Tuesday, May 26, 2009

``Stayed in Mississippi a day too long''


This is my review of David M. Oshinsky's `` `Worse Than Slavery:' Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.'' Free Press Paperbacks, 1996. My final project for the Journalism 310 class, ``Western Press and the Third World'' taught by Nancy Muller at UMass/Amherst. Lots of really interesting material. Less a journalism course than a history of colonization.

Parchman Farm is legendary, and that is a problem. We can blame it on the blues. Folk song from the Mississippi River Delta made it known that Parchman was a bad, feared place where, for many able-bodied black men who had lived too long in Mississippi, serving time was a regional rite of passage. But the legend conveyed in blues and prison work songs recorded at Parchman don’t speak of Parchman’s roots. There is no explicit mention of the Reconstruction’s failure or the scientific racism that were the impetus for the farm’s creation.
In `` `Worse than Slavery:‘ Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow,’’1 David M. Oshinsky documents what can only be understood as a holocaust carried out, at first, on countless private labor/death camps -- farms, turpentine forests and mines -- throughout the south. Planting and harvesting cotton, building railroads and levies, the convicts suffered and died. The system put a far lower value on free black men than it did on slaves.
Mississippi eventually removed its penal agricultural system out of private hands and centered it on the 20,000-acre Parchman Farm, formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Although Mississippi took over a hugely profitable system of commodity production, the state proved unable to remedy the inhumanity that had plagued and eventually destroyed the system for private operators.
Not that they were especially interested in doing so. Oshinsky, the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin, documents the astonishingly thorough-going culture of violence in Mississippi, and the extremes to which, after emancipation, white planters in the South went to keep a plentiful supply of black laborers. With slavery dissolved, planters, racist government officials, all-white juries and commentators planted a system of internal colonization in its stead.
In 1868 one Edmund Richardson, who had made a fortune from stores and plantations, but who was ruined by the Civil War, convinced the authorities in Mississippi to lease him convicts to work land he had bought in the Yazoo Delta. The deal worked for Richardson and Mississippi. The state needed to relieve population pressure on its ``penitentiary overflowing with blacks;’’ Mississippi paid Richardson $18,000 a year to feed, clothe, house and transport the convicts; Richardson kept all the profits reaped from the convict’s toil.
With the pro-Reconstruction Republicans vanquished by the elections of 1875, the Democrats ``were fascinated by the potential of convict leasing. They knew that white taxpayers would never fund an expensive penitentiary, whatever their worries about crime.’’ They ``assumed that the profits generated by leasing would quiet any moral rumblings about the treatment of black criminals who were, after all, the dregs of an `inferior’ race.’’
Convict leasing buffered the shock of emancipation. It wasn’t just about profits and the dirty work. It served ``a cultural need by strengthening the walls of white supremacy as the South moved from an era of racial bondage to one of racial caste,’’ Oshinsky writes. ``In a region where dark skin and forced labor went hand in hand, leasing would become a functional replacement for slavery, a human bridge between the Old South and the New.’’
An effect of emancipation was a huge increase in the number of black prisoners throughout the South, in part because of the demise of paternalistic plantation-based law enforcement. If a slave committed a crime on the plantation, masters -- many of them hired private police forces -- had the problem settled privately, keeping the local police out of it. If a slave were arrested, the owner would often put up bail. But without this protection, more and more blacks ended up in the penal system. Oshinsky quotes this verse:

``They’ll arrest you and put you
In the Coahoma County jail,
Then you’ll want Mr. Doggett
To go your bail.
But since he’s dead
And can’t bail you out
Those cold iron bunks
Will wear your black ass out.’’

Blacks did commit serious crimes. ``Black Mississippians shot, stabbed, bludgeoned and killed one another with monotonous ease,’’ Oshinsky writes. But the legal system rarely protected blacks or convicted blacks who had victimized other blacks, so they found themselves with no choice but to administer justice themselves. And when there were too few convict laborers, the police would find them. ``When times were tight,’’ in Alabama, for example, ``local police would sweep the street for vagrants, drunks, and thieves.’’ They would be arrested, tried and sentenced to 60 or 90 days, and assessed court costs. Then they would be handed over to a state agent who leased them to coal mines. Oshinsky notes that during an average year, 97 percent of the convicts leased by Alabama counties -- serving two years or less for misdemeanors -- were black.
Edmund Richardson had promised Mississippi that he would the prisoners well, but the convict leasing system spread quickly through the south, and any notion of good treatment was disregarded. Before convict leasing officially ended, a generation of black prisoners would perish under conditions far worse than anything they had ever experienced as slaves.
When the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad needed a malarial swamp drained, convicts, leased at $1.75 a day each, worked chained together for days in ``knee-deep pools of muck, `their thirst driving them to drink water in which they were compelled to deposit their excrement.’ ’’ A convict labor captain described men subleased to clear tropical marsh and palmetto jungle for a railway in Florida. ``There was no provision for shelter or supplies,‘’ the captain, one J.C. Powell, said. ``Rude huts were built of whatever material came to hand… I do not mean that there was some food or little food, but that there was no food at all. In this extremity, the convicts were driven to live as wild beasts, except that they were only allowed the briefest intervals from labor to scour the woods for food.‘’ Another testimony eerily recalls the brutal, hundreds-of-miles-long train passages that prisoners in Soviet Russia endured as they were shipped to mine gold for the state in the severely frozen gulags. During the winter of 1884, a group ``battered convicts’’ were transported by steamer, ``chained together, frost-bitten, and barely alive.’’ Their bodies were filthy and half naked, ``covered with blisters and scars.’’ Authorities in Vicksburg, Mississippi, would not allow the spectacle to be marched through town, so they had the men transported in covered wagons. They were being sent to Jackson, to a hospital ``where worn-out convicts were routinely sent to die.’’
The episode in Vicksburg exposed the system’s brutality, raising moral indignation and expressions of outrage, and prompting investigations. It turned out to be the beginning of the end of convict leasing.

Parchman Farm was established in 1904. There the convicts did agricultural work, but the system of leasing prisoners to private concerns had ended. Parchman was built largely at the prompting of James K. Vardaman, the notoriously racist governor of Mississippi. For years, Vardaman, affectionately know as ``the White Chief,’’ had opposed convict leasing. His public and private positions on the matter incorporated the myths about race that kept almost all blacks in menial labor, and helped him get elected.
Vardaman’s position was populist, Oshinsky notes. ``As a representative of poor whites,’’ Vardaman criticized the system because ``it enriched big planters and railroad barons at the public’s expense.’’ His private position was that the system victimized ``those least able to defend themselves.’’ Although Vardaman ``would spend a lifetime fighting to deny blacks political and social equality… he also believed that Negroes who accepted their lowly state in the human order should be protected from abuse.’’
But prisoners at Parchman were hardly protected from abuse, in large part because of the pervasiveness of the idea that blacks were, at best, fit for nothing higher than manual labor or, at worst, congenitally criminal. Pervasive throughout the South was the idea that blacks were inferior beings unable to control their sexual appetites. Although masters had conceived children with slaves for years, white southerners were terrified by the idea that their women would produce children with black men. The result would be nothing less than the degradation of the white race. Countless black men accused of either raping or having consensual relations with white women were subject to horrific lynching. Often they were burned to death. In general, Mississippi had a culture of violence that did not necessarily regard race. Oshinsky notes that an observer from London, ``one of England’s most raucous cities,’’ was amazed ``at the speed with which chance encounters and trivial slights escalated into grisly homicides. Even dinner conversations ``had a `smack of manslaughter about them.’ ’’ A people who were predisposed to violence would not be inclined to treat gently those whom they considered the criminal element of the inferior race.
The notion of black inferiority was fed by proponents of scientific racism, which was prevalent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vardaman was governor during the early development of eugenics in America. Eugenicists targeted people whom they considered ``unfit,’’ usually those who suffered from some sort of intellectual or social impairment, for sterilization. The point was to improve the human race by removing undesirable genes from the population. As signs of social undesirability, eugenicists cited social and biological influences, sometimes confusing them. Very often poverty was interpreted as criminal intent. Throughout the United States during the 1920s and ‘30s, untold numbers of ``feebleminded’’ persons were sterilized. The Third Reich’s social-policy end was preservation of the racial integrity of the Volk, and -- before the Holocaust -- eugenic sterilization was its means. The Nazis defined defectives as not only the developmentally and physically disabled, but also Jews, gays and lesbians, and communists.
In the South, commentators expounded theories to support the conclusion that, since emancipation, blacks had become more and more lazy and criminal. ``For years, white southerners had been complaining about the behavior of young blacks, born after the Civil War ended, who had never experienced the `civilizing’ effects of slavery,’’ Oshinksy writes. He quotes one Philip A. Bruce, ``a distinguished Virginia historian,’’ as saying that free blacks ``were `fast reverting’ to the `physical type’ and `original morals’ of their `primitive’ African roots.’’ Slavery had `` `provided restraints’’ on their criminality and sexuality. ``(T)he new generation, in being less accustomed to restraint than the old, are more inclined to act on their natural impulses,’’ Oshinsky quotes Bruce as saying. ``They are more headstrong than their immediate ancestors, and to that degree, have a more decided tendency to retrograde.’’
And, as did the Nazis, Mississippi used convicts in human medical experiments. Inmates were exposed to malaria and yellow fever, among other diseases. In the early part of the 20th century a pellagra epidemic broke out in south. Symptoms included severe back pain, listlessness, mental depression, a sore mouth, and a red gash on the hands, feet and face. No one knew what caused pellagra, but one Dr. Joseph Goldberger hypothesized that it might be brought on by the absence of dietary protein. He took the first step toward proving his hypothesis by adding protein to the diets in two orphanages that had been stricken by pellagra. Within a year the illness was almost entirely eradicated from the orphanages.
The second step was demonstrating that pellagra is, in fact, caused by a lack of protein. Goldberger got 12 Parchman inmates to agree to spend six months in isolation, eating nothing but fat-back meat, meal and molasses -- the staples of the poor people whom pellagra had hit the hardest. In return for their participation the convicts would be pardoned. Five of the prisoners became sick, and soon they were begging to be cured and sent back to the farm. Goldberger would not consider it. At the end of the experiment the prisoners recovered and, along with their pardons, received a new suit of clothes and five dollars. ``I have been through a thousand hells,’’ one said.
There was another parallel. In the camps, Nazis recruited inmate kapos who performed various tasks, including enforcement against their fellow prisoners. The Nazis often enticed inmates to become kapos by offering them reduced sentences or parole. (Very often kapos were killed anyway.) Likewise, Parchman used trustys, armed inmates who stood guard over their fellow inmates as they toiled. Usually a prisoner was chosen to be a trusty because he could intimidate inmates and had no qualms about using his rifle, if need be. ``Once chosen, a trusty became an unpaid member of the prison staff. He got better food and quarters than did the regular convicts, and did not have to stoop all day in the fields.’’ A trusty was allowed recreation and private visits with his wife, lover, or a prostitute brought in from town. For purposes of identification, trustys wore vertical stripes while the regular prisoners wore horizontal.

`` `Worse Than Slavery’ ‘’ is a wide-ranging book; it discusses the early history of Mississippi, the origin of Jim Crow, the sharecropping system and the imprisonment of Civil Rights-era Freedom Riders at Parchman. The profusion of descriptions of torture and gratuitous killing of prisoners and lynching makes reading ``Worse Than Slavery’’ gut-wrenching. Its greatest contribution is its argument that a vast decades-long holocaust occurred in the United States, a nation whose citizens usually look to World War II, or Cambodia, or Rwanda, for a reference to genocide.
The writing is excellent. An example of Oshinsky’s compassion for the convicts and his feel for the territory crops up in his discussion of the process prisoners went through to get paroled. He tells the story of John Randolph, who was paroled, after 13 years at Parchman, when the authorities decided he had been wrongly convicted of rape. As he walked away from Parchman, all Randolph had was the prison uniform he was wearing. Oshinsky writes, ``John Randolph had no clear destination and no one to call. He was last seen walking down the two-lane blacktop in the blazing Delta sun.’’
Oshinsky describes the course of the evolution of Parchman from a brutal agricultural penal colony to a modern, yet somehow soulless, walled institution. He quotes Horace Carter, who had been an inmate for nearly 50 years, as saying that the farm work had ``counted for something.’’ It had a rhythm that ``kept us tired and kept us together and made me feel better inside.’’

Alan Lomax, the great folklorist, pointed out that work songs, or ``hollers,’’ died out with gang labor. A refrain from a Parchman work song goes: ``It ain’t but the one thing I did wrong, I stayed in Miss’ippi a day too long.’’ 2 In the future a chant with that refrain could surface and make reference to Mississippi or any other place.

1. Oshinsky, David M., ``Worse Than Slavery:’’ Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996

2. Lomax, Alan, The Land Where the Blues Began, New York: Dell Publishing, 1993, pg. 256

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