at Georgia mines, mills, and factories eventually transformed public and even some political opinions to object to convict leasing.
Oakland resident Gov. Hoke Smith, a local and national champion of progressive policies, led the political front in working towards the dissolution of the convict leasing system. Smith was born in North Carolina on September 2, 1855, and was raised in Chapel Hill where his father was a professor at the University of North Carolina. In 1868 the family moved to Atlanta, where Smith flourished academically. He passed the bar examination at 17, and soon rose to prominence as an attorney by representing the workers and passengers of railroad companies in injury suits. Smith married Marion Cobb in 1883, and the couple had five children together.
In 1887, Smith purchased the Atlanta Journal newspaper. Under his leadership the Journal rose to be one of Georgia’s largest newspapers, rivaling the Atlanta Constitution. Smith used the newspaper to promote Grover Cleveland during his successful presidential campaign in 1892, and he was rewarded with a place in the Cleveland cabinet as the Secretary of the Interior. In 1906 Smith entered and won the Georgia gubernatorial race and he proved to be a progressive governor. He enacted railroad regulations, increased education spending, established a juvenile court system, and eventually abolished the convict labor leasing system.
As more reports concerning the corruption and inhumane conditions in the convict labor leasing system surfaced, Gov. Smith led a public forum at Atlanta’s Grand Opera House. Over 2,000 people heard speeches concerning the injustices perpetuated by the leasing system, and the forum sparked a frenzy of newspaper editorials across the state and nation that expressed support for dismantling the system. Following the forum Gov. Smith held a special legislative session, where he authorized a public referendum that overwhelmingly supported ending the convict labor leasing system.
After his term as governor, Smith served as a U.S. senator and promoted both agricultural assistance programs and increasing education funding. These causes, in addition to his role in abolishing the convict leasing system, solidified Gov. Smith’s position as one of Georgia’s leading progressives during the turn of the century.
To learn more about the many governors, mayors, legislators, and more who lie in rest at Oakland Cemetery, attend the “Sights, Symbols, and Stories of Oakland” guided overview tour, which is offered every weekend at 2 p.m.
by Andrew Fowler, Education Program Intern